diamond geezer

 Sunday, June 12, 2011

The oldest trains on the London Underground network run on the Metropolitan line. They're older than the trains on the Bakerloo line, which hit the tracks as recently as 1972. They're older than the trains that trundle round the Circle line, which are merely in their early 40s. They're older than the last surviving Victoria line trains, due to be phased out forever at the end of the month. Oh yes, the trains that run on the Metropolitan line are much older than that. Precisely fifty years old, as it turns out. Half a century old. Today.

The Metropolitan line's very first 'A' Stock train first ran in public service on Monday 12th June 1961. A single eight-carriage train rumbled out to Watford and back, that's how it all began. They'd have looked sleek and futuristic, those silver carriages, instead of the slamdoor trains with separate compartments that passengers had previously used. Beyond Rickmansworth the Met was still run by steam, and these new trains helped to bring about the electrification of the entire service. By the time I was growing up in Metroland, mid Sixties, these splendid 'A' Stock trains were the only way to travel.

They don't look quite so futuristic now. Most of the windows are grubby, or scratched, or both. The exterior of the carriages looks worn, as if graffiti's had to be scraped off one time too many. And the interior, lit by a series of long fluorescent tubes, is dim compared to the brighter trains we're used to elsewhere. But the trains remain cosy and welcoming, not least thanks to the copious amounts of high-backed transverse seating. And the Metropolitan commuter can still count on twenty luggage racks and twenty coat hooks per carriage - a luxury you just don't get on lesser services in deep-level tubes.

Not everything about the 'A' Stock is old. Those purple poles aren't original, and neither is the pebbledash-effect plastic floor. That and the spiky moquette date back to a mid-90s revamp, which also saw the introduction of a loudspeaker system connected to the driver's cab. There aren't any automated station announcements - these are the last carriages on the network not blessed with those. But the trains still make enough quite noise all by themselves. That unique pulsing drone as the brakes kick in, that's a Metropolitan line special. The racket the motors make, like artillery fire beneath the carriage. And the loud creaking of the chassis, especially over the faster sections of track - you're unlikely to fall asleep aboard one of these.

But retirement beckons. These fifty-somethings are already being replaced by upstart 'S' Stock - shiny new trains that are as futuristic and alien to the commuters of Pinner as the 'A' Stock was back in 1961. They bleep, they swish and they announce the next station automatically in advance. They have air-conditioning rather than opening windows, which is a first for the tube. They're walk-through, for easy access, not eight separate carriages. They're a lot lot quieter, and a much smoother ride. But they're also lacking a certain Home Counties style. Those luggage racks and coathooks have gone, and so have one-third of the seats. These are trains optimised for capacity rather than comfort, which means more passengers having to stand for longer. For those lucky enough to sit down the seats are less substantial, and there are fewer with a decent sideways view out of the window. Ideal for rush hour travel between Finchley Road and the City, but less appealing for the long-distance Chesham commuter. [comparison video]

There still aren't many 'S' Stock trains in regular service, and none at all at weekends. They've only just started running as far as Aldgate, and they have yet to carry any passengers out to Amersham. But they're taking over, slowly but surely, just as the 'A' Stock did fifty years ago. And that means it's time for the 'A' Stock to depart. The old trains are being taken out of service at regular intervals, then stripped out at Neasden depot and removed from the network via a siding at Northwood. Here the doomed carriages are loaded onto a truck and carted away to Yorkshire for scrap. Life over, job done.

Carriage unit number 5004, which kicked off that inaugural passenger journey to Watford fifty years ago, remains in regular operation. Indeed it's out there somewhere on the network this very day, and various hardy tube enthusiasts will be attempting to track it down for an anniversary ride. It's hard to imagine anyone getting quite so moist-eyed about their replacements, but then it's hard to imagine the 'S' lasting a full half-century as the good old 'A' has done. Happy fiftieth birthday to the hardest working trains on the Underground network. I'll miss them, and their familiar rumble, when they're finally gone.


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