Fancy a look at the tube carriageof the future? Over the next few years TfL are introducing new trains on the Metropolitan, Circle, and Hammersmith & City and District lines, and this week you're invited to take a look inside. A big marquee containing a prototype carriage has been erected on the grass outside Euston station, and it's there until Thursday. Pop along and you can watch videos, chat to staff and even sit inside on the new moquette and watch the scrolling "next station" displays. [Just don't turn up today, it's closed today, but back open tomorrow]
I popped along up yesterday. It's not a proper carriage, it's more like the ends of two carriages joined in the middle, and with mirrors at each end to make the whole thing appear longer. They've done well in the presentation - it looks like the train has stopped at Euston Square station, and there's a fake platform alongside to help demonstrate low-floor accessible entry. It's all very bright, and spacious, and above all clean. But will these 191 new air-conditioned trains really be good news for London's commuters? You'd think so, and in most respects absolutely yes, but I doubt that everyone will see them as wholly positive.
Claim 1: Improved reliability Well let's hope so... not that I've noticed the current trains being especially unreliable. You can expect the first über-reliable trains to start appearing on the Metropolitan line from 2010, on the Circle and Hammersmith & City lines from 2011, and on the District line from 2013. So be patient, this is no overnight quick fix.
Claim 2: More capacity Rush hour on the Circle line can be absolute hell, more like climbing into a six carriage sardine can. The new trains should significantly increase the number of passengers who can squeeze inside. There'll be an extra carriage for a start, and wider aisles, and fewer seats. So that's brilliant... apart from the fewer seats. What "more capacity" really means is fewer people sitting and more people standing. Great if you're attempting to travel two stops at 8am, and brilliant if you have a pushchair or wheelchair, but less than ideal if you're travelling into town from Rickmansworth at 10am and have to stay on your feet all the way down. The new carriages have far fewer clusters of seats than Metropolitan travellers are used to - they reminded me more of DLR trains in this respect. But I guess with London's population growing and passenger numbers increasing, the priority has to be space rather than comfort. Welcome to cattle class.
Claim 3: Air conditioning As you may have read, these will be the first air conditioned trains to run on the London Underground, and about time too. There's nothing worse than sweating on the tube in the summer, is there, and these new trains should finally end the spectre of rampant mutual perspiration. Although, I don't know about you, I'm perfectly capable of coping with a bit of excess heat every now and then, on the 20 or so days of the English summer. For the rest of the year air conditioning really isn't very important at all, and tube passengers have completely different grumbles. Plus these new carriages are only entering service on the sub-surface lines, with their broad shallow tunnels, where the problem is far less serious than on the deep level tubes. Bad luck to commuters on the Northern or Central or Piccadilly lines, where there is absolutely zero chance of any cooling breezes being installed any time soon.
Claim 4: Improved access Wider doors will be a boon to travellers on the District line who currently have to squeeze in and out through a single door. Lower carriage floors will be a great help to wheelchair users attempting to get on and off, especially in comparison to some of the nightmare differences in elevation they currently face at certain far-flung stations. But low-floor trains are only useful if you can get your wheelchair down to the platform in the first place. At present there are incredibly few sub-surface stations with step-free access (on the Circle line only two) so it may be some years before this new feature is genuinely useful.
Claim 5: Improved customer information And you know what that means, don't you? "The next station is King's Cross St Pancras change here for the Northern Piccadilly and Victoria lines Eurostar and National Rail services change here for the Royal National Institute for the Blind when leaving the train please take all your belongings with you stand clear of the doors please." It's blessedly quiet on existing Metropolitan line trains, but alas not for much longer.
Claim 6: Better safety and security Which means CCTV, not a supply of knife-proof jackets stashed under the seats. Plus a fresh innovation for the London Underground - all the carriages will be interconnected without doors inbetween. This walkthrough feature helps security, obviously, because you need never feel trapped in one carriage with a nutter. Unfortunately it'll also make it impossible to hide away from a nutter in the carriage nextdoor, and it'll make steaming through the train and nicking everyone's valuables a lot easier too.
So new trains are on their way (morepicshere), and Boris is duly chuffed that they'll be entering service on his watch. Just don't call them bendy trains, however much the concertina-ed interior reminds you of bendy buses. And do try to ignore that fact that Ken announced these new carriages all of two years ago, and all that's really changed this week is that there's a now a prototype you can sit in. Or more probably stand in. All change please, all change.