Where do subway trains go when they retire?

Ex-London Underground trains awaiting a fairly prosaic fate at a scrapyard in Rotherham. Image: Wikimedia Commons/Ben Elias

What happens to subway trains when they’re no longer useful? Mummy and daddy may have told you that there's a lovely farm in Wales where London Underground and Paris Metro trains frolic together in the fields, but the sad truth is that most of them end up as scrap.

Most of them: but not all. Some find a second life, a working retirement, doing any number of exciting things.

As school libraries

Two old LU District Line carriages have found a dignified retirement as school libraries – ironically, nowhere near the District Line. In south-east London, Coopers Lane School, Lewisham and Plumcroft Primary School, Greenwich each have an unusual new library, complete with faux-platforms. More fun than a portakabin classroom, at any rate.

Plumstead Primary's train, which caused the photographer some amount of confusion when encountered unexpectedly in 2014. Image: Ed Jefferson.

As radio stations

Well, at least one: Great Ormond Street’s hospital radio station, part of the Radio Lollipop network, transmits from a converted ex-Jubilee Line carriage in the courtyard.

As artificial homes for sealife

Thousands of New York subway cars have ended their lives by being dumped into the Atlantic Ocean. This isn’t as irresponsible as it sounds – it is, in fact, a pro-environmental measure to provide surfaces on which algae and barnacles can grow, so a whole ecosystem can spring up around them. The first of these artificial reefs appeared in Delaware in 2001 and was so successful that there is now apparently fierce competition between states to get their hands on the old carriages as they become available.

This train terminates here. Image: South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.

As art studios

Hard to miss if you're passing: Village Underground, a creative community near East London’s Old Street, because it’s the only building with four Jubilee Line carriages on the roof.

Image: Geograph/Robert Lamb.

The site's a double whammy for transport nerds since the trains sit on the part of the complex that was once the Broad Street Rail Viaduct, Broad Street station having closed in 1986 because no-one other than Paul McCartney was using it.

As a restaurant

If you’ve ever wanted to eat a proper meal in an old Victoria Line carriage, well, you can! The Basement Galley offers supper and brunch options in 1960s tube stock permanently parked at Walthamstow Pumphouse Museum. At least it will be less annoying for everyone else than when those students had a dinner party on the Jubilee Line.

At least this was long enough ago that booze was legal. Image: JonAngelo Molinari/YouTube.

And, well, as trains

London Underground rolling stock has, on occasion, been given a working retirement”: some old LU carriages are now used on the Isle of Wight’s 8.5 mile long railway line between Ryde and Shanklin. The trains, built in 1938, are now the oldest stock in regular service in the UK.

A London Underground train, cunningly disguised as a British Rail train, in 1989. Image: Wikimedia Commons/Keith Edkins.

Two carriages have been put to work on an even smaller scale: the tiny 2-mile long volunteer-run railway on the channel island of Alderney makes use of 1959 LU stock. And you thought Morden was as far south at the underground gets!


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Owning public space is expensive. So why do developers want to do it?

Granary Yard, London. Image: Getty.

A great deal has been written about privately owned public space, or POPS. A Guardian investigation earlier this year revealed the proliferation of “pseudo-public spaces”. Tales of people being watched, removed from or told off in POPS have spread online. Activists have taken to monitoring POPS, and politicians on both sides of the pond are calling for reforms in how they are run.

Local authorities’ motives for selling off public spaces are normally simple: getting companies to buy and maintain public space saves precious public pounds. Less straightforward and often overlooked in this debate is why – given the maintenance costs, public safety concerns and increasingly unflattering media attention – developers would actually want to own public space in the first place.

To answer that question it’s important to note that POPS can’t be viewed as isolated places, like parks or other public spaces might be. For the companies that own them, public spaces are bound up in the business that takes place inside their private buildings; POPS are tools that allow them, in one way or another, to boost profits.

Trade-offs

In some cities, such as Hong Kong and New York, ownership of public space is a trade-off for the right to bend the rules in planning and zoning. In 1961 New York introduced a policy that came to be known as ‘incentive zoning’. Developers who took on the provision of some public space could build wider, taller buildings, ignoring restrictions that had previously required staggered vertical growth to let sunlight and air into streets.

Since then, the city has allowed developers to build 20m square feet of private space in exchange for 80 acres of POPS, or 525 individual spaces, according to watchdog Advocates for Privately Owned Public Space (APOPS).

Several of those spaces lie in Trump Tower. Before the King of the Deal began construction on his new headquarters in 1979, he secured a pretty good deal with the city: Trump Tower would provide two atriums, two gardens, some restrooms and some benches for public use; in exchange 20 floors could be added to the top of the skyscraper. That’s quite a lot of condos.

Shockingly, the current president has not always kept up his end of the bargain and has been fined multiple times for dissuading members of the public from using POPS by doing things like placing flower pots on top of benches – violating a 1975 rule which said that companies had to provide amenities that actually make public spaces useable. The incident might suggest the failure of the ‘honour system’ under which POPS operate day-to-day. Once developers have secured their extra square footage, they might be tempted to undermine, subtly, the ‘public’ nature of their public spaces.

