There'll be a lot of fuss in the media today about the launch of London's first air-conditioned tube train. At last, after 147 years of enforced perspiration in underground tunnels, a brand new coolbox on wheels has finally arrived. When Boris rides the Metropolitan line from Wembley Park out to Watford this morning, he'll be proudly proclaiming a fresh chilled dawn brought about by innovation and investment. But what he won't be mentioning is that the new train's first public appearance isn't today. It made two return trips on Saturday, and anyone in the area (or in the know) could have taken a ride. So I did. The Mayor can catch up later.
Why the dry run on Saturday? Partly to check that everything worked in public before being paraded in front of the media today. Partly so that all the tubegeeks had their 'first train' opportunity early, carefully quarantined from today's City Hall top brass. But mainly because TfL's milestone for launching these trains was 'July 2010', so waiting until August would have been failure. I'm not complaining.
These new trains are officially called 'S Stock' [photo], and they're very different to the Metropolitan's long-serving 1960s workhorses. The front of the train is red, with the destination displayed electronically - Watford [line break] All stations - above a curved cabin window. The doors are red too, with a button on each which looks like it needs to be pressed to gain entrance. But no, the doors pull apart automatically on stopping at each platform, and with a definite swish rather than a clunk. Oh, and there's only one carriage. Technically speaking there are eight, but they're all joined together to create one long articulated snake allowing passengers to walk all the way from one end to the other if they so wish. Welcome to Boris's new bendy train.
Once aboard you'll be struck by the space [photo]. Traditional Metropolitan line carriages are full of places to sit, and these new replacements most definitely aren't. Most of the seats run along the edge, facing away from the windows, and there are only a handful of 4-somes where family groups might choose to locate. Several of the seats flip up to make way for wheelchairs or pushchairs, or to provide additional standing room if things get too crowded. By my calculations there are only 30 seats in each new carriage, compared to more than 50 in the old, which is a brutal reduction of approximately 150 places to sit in each S Stock train. That's not a problem in the centre of town where journeys are brief and crowding is high. But on the commuter run to Amersham, or Uxbridge, or Watford, not having anywhere to sit for up to an hour is going to frustrate hundreds of post-work travellers daily. Once the 57 remaining new trains are rolled out they will not, I think it's fair to say, be pleased.
Another innovation inside the carriages may be more welcome - scrolling displays which tell you the train's destination, and which station's coming up next, and whether the train's fast, semi-fast or not. Automated voice messages are played too, even the dreaded "This train is being held at a red signal and should be moving shortly" which customers on the Met have never previously had to endure. The seats have a smart new moquette, covered in regularly-spaced pairs of pink/purple and yellow/green rectangles. But there are no longer any racks on which to stash your briefcase, nor any hooks on which to hang your overcoat. People of Chorleywood, your new trains are no longer middle class, they're 21st century egalitarian. [photo]
I was particularly pleased because my first journey took me via Croxley, sweet village of my childhood, and there was a certain charm in hearing its name uttered by a disembodied voice for the first time. Round the curve and across the viaduct, the new train ran noticeably more smoothly than the old, and with a rather softer rumble. And then into the terminus at Watford, with a brand new pre-door-opening beep to get used to (a cross between a klaxon and a doorbell, muffled within a cushion, I thought). The train wasn't staying long, so all the genuine passengers departed while the enthusiasts hung around on the platform for a stretch and a photo-opportunity [photo]. After 45 seconds, horror of horrors, all the doors slammed shut. Was the new train about to head off without us already? It turned out no, this is a new feature designed to keep in the heat (or cool, depending), and a simple press of the door button allowed us to regain entrance.
And so back to Wembley Park to complete Saturday's inaugural round trips. Although most on board at Watford were there for a reason, the train slowly filled with everyday passengers as it ran south. Some barely noticed the new layout, like the Neanderthal teen and his silent girlfriend who got on at Croxley. Others stared hard at the sleek new train as it pulled in beside them, breaking into a broad grin as they realised how lucky they'd been. "Fantastic, I didn't think these were in service yet," said the father of one family boarding at Pinner, even if there was already nowhere for all four of them to sit together. And an off-duty ticket inspector seemed particularly pleased at the efficiencies that having no doors between carriages would bring. "My colleague and I will be able to start at each end and work our way through to the middle," he said, "and there'll be nowhere any fare dodger can hide."
On reaching our final destination, the driver switched off the automated female voice and read out all the relevant passenger information himself as we disembarked. Then he slipped the new girl back into Neasden depot, and the rest of us had to take the old train back into town. Oh so very shaky by comparison, but ooh, still so many seats. And what should have struck me, but didn't, was the lack of air-conditioning. It may have been a warm summer's day but the temperature inside the 1960s carriage was perfectly reasonable and not in any way uncomfortable. Because air-con isn't the most important thing about this Metropolitan line upgrade, not at all. Expect Boris to proclaim loudly otherwise, across all major news channels, later on today.