If we want to increase escalator capacity, why don’t we just run the things faster?

A busy day on the tube. Image: Getty.

While Londoners may still be recovering from the trauma, many outside the capital probably completely missed Transport for London’s audacious and sacrilegious experiment at Holborn station.

For three weeks, tube passengers stood on both sides of the escalators going up from the platforms to the ticket hall. There were people standing on both the left and the right. Nobody could walk.

I know: it was madness. I understand your anguish.

TfL’s logic was as follows. On long escalators, the vast majority of people won’t want to walk because humanity is an intuitively lazy species. Thus, huge queues build up at the bottom of the escalator as large volumes of people try to squeeze onto the right-hand side, so that they can obediently stand in line as they chug slowly upwards, like a slightly less sedate, slightly less terracotta terracotta army.

The experiment largely failed, because basically people are stubborn and changing the behaviour of large groups is, like, really hard. But anyone who has stood in a soul-crushing human mob at the bottom of an escalator at a tube station in rush hour will understand just how pressing the need is for a way to increase escalator capacity.


There’s an obvious solution – one that’s likely been suggested by amateur masters of logistics all over the world every time they’ve found themselves in such mildly antagonising and incremental-delay-incurring situations: run the things faster.

Theoretically, of course, this is possible. Escalator speeds vary a great deal anyway, even within London – those in shopping centres or department stores tend to run at about 0.5 metres per second, whilst the London Underground standard is 0.75 metres per second.

Looking further afield, city transport networks across the world run their escalators at all sorts of different speeds. New York City’s are horrendously slow, running at about 0.45 metres per second, whilst Prague, Stockholm, Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou settle around the stately 0.6 metres per second mark. Sydney, Singapore, and Seoul’s systems square up sensibly to London’s standard speed in the 0.75 metres per second region, with Seoul pushing ahead slightly at 0.78 metres per second. The trailblazer, though, is Hong Kong, whose escalators breeze along at 0.8 metres per second.

Fantastic! Great! So, all we have to do is compare escalator capacity in Hong Kong MTR stations with capacity in London tube stations, and-

This escalator on the Stockholm metro is not suffering from overcrowding. Image: Getty.

Unfortunately the comparison isn’t that simple. London’s escalator steps are, as standard, 1 metre wide and 0.4 metres deep. Many of Hong Kong’s escalators are significantly narrower and not as deep. Whether that’s clever space-saving on Hong Kong’s part, or ingenious future-proofing for the post-mass-obesity world by Transport for London, we may never know – but either way, it changes the rate at which steps reach the top, rendering direct comparisons based on speed alone impossible.

The speed limit

What we can do instead is to look at a bizarre study carried out by four students from Hong Kong on the relationship between escalator speed in metro systems and “pace of life”. They described that rather dubious metric described as “the rate; speed and relative rapidity or density of experiences, meanings, perceptions, and activities”. They calculated it by combining economic, climate, employment, and population indices.

One of the things they did as part of that study is to conduct reasonably lengthy interviews with users of metro systems (principally the Hong Kong MTR) about their experiences of the escalators on that system, and how that related to their impression of the city’s “pace of life”.  One businesswoman in her mid-twenties interviews for the study said that “Hong Kong people are used to the fast”; but most of the non-locals that they spoke to, mostly from mainland China, said that the escalators on the Hong Kong MTR were “too fast”.

Such comments highlight one of the biggest problems with running escalators faster. A study by Paul Davis and Goutam Dutta has already shown that the presence of non-commuters decreases capacity on London’s escalators. Meanwhile, an experiment with variable speed escalators in New York ended up with a Indian visitor falling over.

There is quite obviously a safety danger to be taken into account if you’re going to start running escalators at 0.8 metres per second or faster. The queues at the bottom of Holborn’s escalators might be shorter most of the time if said escalators are whizzing passengers upwards at silly speeds – but they’ll likely be considerably longer while the paramedics try and reach the elderly man who’s tumbled fifteen metres down an up escalator. Swings and roundabouts, you know?

For those less interested in actual human health and welfare, and more interested in the technical side of running large transport networks, there’s another problem with running such escalators at speed. The average walking speed is around 1.3 metres per second. If you take the running speed of London Underground escalators – 0.75 metres per second – and the rate at which people generally ascend the steps if they’re walking – around 0.7 metres per second – you end with a speed of 1.45 metres per second.

