Driverless, air conditioned, and shiny: London Underground unveils its new trains

Shiny. Image: PriestmanGoode.

Today, Mayor Boris Johnson unveiled designs for a new generation of London Underground trains. Transport for London plans to build 250 of the new trains to increase capacity in some of the busiest parts of the network: they’ll be introduced first on the Piccadilly line, then later on the Bakerloo, Central and Waterloo & City.

And, at first glance, they are very shiny indeed. This video rendering shows the new trains in action, complete with lingering piano music and shadowy commuters:

From the outside, the new trains look satisfyingly futuristic – but the changes they’ll offer passengers aren’t actually that dramatic. Here’s what Londoners need to know.

1.They'll be driverless. (Ish.)

The trains will have the capacity to run completely unaided and unstaffed, but TfL has said they'll use onboard operators when they launch. The firm produced two designs, and one, it’s worth noting, retains the driver’s cab – not something the Docklands Light Railway, which is more committed in its driverless-ness, bothers with.

2. They'll carry more people.

The trains will come equipped with "modernised" signal systems, and TfL says they'll enable "faster, more frequent and reliable services with fewer delays".

Overall, they estimate that the trains will generate at least a 25 per cent passenger capacity increase on each line:

According to TfL, the Piccadilly and Central lines will get 100 new trains apiece, with 40 on the Bakerloo and 10 for the Waterloo & City (which only has two stops, so doesn’t need quite so many).

3. They'll have air conditioning.

Until now, deeper-running lines (identifiable by their low-ceilinged trains and the long escalators you take to get to them) have been unable to operate air conditioning. So perhaps the most important feature of these new trains is that they’ll offer what TfL calls “air-cooling”.

In the rendering video above, cool air is shown wafting down from the carriage’s ceiling.  Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and hope this doesn’t just mean “air vents”. 

4. They won’t look that different.

The cars themselves will actually look a lot like the old carriages, bar a few design tweaks. One cool but essentially useless change is a new, neon-style strip of lighting at the front of the train. Inside, carriages will feature LCD screens showing advertising and travel updates.

Most of the changes seem to focus on doors: the carriage doors will be wider, you’ll be able to walk from carriage to carriage while the train is moving, and, from the promotional video, it looks like TfL are planning to install glass platform barriers in more stations, a la the Jubilee line.

Overall, though, the dated upholstery patterns, inward facing seats and not-quite-high-enough ceilings are all as they were.

5. They'll be pricy.

TfL put a call out to companies interested in building the new trains earlier this year, and the advertisement indicated they’re expecting to pay between £1bn and £2.5bn for the 250 trains. So, potentially up to £10m each. That said, they’ll produce more savings – more passengers, less driver salaries – and are meant to last for around 40 years.

5. They won't actually be in use for ages.

Companies will bid for the chance to produce the trains next year; the contract will be awarded in 2016; and the first trains won’t be introduced to the network until 2022. So a good few years left to bake aboard the Piccadilly Line, then, wishing the adverts were moving.

Renderings: PriestmanGoode. 

 
 
 
 

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.