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. 

 
 
 
 

In many ways, smart cities are really very dumb

Rio de Janeiro’s control centre. Image: Getty.

It’s not news that anything and everything is increasingly being prefaced with “smart”: phones, watches, homes, fridges, and even water (yes, smartwater exists). And it’s not unintentional either. 

Marketeers know that we, the public, are often stupid enough to believe that thanks to their technology, life is better now than it was way back in, say, the primitive Nineties. Imagine having to, like a Neanderthal, remember how to spell words without an autocorrecting algorithm, or open the fridge door to check if you’d run out of milk, or, worse still, interact with actual people.

So it’s hardly surprising that we’re now also witnessing the rise of the so-called “smart cities”; a concept which presupposes that cities that are not technologically  “smart” are dumb, which, as anyone interested in the millennia-old history of cities — from the crypto-currency grain storage algorythms of ancient Mesopotamia to the complex waste infrastructure of ancient Rome, to London’s public transport infrastructure — will know, is not true.

Deployed in these smart cities are cameras and other networked information-gathering devices, load cells and other “sensing devices” detecting passing pedestrians and vehicles, audio surveillance devices listening for gunshots – and even vending machines equipped with biometric sensors to recognise your face. This is not to mention beacon technology — tiny anonymous looking black boxes hidden in trees and on lampposts — which transmits advertising, offers and other information directly to smart phones in the vicinity. 

If that doesn’t seem sinister enough, take, for example, Rio de Janeiro, where, in 2014, the International Business Machines Corporation designed a mammoth “control centre” that integrates data from 30 agencies for the city’s police. 

Described by the Guardian as having “the functionality of a Bond villian’s techno lair”, the then local mayor, Eduardo Paes, claimed the centre was making the city safer while using technology to deploy its “special” police unit to carry out the state’s “pacification programme”. Launched in 2008, the programme, which aims to push out drug gangs from Rio’s favelas, has been criticised by Amnesty International: “in January and February 2017 in Rio de Janeiro alone, at least 182 people were killed during police operations in marginalized neighbourhoods (favelas) – a 78 per cent increase in comparison to the same period in 2016”.

Sinister or not, as smart cities grow, they create new problems. For example, as urbanist Adam Greenfield writes in Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life, neither the algorithms nor their designers are subject to the ordinary processes of democratic accountability – a problem that international academics are currently attempting to tackle.  


“We need to understand that the authorship of an algorithm intended to guide the distribution of civic resources is itself an inherently political act,” writes Greenfield. “The architects of the smart city have utterly failed to reckon with the reality of power.”

The Real Smart Cities project, founded by Dr Gerald Moore, Dr Noel Fitzpatrick and Professor Bernard Stiegler, is investigating the ways in which so-called “smart city” technologies present a threat to democracy and citizenship, and how digital tools might be used create new forms of community participation.

Fitzpatrick is critical of current discourses around smart cities, which he says “tend to be technical fixes, where technology is presented as a means to solve the problems of the city.” The philosophy underpinning the project is “that technologies function as forms of pharmacology”, he adds, meaning that they can be both positive and negative. “The addictive negative effects are being felt at an individual and collective level.” 

An example of this lies in the way that many of these smart cities replace human workers with disembodied voices — “Alexa we need more toilet roll” — like those used to control the Amazon Echo listening device — the high priestess of smart home. These disembodied voices travel at the speed of light to cavernous, so-called “fulfilment centres”, where an invisible workforce are called into action by our buy-it-now, one-click impulse commands; moving robotically down seemingly endless aisles of algorithmically organised products arranged according to purchase preferences the like of which we never knew we had — someone who buys a crime novel might be more likely to go on and buy cat food, a wireless router, a teapot and a screwdriver. 

Oh to be the archeologists of the future who while digging through mounds of silicon dust happen upon these vast repositories of disembodies voices. That the digital is inherently material and the binary of virtual/real does not hold — there is no cyberspace, just space. Space that is being increasingly populated by technologies that want to watch you, listen to you, get to know you and sense your presence.

One project looking to solve some of the problems of smart cities is that of the development of a “clinic of contribution” within Pleine Commune in greater Paris (an area where one in three live in poverty).This attempts to deal with issues of communication between parents and children where the widespread use of smartphones as parental devices from infancy is having effects on the attention of young children and on the communicative abilities between parents and children. 

This in turn forms part of a wider project in the area that Stiegler describes as “installing a true urban intelligence”, which moves beyond what he sees as the bankrupt idea of smart cities. The aim is to create a “contributory income” in the area that responds to the loss of salaried jobs due to automation and the growth and spread of digitisation. 

The idea being that an income could be paid to residents, on the condition that they perform a service to society. This, if you are unemployed, living in poverty and urban deprivation, sounds like quite a simple and smart idea to try and solve some of the dumb effcts of the digital technology that's implemented in cities under the ideology of being “smart”.