As part of an ongoing series of Fat-Friendly Travel posts, today we’re covering the London Overground, a network of above-ground trains that supplement the more iconic London Underground. As may seem clear from the title, the main difference between the Overground and the Underground is that the Overground trains travel (for the most part) above ground whereas the Underground is, well, exactly that.
The London Overground was originally part of standard British Rail and is still used as standard rail transport, both passenger and freight, as well as being part of general public transport. This dual use accounts for its lesser frequency and smaller number of lines (5 to the Underground’s 11) which makes it a slightly less-frequented form of transport–bearing in mind, however, that with London’s booming population, less-frequented means only that you might sometimes get a seat vs. a guarantee of being sardined ass-to-belly with a hundred strangers.
There are about an equal number of general pros and cons on the London Overground as a fat passenger.
* – Because it is used slightly less frequently, and especially at off-peak hours, it’s quite possible that you might enter a sparsely populated train. This is always nice. Choice end-seats are often available and, even if not, there can be a near guarantee of an empty seat beside you. (This is less true during early morning and late afternoon/evening transit. My experience is slightly biased by my student schedule.)
* – Many of the trains and stations on the Overground are newer than most which means some have toilet facilities, roughly half have fully or partially accessible (step/stair-free) entrances/exits and all carriages have designated priority seating as well as wheelchair bays.
* – Scenery is nice!
* – The biggest bummer is the arm rests. All of the newer trains have designated seats, demarcated by immovable armrests. These aren’t much bigger than airplane seats, though the armrests are not solid from top to seat, meaning that your hips can squish through a bit if need-be. There’s a full interior shot of an overground train here to see what I mean.
* – This can be a Pro or a Con, depending on how you feel about it. In addition to the armrests, there are occasionally glass dividers between sections of seats. If you look in the interior photo linked above and view it at full resolution, you can just make one out next to the woman with the short blonde hair. There’s a bit of glass and an orange grip bar right next to her. I have a love/hate with these. I appreciate them because they mean that, if I’m on a full train, I’m leaning up against glass instead of another passenger. At the same time, they remove a bit of shoulder room. It depends on my mood that day how I feel about them. Sometimes I’m grateful for the buffer, sometimes I’d rather have the room.
* – I can’t think of a third con, so I’m mentioning those stupid armrests again.
Preferred Seating Options
Front/Back of Train – At the very front and the very back of the train are little compartments with three seats to either side. For whatever lovely reason, the left and right-most seats on both sides have slightly more butt-room. You can see in the second photo that there’s a gap between the seat and the armrest. That gap makes a big difference! The priority seats seem to be the most comfortable, but be watchful for those who may require them and be sure to give them up if need-be. Unfortunately, quite a few folks have figured out this trick so be sure to stand at the very end or the very beginning of the station platform. This will help give you first crack at grabbing one of the seats, providing they’re not already occupied when you board.
When not occupied by those using a wheelchair, the accessibility bay provides a good option for those folks who may not comfortably fit within the borders of those stupid immovable armrests. If I am remembering correctly, there is only one wheelchair bay per train and it tends to be exactly in the middle. Again, as these seats both do not have armrests and also provide extra hip room, they’re often quickly occupied so chances can be slim of grabbing one on crowded trains. As well, when choosing to sit in the accessibility area of a train, extra vigilance is required at each stop to be sure that you are prepared to move out of the way quickly if required.
These seats fold down and, as you can see from the photo, the seat furthest to the right has the most hip room.
In the case that all the preferred seating is occupied and/or the train is simply full, there are places to stand that can offer a bit of comfort for a long train ride. To either side of each train entrance there are little standing bays that have grip bars and a padded, sloping inset just at or slightly below bum-level. (This is based on my 5’8″ height – I cannot speak for those significantly shorter than myself.) The benefits of these are twofold — first, offering a space to be out of the way of the main traffic throughways and, most importantly, offering a place to comfortably lean and take a bit of a load off of your feet. It’s not quite the same as sitting but it’s nicer than standing in the center of an aisle and being jostled back and forth with every stop and start. Again, on crowded trains these are quickly occupied but since there are 4 at each entrance (two to either side and two across to the sides of the alternate door) chances are one or two will be available on the train. Don’t hesitate to walk from one compartment to the next once-boarded and, if you don’t get one when you board, keep an eagle-eye at the next stop as often people will pop into these compartments if they’re only riding one or two stops so they’re commonly abandoned.
So there you have it – the full heft of my Overground knowledge. Hope it’s helpful! If you liked this, please share it with others on Facebook or Twitter and if you have any specific questions or companion knowledge, please ask or share in comments so others can benefit! For other guides, see Flying While Fat and the guide to Double Decker Buses!