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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What do new business rates pilots tell us about government’s appetite for devolution?

Sheffield Town Hall, 1897. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty.

There have been big question marks about any future devolution of business rates ever since the last general election stopped the legislation in its tracks.

Not only did it not make its way to the statute book before the pre-election cut off, it was nowhere to be seen in the Queen’s Speech, suggesting the Government had gone cold on the idea. (This scenario was complicated further recently by the introduction of a private members’ bill on business rates by Conservative MP Peter Bone, details of which remain scarce.)

However, regardless of the situation with legislation, the government’s announcement in recent days of a pilot phase of reforms suggests that business rates devolution will go ahead after all. DCLG has invited local authorities to take part in a pilot scheme which will allow volunteer authorities to retain 100 per cent of the business rates growth they generate locally. (It also notes that a further three pilots are currently in operation as they were set up under the last government.)

There are two interesting things in this announcement that give some insight on how the government would like to push the reform forward.

The first is that only authorities that come forward with their neighbours with a proposal to pool all business rates raised into one pot across a wider geography will be considered. This suggests that pooling is likely to be strongly encouraged under the new system, even more considering that the initial position was to give power to the Secretary of State to form pools unilaterally.

The second is that pooled authorities are given free rein to propose their own local arrangements. This includes determining, where applicable, a tier split (i.e. rates distribution between districts and counties), a plan for distributing additional growth across the pool, and how this will be managed between authorities.

It’s the second which is most interesting. Although current pools already have the ability to decide for some of their arrangements, it’s fair to say that the Theresa May-led government has been much less bullish on devolution than George Osborne in particular was, with policies having a much greater ‘top down’ feel to them (for example, the Industrial Strategy) rather than a move towards giving places the tools they need to support economic growth in their areas. So the decision to allow local authorities to come up with proposed arrangements feels like a change in approach from the centre.


Of course, the point of a pilot is to test different arrangements, and the outcomes of this experiment will be used to shape any future reform of the business rates system. Given the complexity of the system and the multitude of options for reform, this seems like a sensible approach to take. But it remains to be seen whether the complex reform of a national system can be led from the bottom up. In effect, making sure this local governance is driven by common growth objectives, rather than individual authorities’ interests, will be essential.

Nonetheless, the government’s reaffirmation of its commitment to business rates to devolution and its willingness to test new approaches is welcome. Given that the UK is one of the most centralised countries in the western world, moves to allow local authorities to keep at least some of the tax revenue that is generated in their area is a step forward in giving places more autonomy over how they spend their money. That interest in changing this appears to have been whetted once more is encouraging.

There are, however, a number of other issues with the current business rates system which need to be ironed out. Centre for Cities is currently working on a briefing of the business rates system, building on our previous work in this area, and we’ll be making suggestions as to how the system can be improved.

Hugo Bessis is a researcher for the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article originally appeared.

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