It’s not every day you meet a man who can say he’s spent 24 hours on London buses, and held the Guinness World Record for visiting every New York Subway station in the fastest time. But the man I’m here to interview has done just that, and plenty more besides.
Firstly, let me admit, I’ve got a thing for London buses. I’ve rubbed shoulders with bus timetable collectors at Acton Bus Depot, I’ve taken bus trips for funsies, and I have a giant cardboard double-decker bus costume sitting in the corner of my room. So when I read in The Guardian that a man named Adham Fisher was planning to ride on as many London buses as he could in 24 hours, I immediately tweeted my support. To my pleasant surprise, Adham then reached out to me, and we arranged to meet up to talk transit racing, public transport infrastructure, and the great big north/south divide…
So, tell me a little bit about you.
I’m Adham Fisher and I like to ride public transport to extremes. I have held the Guinness World Record for the fastest time to visit every New York Subway station and more recently, about 3 months ago I spent 24 hours on London buses, trying to ride as many as possible.
And how many did you manage?
Strangely enough it was 200 exactly. I initially had a target of 270, as that’s the total amount of tube stations in London, but when I was interviewed by The Guardian about it, they put the target down to 200, and I ended up going on exactly that amount.
How far did you have to travel on each bus to make it count? Did you hop on and off of them, or did you travel a certain distance?
Well there were no rules for this as it’s not an official world record, so I just decided that I would ride reach bus for at least one stop to make it count, and I would try and photograph the bus as well, whether that be the sign outside, or the display inside.
When did you start taking transport riding to extremes?
At about 15 I think. In 2000 or 2001, I started riding as many buses as possible in a day in Leicester, my hometown. I used to ride buses from terminus to terminus during that time, and having been a regular visitor to London all my life, I started wondering about going to every tube station in one day. But then I discovered that there was a world record for it, and it was 2004 before I finally managed to attempt it.
And how many attempts have you made?
I’ve lost count slightly, but I believe it’s about 28 now.
Blimey, that’s quite a lot
My attempts at rail-based records were quite sporadic from 2004 to 2009, but after 2009 I started doing it more regularly. Of course, there are hardly any Guinness World Records for this sort of thing though, because there are so many public transport systems in the world, and Guinness can’t sanction a record for all of them. That hasn’t stopped me though, and because I’ve had so much failure in London and the tube is so expensive, and never works as it should, I actually prefer doing it anywhere other than London nowadays. But I’ve done alternative stuff in London too, like I’ve tried to go to every Overground station in the fastest time, and every DLR station, even every Tramlink station; I think I did that in 2 and a quarter hours
The most demanding attempt though was when I went to every South Eastern station in 2014. South Eastern were actually voted the worst performing national rail operator that year, so I contacted them and said ‘how about some positive spin? How about I try and go to all your stations as quickly as possible?’ and so they granted me special dispensation to do it. In the end it took 2 days; 34 hours in total, and surprisingly, on the first day, everything ran on time, absolutely everything. I think prior to last year, when Southern rail took the prize, South Eastern were the most complained about rail operator, so I was absolutely amazed that everything ran on time. On the second day though, things started to go wrong about 2 hours in, but even then that wasn’t South Eastern’s fault, it was because there was landslide.
Do you talk to members of the public while you’re travelling? What kind of reaction do you get?
Only if they talk to me first.
Which can be rare in London
Yes, but it can happen. In order to prove I’ve been there, I photograph all the stations I visit during an attempt, so of course it’s natural to see someone doing that and be curious about it, so occasionally I will strike up a conversation. Then, when you attempt the Tube Challenge, you have to talk to people because you need witness statements in order for Guinness to verify your attempt. So you need to get people to write a short statement and sign it, saying that they saw you at that time. But generally, I tend to keep myself to myself, because I’m concentrating on doing what I’m doing. On the other hand though, it’s a pity that people don’t talk to each other on public transport, but that’s just the way of the world. I don’t know whether I’m contributing to that or not. If someone asks me what I’m doing then I’ll happily talk to them, but I have to keep dashing off, so it’s not always convenient.
Do you literally run between each stop then, is it very energetic?
