Friday, 15 May 2009

In the Loop

“I'll have to call back, I’m going into a tunnel!”

How often do you hear this spoken into a mobile phone when travelling through Melbourne’s City Loop? Too often, probably.

Apart from the station platforms, the underground railway loop is one of the few places in the central business district without mobile reception. It’s an oasis of calm amid the babble of communications.

There’s something attractive about underground railways. The oldest system, in London, was founded in 1863. Now a sprawling network of underground and above-ground stations, the Tube has a certain mystique. Though shaken in 2005 by terrorist bombings, it remains a distinct symbol of London, with its iconic system map and residual recorded messages of “Mind the gap” on the Northern Line.

By contrast, Melbourne’s underground railway is tiny. Though there are occasional below-ground suburban stations like the gloomy cavern at Box Hill, the city centre has just three underground stations: Melbourne Central, Parliament and Flagstaff. They’re relatively recent additions to Melbourne’s public transport, having opened in the early-to-mid 1980s.

And they took a while to arrive. The first suggestion of an underground rail link in the city was made in 1929, to resolve the congestion at Flinders Street, then one of the world’s busiest stations. A series of plans followed over the years, until finally, in 1970, the Melbourne Underground Rail Loop Authority (MURLA) was formed. After four decades of talk, work began on the loop in 1971.

Melbourne’s underground stations were cutting edge technology in the early 1980s. A quarter century later, their interior design is a quaint reminder of those times. Melbourne Central station (originally Museum station) still has red-and-white candy striped tiles, Parliament station still has steep escalators favoured by the makers of TV commercials, and Flagstaff station is still closed on Sundays.

But that’s OK. Melbourne Central station feels like a set from the late ’70s BBC science fiction series Blake’s 7, so it possesses a kind of retro cool.

Which is partly why I chose it as a location for my debut novel, a science fiction/fantasy thriller called Mind the Gap. The main character, Darius, materialises unexpectedly on a platform here, and meets the new love of his life, Viv, who works at a coffee stall along the platform (if you're interested, you can read the first three chapters of the book, including the scenes at Melbourne Central, for free at this website).

If you'd like to find out more about the City Loop, check out this informative site by Victoria's Department of Transport. In addition to the history of the loop, it contains two promotional films that were made by MURLA before and during construction.

They have a delightfully cheesy 1970s commentary and give some intriguing glimpses of how Melbourne looked back then. For one thing, you can spot the Shot Tower - nowadays completely enclosed by the Melbourne Central shopping mall - out there in the open air from about 7 minutes into the first clip.

There are also lots of shots of men wearing hats, and a bit of suspenseful music around the 5 minute mark that I associate with 1970s British end-of-the-world TV series. To tell the truth, I keep expecting the Autons from Doctor Who to pop up during the first minute or so of the film, but maybe that's just me.

But let’s hope they never extend mobile phone coverage down the Loop’s tunnels! For one thing, authors much prefer it when their characters can’t simply phone for help...