But what about where there aren’t necessarily planning benefits to providing public space? Why would companies go to the trouble of managing spaces that the council would otherwise take care of?


Attracting the ‘right sort’

Granary Square, part of the £5bn redevelopment of London’s Kings Cross, has been open since 2012. It is one of Europe’s largest privately-owned public spaces and has become a focal point for concerns over corporate control of public space. Yet developers of the neighbouring Coal Drop Yards site, due to open in October 2018, are also making their “dynamic new public space” a key point in marketing.

Cushman Wakefield, the real estate company in charge of Coal Drops Yard, says that the vision of the developers, Argent, has been to “retain the historical architecture to create a dramatic environment that will attract visitors to the 100,000 square feet of boutiques”. The key word here is “attract”. By designing and managing POPS, developers can attract the consumers who are essential to the success of their sites and who might be put off by a grubby council-managed square – or by a sterile shopping mall door.

A 2011 London Assembly Report found that the expansion of Canary Wharf in the 1990s was a turning point for developers who now “assume that they themselves will take ownership of an open space, with absolute control, in order to protect the value of the development as a whole”. In many ways this is a win-win situation; who doesn’t appreciate a nice water feature or shrub or whatever else big developer money can buy?

The caveat is, as academic Tridib Banerjee pointed out back in 2001: “The public is welcome as long as they are patrons of shops and restaurants, office workers, or clients of businesses located on the premises. But access to and use of the space is only a privilege and not a right” – hence the stories of security guards removing protesters or homeless people who threaten the aspirational appeal of places like Granary Square.

In the US, developers have taken this kind of space-curation even further, using public spaces as part of their formula for attracting the right kind of worker, as well as consumer, for nearby businesses. In Cincinnati, developer 3CDC transformed the notoriously crime-ridden Over-The-Rhine (OTR) neighbourhood into a young professional paradise. Pouring $47m into an initial make-over in 2010, 3CDC beautified parks and public space as well as private buildings.

To do so, the firm received $50 million  in funding from corporations like Procter and Gamble, whose Cincinnati headquarters sits to the South-West of OTR. This kind of hyper-gentrification has profoundly change the demographics of the neighbourhood – to the anger of many long-term residents – attracting, essentially, the kind of people who work at Procter and Gamble.

Elsewhere, in cities like Alpharetta, Georgia, 3CDC have taken their public space management even further, running events and entertainment designed to attract productive young people to otherwise dull neighbourhoods.

Data pools

The proposed partnership between the city of Toronto and Sidewalk Labs (owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet) has highlighted another motive for companies to own public space: the most modern of all resources, data.

Data collection is at the heart of the ‘smart city’ utopia: the idea that by turning public spaces and the people into them into a vast data pool, tech companies can find ways to improve transport, the environment and urban quality of life. If approved next year, Sidewalk would take over the mostly derelict east waterfront area, developing public and private space filled with sensors.

 Of course, this isn’t altruism. The Globe and Mail describe Sidewalk’s desired role as “the private garbage collectors of data”. It’s an apt phrase that reflects the merging of public service and private opportunity in Toronto’s future public space.

The data that Sidewalk could collect in Toronto would be used by Google in its commercial projects. Indeed, they’ve already done so in New York’s LinkNYC and London’s LinkUK. Kiosks installed around the cities provide the public with wifi and charging points, whilst monitoring traffic and pedestrians and generating data to feed into Google Maps.

The subway station at Hudson Yards, New York City. Image: Getty.

This is all pretty anodyne stuff. Data on how we move around public spaces is probably a small price to pay for more efficient transport information, and of course Sidewalk don’t own the areas around their Link Kiosks. But elsewhere companies’ plans to collect data in their POPS have sparked controversy. In New York’s Hudson Yards development – which Sidewalk also has a stake in – ambiguity over how visitors and residents can opt out of sharing their data when in its public square, have raised concerns over privacy.

In Toronto, Sidewalk have already offered to share their data with the city. However, Martin Kenney, researcher at the University of California at Davis and co-author of 2016’s ‘The Rise of the Platform Economy’, has warned that the potential value of a tech company collecting a community’s data should not be underestimated. “What’s really important is the deals Toronto cuts with Sidewalk may set terms and conditions for the rest of the world," he said after the announcement in October.

The project could crystallise all three motives behind the ownership of POPS. Alongside data collection, Sidewalk will likely have some leeway over planning regulations and will certainly tailor its public spaces to its ideal workers and consumers – Google have already announced that it would move its Canadian headquarters, from their current location in Downton Toronto, into the first pilot phase of the development.

Even if the Sidewalks Lab project never happens, the motives behind companies’ ownership of POPS tell us that cities’ public realms are of increasing interest to private hands.

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