diamond geezer

 Friday, October 10, 2014

When TfL announce a New Tube For London you can sit at home and read the press release. Or you can go to the exhibition at King's Cross and discover what it's all about for yourself.

Depending on when you turned up yesterday you might have met Boris, or the MD of London Underground, or a bunch of news crews, or the design team that came up with the specification. Or you might have met nobody. The exhibition is basically some information panels and three screens, very nicely done, but with no real need for anyone official to stand around nearby. It is essentially a driverless exhibition, because driverless is the future, and why employ expensive experts if you don't need to?

The plan is for sleek new trains to replace all the existing stock on the Piccadilly, Bakerloo, Waterloo and City and Central lines. But not just yet. Train number 1 isn't scheduled to arrive until about ten years time (or, if you want the current official behind-the-scenes delivery date, 2023). The Piccadilly line is due to get them first, replacing rolling stock by then over 50 years old, and only after the first 100 trains have been delivered will any of the other lines get a look in. There's nothing in any way imminent about the New Train for London, we're merely at the electronic mock-up stage.

The key challenge in designing a new train for these four lines is the narrow width of the tunnels. Most underground railways elsewhere in the world have a broader bore, but those who dug London's deep tube lines over a century ago were thinking small. This limited cross-section restricts the amount of technology you can cram aboard, hence it was long thought that adding air conditioning units was one step too far. But the new trains will indeed contain the Holy Grail of underground travel, made possible by cramming the additional air cooling technology into gaps below the carriages between the bogies.

One important break from the past is that the New Tube won't have separate carriages, it'll be a walk through train. This allows the doors to be more equally spaced out, and wider, which will decrease boarding times and speed up travel. It also means greater capacity inside, which is PR-speak for fewer seats, although at peak times those struggling to push inside will be more than welcome of the additional space. Floor levels will be better aligned with platform heights, which will allow step-free access at a far wider range of stations than is possible today. And all the displays inside will be electronic, even the route maps and adverts, which will open up a whole new dimension of information transfer as you travel.

In some ways the New Tube for London is like the S Stock recently introduced on the Metropolitan and Circle lines - a long snaking train with aircon and plenty of standing room. But while the S Stock is mostly functional, plans for the NTfL reveal something rather better looking. There'll be an emphasis on quality of style as well as capacity, a nod to the design rhetoric embodied by London Transport in the days of Frank Pick, indeed a hint of the 1920s in the 2020s. The roof will be attractively grooved, the interior lighting refined and retro, and the front of the train streamlined to resemble a glowing horseshoe as it approaches. All budget cuts excepted, that is.

In other ways the New Tube for London is like the New Bus for London. A private design team has come up with the look and feel of the new trains - in this case a West End company called PriestmanGoode - and now all that's needed is a company to build them. Only when the end product has finally been delivered can we truly judge whether today's high hopes and expectations have truly been met. It's no good the travelling public adoring the exterior design if the aircon doesn't work, the inside smells and the rear doors don't open.

And the new trains are only the half of it. The other crucial part of the project will be the unseen upgrade to the signalling, requiring a brand new system to be tried out, tested and verified all along the line. It's going to be a real challenge to get this right, not least because old and new trains will need to run together throughout the changeover period, and also because there are sections of lines where NTfL and S Stock need to share the same track.

And don't get too excited by the thought of driverless trains, because that's a loooo-ong way off, if indeed it ever happens at all. All the new trains will have a driver's cab, despite Boris's pledge he'd never buy a new train with such a facility, because it won't be technically possible to run entirely automatic trains from day 1. Indeed there's a major expense with going driverless, the elephant and castle in the room, which is the need to install platform edge doors at almost every station along the way. Health and safety dictates no risk of passenger bugger-up, which'll mean glass walls need to be erected everywhere from narrow crowded platforms like King's Cross to open air beauties like Sudbury Town. Installation and maintenance costs will balance out any initial savings to be made from removing the driver - a policy borne purely out of political expediency, and requiring massive additional investment to complete.

For the next five weeks you'll find the NTFL exhibition parallel to the top of the escalators in the Northern Ticket Hall at King's Cross. Don't come along expecting to see a walk-in prototype, we're absolutely nowhere near that stage yet. But a model pair of carriages is on display and you can peer inside, like playing with a train set of the future. Quite a long way into the future, at present, but all the initial signs are that it'll be worth the wait.

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