Yes, to go as quickly as possible one has to take the next possible train or bus. I always try to change modes of transport as quickly as I can.
Have you met other extreme transporters? Obviously you haven’t bumped into people doing it at the same time as you, or have you?
Yes, I have actually, I’ve bumped into people in London on the same journey, and there are mass participation events that are organised every year. I tend not to do those, but there is a social aspect, which is embraced by a few of the others who do it.
How many cities and countries have you attempted records in to date? Do you have a list?
I don’t have an actual list, but I can try and estimate it. Bearing in mind that there might be more than one network per city…(counts for a long time) well with rail-based things, I think it’s about 22. But it could be more.
We originally got in touch because I saw your article in the Guardian and tweeted about it, and then you sent me an email…
Yes, this proves how narcissistic I am, because I was searching for myself online, because a lot of the negative stuff I find goes into my comedy show.
What negative things do people say?
Oh they assume that I’m an unemployed, lazy benefits scrounger and still living with my parents, and I personally find that amusing. It’s really funny when people think that. So I was searching for mentions of my name and the online Guardian article, and stumbled across you.
Can you tell me a bit about your comedy? Have you been doing it for a long time, or did it come out of what you discovered while transit racing?
The latter, but it came about by accident really, in fact my whole life has been an accident, I’m convinced of that. I applied to work for Leicester Comedy Festival, and I met the director at an event and just walked right up to him and said ‘hello sir, I want to work for you’ and we swapped emails and over the course of the next few weeks he said ‘tell me a bit more about yourself’ so I did, and I mentioned the transport thing, and he said ‘that sounds like an interesting idea for a show, have you done a show about that?’ And I said no, and he said ‘do you want to do one?” and I said ‘okay’. And that’s how it came about. I talk about the weird stuff that’s happened to me on public transport and display some of the media reaction to it.
What do you think of London as a city?
It’s great, but Leicester’s greater.
Why is Leicester greater?
Just because it’s my city really. Actually, in one of the London Mayor candidacy hustings, Tessa Jowell, essentially said ‘I want to be Mayor of London because I think London’s the greatest city in the world’ and I was at that hustings, I just happened to be there, and I really wanted to yell out ‘No, it’s Leicester’ but then I just put it on Twitter instead, and had a rather bemused reaction from an American living in London. But that’s just by.
I like London very much, I would like to live here for a while actually, but I frankly doubt that will ever happen. Only for a few years though, because I prefer Leicester and Leicester’s within easy reach of everywhere. London can be a bit out of the way for much of the country unfortunately, though clearly it’s the most exciting place in the country, it has the most going on, which one would expect as it’s the capital. In recent years, I’ve noticed the very slight online movement against London-centricity though.
What’s your opinion on that?
Well, I’ve been coming to London regularly all my life, but it is very strange that of all the brand new railways built in the country over the past 20 years, I think all but one or two have been in London and the South East. Of course Greater London and the general South East area has the highest population, so that’s fine, but there is certainly a feeling in much of the rest of the country, that the rest of the country has been neglected and I certainly think that’s true, I can more than understand what annoys people about it.
When Beeching decimated the railways, large chunks of the country were left without stations, and I think it would be very useful for lines to be considered for re-opening. There are many such lines in the North, and I understand that to build lines from scratch takes a lot of effort and money, but many of the station buildings are still there, the lines are still there. They’re completely overgrown of course, but the space is already clear, so all you’d need to do would be to clear the tracks and the buildings, and of course replace the tracks more than likely, but a large amount of the groundwork has already been done.
Perhaps there is not quite as much demand for rail travel elsewhere in the country, as there is in London, but I do know that there has been a lot of congestion in the North, I think Manchester in particular is notorious for it, especially the motorway that goes around Manchester, the main roads can be quite congested.
I agree that London gets too much money compared to the rest of the UK, I think it’s ridiculous. The wealth is obviously here, so that’s why it keeps getting more, but if the government wants to make the North more wealthy then they need to start investing in it in a big way, even if the jobs aren’t necessarily there at the moment.
The government does occasionally give lots of money to cities north of Watford, but it tends to be for buildings, houses etc, not really for transport infrastructure, though there have been a few roads built of course.
