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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Cats and dogs and Pokémon and ball pools: The eight joyful trains of Japan

Okay, it may not look like much, but... the exterior of the Genbi Shinkansen art experience. Image: ©Mika Ninagawa, used courtesy of Tomio Koyama Gallery.

If you’re on this website, you’ll likely agree with the statement: trains are good. We like trains. Trains are marvellous.

But in Britain our idea of a good train is “runs on time, doesn’t smell of wee, possibly has a spare seat”. Our national rail ambition has been battered by years of this crap: the most exciting we can hope for is to catch sight of the Orient Express as it flashes through a station, or a ride on the Settle to Carlisle railway.

Yet in Japan, there are trains dedicated to art and sake and Pokemon. There’s a train with a ball pool, for Christ’s sake.

These trains aren’t usually part of the ‘real’ timetable (that is, they don’t show up in the regular searches), and sometimes only run on specific days, they do still run proper routes. The Tohoku Emotion, for instance (all about dining; one car is an open kitchen) runs between Hachinohe and Kuji, adding a direct train between those cities in an otherwise annoying two hour gap.


Cost is, of course, another issue. It’s not possible to book many of these trains outside Japan so prices are tricky to come by, and some of the dining packages on offer will obviously involve laying down some hefty yen.

That said, the Kawasemi Yamasemi, an exquisitely decorated train that runs three times every day direct between Kumamoto and Hitoyoshi in central Kyushu, costs about the same as travelling between the two on the bullet train (it’s faster too, because it’s direct). And I’m happy to bet the farm that any of these trains will cost a damn sight less than Japan’s newest, shiniest novelty train – and probably be more fun.

So without further ado, here are some of the best – and this really is what they’re called – Joyful Trains in Japan.

Pokémon with YOU

Yes, there really is a Pokémon train. Introduced in Tohoku to cheer up – and raise money for – the region’s children after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, the service runs between Ichinoseki and Kesennuma stations, and if Niantic hasn’t worked out a way to put special Pokémon Go characters at each station, it’s missing a trick. There’s a playroom with big Snorlax cushions, the Drilbur Tunnel and real life Poké balls. And, as far as we can tell, a seat costs less than a fiver.

Oh, and because it’s run by JR East, you can do a Google Street View walkthrough of the whole train, which are available for many of the company’s Joyful Trains. Japan. Is. Awesome.

Image: Google Street View.

Tama-Den

If cute character-themed trains are your thing, then you should also check out the Tama-Den which runs on the Wakayama Electric Railway’s Kishigawa line. Tama, you may recall, was a calico cat who became feted as a stationmaster, and elevated into a goddess when she died in 2015. (Her replacement, Tama II, works a five day week at Kishi station.) The Tama-Den is covered in drawings of her. And you thought your cat was spoiled.

Meow? Image: as365n2/Flickr/creative commons.

The same company also runs the Omo-den, which is all about toys and has cash-guzzling capsule toy vending machines on board.

Aso Boy!

Where there’s a cat train, there must also be a dog. Aso Boy! usually takes you past the caldera of Mount Aso, the largest active volcano in Japan, but since the Kumamoto earthquake the route is altered.

 But even with the lack of its main scenic draw, this is still a top train because it features the cutest of all Japan’s regional mascots. Kuro is JR Kyushu’s yuru-chara and the damnably adorable dog gets everywhere. It’s one-up on the Tama-Den because you can buy Kuro-themed food and souvenirs, and this is the train with the ball pool.

The balls are wooden though. Ouch.

On board Aso Boy! Image: Jill Chen/Flickr/creative commons.

Genbi Shinkansen

The bullet train is cool enough, but this one is decorated inside and out with the work of eight modern artists. Running between Niigata and Echigo-Yuzawa, the Genbi Shinkansen reckons it’s the world’s fastest art experience. With a journey time of just under an hour, works range from standard wall-mounted paintings to art that’s literally part of the furniture.

Images: ©Mika Ninagawa, used courtesy of Tomio Koyama Gallery.

SL Ginga

Not only is this train hauled by a steam locomotive, it has a freaking planetarium on board. It’s inspired by children’s author Kenji Miyazawa’s book Night on the Galactic Railroad which is set in the early 20th century, and the decor is meant to echo that era. There are galleries devoted to Miyazawa’s life, and the train runs between Hanamaki – where he was from – and Kamaishi.

Image: Google Street View.

FruiTea Fukushima

The whole of Fukushima province has been tainted by association with its namesake nuclear power plant, which is deeply unfair as it’s a gorgeous part of the country.

To drum up tourism, the FruiTea train went into service a couple of years ago on the standard line connecting Koriyama to Aizu-Wakamatsu, a castle-and-samurai town. There are several Joyful Trains dedicated to eating and drinking, but this one deserves a mention because its locally produced fruit snacks and drinks deserve wider recognition. As does the area.

Here’s your Google Street View walkthrough:

Image: Google Street View.

Shu*Kura

There are three Shu*Kura trains, all departing from Joetsumyoko but with different destinations. This is another train dedicated to eating and, well... drinking.

Niigata Prefecture claims to brew the finest sake in the world, and this three car service showcases the best of them. It also has live music and snacks, but the point here is that you can stand at a sake cask-themed bar and get tiddly without anyone judging you, like they would for that M&S prosecco.

And check out the lights on that thing.

Image: Google Street View.

Toreiyu Tsubasa

This is the train to catch if you want to go full Japan. Most of the cars don’t have seats, they have tatami mats and low tables instead, billed as a ‘conversation space’.

There’s another tatami car designed as more of a lounge for people after they’ve used the footbath. Yes, you did read that correctly. A footbath. You’re not going to want your shoes with all this tatami anyway, and it’s a unique way to view the scenery between Fukushima and Shinjo.

Image: Google Street View.

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