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An underground fortress of silence is breached

Beeping, ringing, and intimate chats – oh my! – now heard on Glasgow's subway. Next stop, the London Tube?

Always on: Walk-and-talk pedestrians in Glasgow, Scotland, where subway mobile-phone use was recently approved

Alfredo Sosa/Staff/FILE

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London's subway has its drawbacks: A lack of air conditioning makes it unbearably hot in summer and temporary line closures are frequent.

However, in a country with more cellular phones than people (74 million mobiles for 60 million citizens), one major plus for a lot of riders of London's "Tube" is the lack of cellphone reception on large underground sections in the city center.

So it was with a sense of horror that many – myself included – greeted the news that even this subterranean refuge could soon succumb to the din of ring tones and other people's loud conversations.

The threat comes from the north, after a scheme was unveiled this month on the subway in Glasgow, Scotland. Commuters on the five busiest platforms are now able to send and receive calls, transmit texts, and, should they wish, engage in the all-too-common mobile-phone user behavior of publicly and loudly broadcasting intimate details of their private lives.

Few doubt that it will only be a matter of time before it comes to London, where transport authorities have been attempting to bring cellular-phone reception to the underground network for years.

A survey of 1,007 Londoners last year found a majority supported being able to use a cellphone in all parts of the Tube, although about a third remained opposed.

Ken Leach, spokesman for O2, the British phone company running the Glasgow project, said that it was launched in response to demand. The initial reaction, he says, has been "very positive."

But are Britons really ready for the impact that cellphone use might have on densely packed subway carriages?

The Japanese, who have been able to use phones on their underground rail networks for years, seem to be coping. That said, after years of announcements and campaigns urging them to switch their phones to "manner mode," most Japanese commuters just use their mobiles for texting, rather than chatting.


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