diamond geezer

 Sunday, December 29, 2013

It's nearly 151 years since the first train ran on London's Underground railway. It's unlikely that TfL will trumpet the anniversary, but that's because they made such a splendid fuss of the sesquicentennial in January, and indeed the months since. The Tube's 150th anniversary year has been a humdinger of a celebration, and given grown men the chance to ride steam trains through Victorian tunnels. Any excuse.

The longevity of London's underground railway system is both a boon and a curse. On the positive side its age brings considerable heritage benefits, with umpteen stations and platforms blessed with carefully-considered beauty rather than cost-cutting functionality. In addition most of the tunnels were dug while London was still growing, so far more lines were built than might have been the case, both deep beneath the centre of town and in the suburbs. On the negative side its age makes upgrades awkward, even prohibitively expensive, which is the main reason why not everything works as it should. Ancient signalling still powers the sub-surface lines, which for the next five years or so remains a minor miracle. And the main reason that three quarters of the capital's tube stations aren't yet step-free is that they were built well before anyone realised this was important, and it'd take a shedload of cash we don't have to put that right.

This year has seen the steady rollout of modernisation programmes rather than any expansion of the network. Key amongst this has been the relentless replacement of trains on the Hammersmith & City and Circle lines with new stock. At the start of the year most of the trains on the former and all on the latter were the old C Stock rattlers, loved by few, and stopping short of the end of the platform. Now almost all of the former and most of the latter are fresh spacious S Stock, with halogen headlamps shining before them and swish scrolling displays within. The District line is next for replacement, Wimbledon branch first, although it'll be 2016 before the final set of carriages heads for scrap.

2016 is also the earliest we might expect any new Underground stations to be opened, namely Cassiobridge and Vicarage Road on the Metropolitan line, linked via the Croxley link to Watford Junction. Expect both to be sparse cheap halts à la DLR, and expect Boris to turn up and make a speech even though the entire extension falls within Hertfordshire. His pet tube project, the Northern line extension to Battersea, will still be crawling its way through the planning process over the next twelve months, although no doubt TfL's commercial team will be out grubbing for sponsorship opportunities wherever they think best fit. I fear 2014 will see the creeping passive acceptance of awarding naming rights, as "bearing down on fares" becomes more important than running a public service. Meanwhile expect hundreds of ticket offices to have been evacuated by this time next year, and a very different customer experience in place involving fewer staff, with tablets.

If 2013 has been The Year of the Tube, then 2014 will be The Year of the Bus. No really, it will. TfL's Twitter feed briefly announced #theyearofthebus a fortnight ago, to virtually no reaction, and then fell silent.

As yet no further details of commemorations have yet been announced, but expect TfL's PR machine to burst into action as the New Year rolls round. If we're fortunate, The Year of the Bus means lots of heritage vehicles on our streets and some splendid events to attend. If we're unfortunate, it merely means lots of press releases about "New Routemasters" and how iconic they are as yet another conductor-less vehicle hits the streets. I will obviously be blogging about buses as the year goes by, perhaps not quite so overwhelmingly as I did for the tube this year, but with a few extended features (as you'd expect). Meanwhile let's make the most of what's left of the Underground's special year, and fresh glories to come.

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