So people walking up escalators are actually travelling slightly faster than they do the rest of the time. And that’s a problem. When it’s only an incremental difference (0.15 metres per second), it leads to nothing more dangerous that awkward mincy super-walk that people do for the first few seconds after walking off the end of an escalator.

But when there’s a bigger difference in speed, it can cause major problems. Either, people trip over their own feet trying how to remember how to walk on non-moving ground, and cause a capacity-reducing pile-up in the process; or people stop at the top of the escalator to prepare themselves for walking on non-moving ground. And cause a capacity-reducing pile-up in the process.

Neither does this one in Lisbon. Pretty, though. Image: Getty.

Essentially, speeding up escalators causes more problems than it solves, and is ultimately no more than the silly solution of the kind of person who still hasn’t grown out of the childish habit of following every piece of information with, “But why?”

Start again

Fortunately, researchers Davis and Dutta do come up with some more sensible alternatives. Unfortunately, these are the sort of drastic changes that are much easier to implement you haven’t built your metro system yet than they are if you’re trying to unclog a jam-packed 150-year old system.

Of the many London Underground escalators they studied, the researchers found that those with the highest peak-time capacity were escalators with open, orderly approaches, not impeded by awkward corners and cross-flow confusions.

They found that having a corridor between the platform and the escalators acts as a filter for passengers alighting a train, improving capacity as passengers naturally filter out into two lines – one for walking and one for standing – in an orderly way (rather than the human crush you get when you come straight off the platform, turn a corner, and suddenly there’s an escalator). Interestingly, single escalators have a higher capacity than double escalators, because passengers don’t dither trying to work out which escalator to take.

So. If you want to get more of your passengers onto your struggling escalators during peak hours, you basically need to redesign your entire underground station. You need to build stations that naturally filter your passengers out into fast walkers, slow walkers, escalator standers and escalator walkers, and divide them into distinct groups.

Most of all, you need to not break any codes of etiquette that are probably as old as the city itself.

Jack May tweets as @JackO_May

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What other British cities can learn from the Tyne & Wear Metro

A Metro train at Monument. Image: Callum Cape/Wikipedia.

Ask any person on the street what they know about Newcastle, and they’ll list a few things. They’ll mention the accent; they’ll mention the football; they’ll mention brown ale and Sting and Greggs. They might even mention coal or shipbuilding, and then the conversation will inevitably turn political, and you’ll wish you hadn’t stopped to ask someone about Newcastle at all.

They won’t, however, mention the Tyne and Wear Metro, because they haven’t probably heard of it – which is a shame, because the Metro is one of the best things the north-east has to offer.

Two main issues plague suburban trains. One is frequency. Suburban rail networks often run on poor frequency; to take Birmingham for an example, most of its trains operate at 30-minute intervals.

The other is simplicity. Using Birmingham again, the entire system is built around New Street, leading to a very simple network. Actually, that’s not quite true: if you’re coming from Leamington Spa, Warwick, Stourbridge, Solihull or a host of other major minor (minor major?) towns, you don’t actually connect to New Street – no, you don’t even connect to the ENTIRE SYSTEM BUILT AROUND NEW STREET except at Smethwick Galton Bridge, miles away in the western suburbs, where the physical tracks don’t even connect – they pass over each other. Plus, what on earth is the blue line to Walsall doing?

An ageing map of the West Midlands rail network: click any of the images in this article to expand them. Image: Transport for the West Midlands/Centro.

But Newcastle has long been a hub of railway activity. Tragically, the north-east has fewer active railway lines than any other region of the UK. Less tragically, this is because Tyne and Wear has the Metro.


The Metro was formed in 1980 from a somewhat eccentric collection of railways, including freight-only lines, part of the old Tyneside Electrics route, underground tunnelling through the city centre, track-sharing on the National Rail route to Sunderland, and lines closed after the Beeching axe fell in the early 1960s.

From this random group of railway lines, the Metro has managed to produce a very simple network of two lines. Both take a somewhat circuitous route, the Yellow line especially, because it’s literally a circle for much of its route; but they get to most of the major population centres. And frequency is excellent – a basic 5 trains an hour, with 10 tph on the inner core, increasing at peak times (my local station sees 17 tph each way in the morning peak).

