diamond geezer

 Sunday, September 22, 2013

Open House 2013: Stratford Market Depot

If TfL ever want passengers to stop moaning about the service they receive, perhaps they should invite every one of us to take a behind the scenes tour. An opportunity to see what goes on while we're not looking - the maintenance, the preparation, the dedication and the effort that aim to make sure each journey goes right. Yesterday 300 people were given the opportunity to discover how the Jubilee line keeps running, thanks to London Open House. The gates to the Stratford Market Depot were thrown open, just briefly, for a look around the interior and exterior. Here, take a look at what you missed.

Stratford Market Depot covers an extensive patch of land between Stratford High Street and the Greenway. It was built in the late 1990s when the Jubilee line was extended, making available 45 separate sidings for the storage and maintenance of trains. Most are outside, the remainder housed in a giant parallelogram-shaped building (that's if viewed from above, the cross-section is rather more curved seen from side on). It's won awards, mainly for its 'geometrically pure' steel roof, clad with a double skin of aluminium and supported by rows of tree-like columns. Many centuries ago the depot site was home to a Cistercian abbey, which caused problems during construction when its cemetery was disturbed, and still means that the digging of deep foundations is not allowed.

This was a hi-vis visit, with every Open Houser togged out in orange zip-up tabard. One of the Jubilee line's operational bosses gave us the safety talk, and showed us a 'day in the life' video to set the scene. Trains shoot off from the sidings one-by-one from four thirty in the morning, with 57 in use during the height of the timetable. Nine come back during the off-peak for maintenance and fitting, some for an intensive once-over, others for more long term upgrades and renewal. Some of the overhauls resemble Formula 1 pitstops, with teams of workers moving in to work on each carriage simultaneously. For others an entire train is raised by crane several feet into the air, technology required because it wasn't appropriate to construct inspection pits on an ecclesiastical site.

For starters we were led up onto the viewing platform that runs along the northern end of the main shed. We started at 45, where some of the daily fit-outs take place, and worked our way along to 35 which is a pitlane for more serious maintenance. The roof was indeed fantastic, a forest of green rods supporting the area of two football pitches with minimal central support. Our guides were two staff who work on the maintenance side within the depot, and hence were extremely knowledgeable about which electronic system did what, which tool plugged in where, and why the tracks inside the depot were organised precisely as they were.

The outdoor track layout is much more complex, although essentially branchlike with just one main access from the main railway. Shunting movements here can be quite complex, indeed zigzagging a train across to the farthest test track can take it out of service for a couple of days. This being Saturday there were quite a few parked-up trains, and not a great deal of maintenance going on. The Control Tower was occupied, so we didn't get in there, but you can see this curvaceous sentinel from a passing Jubilee line train - watch out for the small external garden. You can also see the tiny halt at the southern end of the depot where staff can nip on or off from the driver's cab - we didn't get that far.

Our tour rounded off with the chance to walk along one end of the main shed's floor. The concrete walkway passed shelves of couplings and various stabled train sets. We got to see the ultra-modern lathe that scrapes beneath suspended carriages to keep them trim, and to look up close at an overhauled bogie that'll be attached under a train by Monday lunchtime. More fun, we entered a carriage with all its seats tipped up to reveal the "Danger Electrical Hazard" wires and boxes underneath - I shall never sit on Jubilee moquette in ignorance again. And then we got to walk out through the emergency door in the front of the driver's cab down a drawbridge-style set of steps. If you ever get to do this on the Jubilee line proper, maybe in the depths of a dark tunnel, my advice is to duck as you exit to avoid hitting your head.

A fascinating hour in a most impressive space and, like I said, a sharp reminder that if the Underground ever breaks down, it's not because nobody tried. London's railways run only thanks to careful planning and teamwork - indeed they worked so well during the Olympics that the Jubilee carried twice as many passengers as usual without even creaking. We said our thanks on the way out, and the team said their thanks to us with a special party bag. I now have a full colour 36-page guide to Stratford Market Depot, rammed with more technical facts than any train nerd could ever need. I also have a special Stratford Market Open Day 2013 badge and biro and, even more excitingly, a commemorative mug (currently full of tea).

Departing from the venue, of course by Jubilee, the driver paused at West Ham to reprimand some late arrivals for attempting to hold the doors open. He launched into a spiel about how sensitive the doors were, and how excessive pressure can move them out of alignment and stop the train from working. And that's precisely what I'd heard from the maintenance chief in the depot half an hour earlier, about how the magnetic door opening system operates on tolerances of only about 3% so a tiny five millimetre shunt can really mess things up. And it took a depot visit to ram that point home, rather than just sighing every time a driver launches into yet another moan about leaning on the doors. Like I said, maybe we should all go behind the scenes at least once to get a fresh perspective on our daily commutes. I'm sure there'd be queues.

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