But while we’re on the subject of building new railways, I hope HS2 is never built. I mean, I know the West Coast Mainline is full, from what I’ve heard, at the moment no more trains can be timetabled onto the West Coast Mainline, but on the other hand, I don’t think that we necessarily need to start building railways without looking at what we already have first. Because the first phase would go from London to Birmingham, and there are already two rail routes between those cities, and I wonder if more London to Birmingham trains, the non-stopping ones, could be put on the Chiltern line. I think if the HS2 line were to go from London to Glasgow and Edinburgh, straight through the middle of the country, which would involved burrowing under the Peninnes I know, I think that would be much more sensible in the long run.
My main beef with transport in this country though, great as it is, is that it’s absolutely horrific when it comes to fares. It’s far too expensive, but I don’t necessarily think that re-nationalisation is the answer. The government has been acting very proud of itself in recent years, because they’ve said ‘we will put a cap on fare rises, so that fares cannot rise by more than 2%’ for example, and they pat themselves on the back. But I believe that the government has the power to say to rail companies, ‘there will be a 0% cap, you will not raise fares this year and if you do, we will fine you’. I’m sure that the government has the power to do that, but they’ve never done so and fares keep rising year on year and then operating costs increase all the time, or so we’re told. But it’s very rare that the service actually improves or changes. I mean, there have been two trains an hour between Leicester and Birmingham for as long as I’ve known about that service, and I believe fares have risen perhaps 30% or more within 10 years. And if there were 3 trains an hour, then I could see the point of that. The day single to Birmingham is about £13.50 or it could be more, that’s a journey of I believe 43 miles as the crow flies and it takes 48 minutes on the fastest train. For less than that, I think it’s about 12 Euros; I’ve been from Barcelona to the French/Spanish border, which is a journey of about 3 hours.
All public transport fares are ridiculous in this country, not only for rail but buses as well, and if the government and rail operators and everyone else want to encourage people to use the service more, then they have to make public transport more affordable, there has to be an incentive. I believe that if fares were halved in this country, then a lot of complaints would disappear, because people’s main grudge is the price. And I also call for the abolition of peak time fares, where it can cost up to half as much again, for the same journey. I’ve travelled on metros and national rail in several countries, and Britain is the only one that has peak time fares, it’s completely ridiculous. Even in Spain, whose economy was even more messed up than ours during the banking crisis, they’ve still managed to maintain a reasonable railway system.
What country would you say has got it right in terms of rail infrastructure then?
I’d have to think about this, but definitely from recent memory, Spain has the best value for money rail system. Italy’s is very good as well; you could be talking about 2 Euros for a 40-minute journey, which I think is good. But pretty much every country has generally cheaper public transport than the UK.
London buses aren’t too expensive though, a day bus pass currently caps at £4.50
Yes, I was actually quite amazed by that when I went on buses for 24 hours. I had two lots of £4.50, because I did it during two 24-hour periods. So to ride 200 buses cost me £9, which is great value for money. But it would only be value for money for someone like me. But having said that, I think the one journey base fare on London buses is actually quite good.
You can now get on 2 within an hour and pay just £1.50 as well, but the problem with buses is that you’re literally paying with your time. Tube journeys are generally a lot quicker, whereas with buses you get stuck in traffic. So if you’re trying to get to work, it’s a lot harder than it is on the train. You could take two hours or more to get into central London if you live in the suburbs, so it’s a bit different in that sense.
It’s actually very rare I’ve found, that a metro system charges by distance. The tube is the only one that does it to a very great extent. I’d like to see a single fare on the tube that could take your anywhere, between any two stations. I remember when the Overground station Shoreditch High Street was opened, there was a slight uproar because it’s zone 1 and it’s the only one on that line that is. Basically, just because it’s such a popular area, TfL put it in zone 1. I think that’s very unfair, and I think if the transport fares were more reasonable, that would certainly encourage more people to take public transport. But having said that, of course during the last decade, a lot of people have moved away from London because they can’t afford it, but is that necessarily a bad thing?
You can follow Adham on Twitter @DirectionTravel
All images © 2017 Adham Fisher