Fares are simple, too: there are only three zones, and they’re generally good value, whilst the Metro has been a national leader in pay-as-you-go technology (PAYG), with a tap-in, tap-out system. The Metro also shares many characteristics of European light rail systems – for example, it uses the metric system (although this will doubtless revert to miles and chains post-Brexit, whilst fares will be paid in shillings).

 

The Metro network. Image: Nexus.

Perhaps most importantly, the Metro has been the British pioneer for the Karlsruhe model, in which light rail trains share tracks with mainline services. This began in 2002 with the extension to Sunderland, and, with new bi-mode trains coming in the next ten years, the Metro could expand further around the northeast. The Sheffield Supertram also recently adopted this model with its expansion to Rotherham; other cities, like Manchester, are considering similar moves.

However, these cities aren’t considering what the Metro has done best – amalgamated local lines to allow people to get around a city easily. Most cities’ rail services are focused on those commuters who travel in from outside, instead of allowing travel within a city; there’s no coherent system of corridors allowing residents to travel within the limits of a city.

The Metro doesn’t only offer lessons to big cities. Oxford, for example, currently has dire public transport, focused on busy buses which share the same congested roads as private vehicles; the city currently has only two rail stations near the centre (red dots).

Image: Google.

But it doesn’t need to be this way. For a start, Oxford is a fairly lateral city, featuring lots of north-south movements, along broadly the same route the railway line follows. So, using some existing infrastructure and reinstating other parts, Oxford’s public transport could be drastically improved. With limited engineering work, new stations could be built on the current track (blue dots on the map below; with more extensive work, the Cowley branch could be reinstated, too (orange dots). Electrify this new six-station route and, hey presto, Oxford has a functioning metro system; the short length of the route also means that few trains would be necessary for a fequent service.

Image: Google.

Next up: Leeds. West Yorkshire is a densely populated area with a large number of railway lines. Perfect! I hear you cry. Imperfect! I cry in return. Waaaaaah! Cry the people of Leeds, who, after two cancelled rapid transit schemes, have had enough of imaginative public transport projects.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire:

Image: Google.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire’s railway network:

 ​

Image: West Yorkshire Metro.

The problem is that all of the lines go to major towns, places like Dewsbury, Halifax or Castleford, which need a mainline connection due to their size. Options for a metro service are limited.

But that’s not to say they’re non-existent. For example, the Leeds-Bradford Interchange line passes through densely populated areas; and anyway, Bradford Interchange is a terminus, so it’s poorly suited to service as a through station, as it’s currently being used.

Image: Google.

With several extra stops, this line could be converted to a higher frequency light rail operation. It would then enter an underground section just before Holbeck; trains from Halifax could now reach Leeds via the Dewsbury line. The underground section would pass underneath Leeds station, therefore freeing up capacity at the mainline station, potentially simplifying the track layout as well.

 

Image: Google.

Then you have the lines from Dewsbury and Wakefield, which nearly touch here:

Image: Google.

By building a chord, services from Morley northwards could run into Leeds via the Wakefield line, leaving the Dewsbury line north of Morley open for light rail operation, probably with an interchange at the aforementioned station.

Image: Google.

The Leeds-Micklefield section of the Leeds-York line could also be put into metro service, by building a chord west of Woodlesford over the River Aire and connecting at Neville Hill Depot (this would involve running services from York and Selby via Castleford instead):

The path of the proposed chord, in white. Image: Google.

With a section of underground track in Leeds city centre, and an underground line into the north-east of Leeds – an area completely unserved by rail transport at present – the overall map could look like this, with the pink and yellow dots representing different lines:

Et voila! Image: Google.

Leeds would then have a light-rail based public transport system, with potential for expansion using the Karlsruhe model. It wouldn’t even be too expensive, as it mainly uses existing infrastructure. (Okay, the northeastern tunnel would be pricey, but would deliver huge benefits for the area.)

Why aren’t more cities doing this? Local council leaders often talk about introducing “metro-style services” – but they avoid committing to real metro projects because they’re more expensive than piecemeal improvements to the local rail system, and they’re often more complex to deliver (with the lack of space in modern-day city centres, real metro systems need tunnels).

But metro systems can provide huge benefits to cities, with more stops, a joined-up network, and simpler fares. More cities should follow the example of the Tyne and Wear Metro.