London's Tube has been running so long it's literally raising the temperature of the earth around it

Londoners swelter on the Central line during the heat wave of 2003. Image: Getty.

“Why is the tube so hot?” is one of those questions Londoners find themselves asking a lot during the three or four days a year when the city’s weather isn’t completely bloody miserable. But it’s not something to which I’ve ever given much thought. Lot of people, enclosed space – the reasons are obvious, surely?

Except, not every underground railway in the world has this problem. And once upon a time, London didn’t either: when the Bakerloo line first opened, posters suggested it was a good place to keep cool on a hot day, an idea that’s clearly nonsensical in 2017.

And then, from the Twitter feed of occasional CityMetric contributor @LeftOutside earlier*, I learned something genuinely amazing:

My mind, as the kids say, is blown.

And it’s true. In 1900, according to this fascinating article in Rail magazine, the ambient heat of the earth surrounding the tunnels – clay, mostly – was around 14°C. In the height of summer, the tunnels were indeed colder than the air above, so it made sense to travel by tube to cool down.

The problem is – trains full of people tend to give off heat. According to this article from a 2007 edition of Plant Engineering magazine, the vast majority (89 per cent) of that heat comes from the train itself (the friction during braking is the big one), 7 per cent from passengers and 4 per cent from “Tunnel support systems”.

What happens to this heat? On the sub-surface lines – basically, those which share tracks with the Circle – it’s not too big a problem. The tunnels are close to the surface, so often emerge into the light for brief periods (Barbican, South Kensington and Edgware Road are all above ground). They also have plenty of ventilation shafts. The heat has somewhere to go.

The deep tubes, though – the ones which are literally tunnels bored through the ground – are more problematic. Most of them are old, so were built before anyone realised heat would be a problem, and don’t come with enough ventilation shafts to solve it. The air is trapped. And so, the heat is absorbed by the walls, and the earth behind them.

In 1900, as noted above, the average ambient temperature was 14°C. Some 117 years and millions of trains later, it can be anywhere between 20°C and 25°C.


 Let’s just say that again: London has been running tube trains so long that the ground beneath parts of the city is now as much as 10°C hotter than it was in 1900.

One result of this is that the earth has become much less effective at absorbing the excess heat. That means the tunnels themselves have heated up, too. A lot: air inside them can often reach as high as 30°C. You’ve probably noticed this is you’ve been on the tube recently.

For the last decade or so, Transport for London has been looking for solutions to this. Some of them involve increasing the capacity of existing ventilation systems (lack of space above ground means it’s extremely difficult to build new ones). Others involve adding systems which circulate water to cool the air. Yet other options involve things like more efficient braking systems, on the grounds that if you put less heat in, you have less to take out.

Experimental air coolers on the Victoria line. Image: Oxyman/Wikipedia Commons.

It’s clear that there’s no easy solution, however: in 2003, then London mayor Ken Livingstone offered a prize of £100,000 to anyone who could come up with fresh ideas. Nobody could think of anything TfL wasn’t already trying, and the prize went unclaimed.

The upside to this story is that other cities have learned from London’s mistakes, and ensured that ventilation systems are an integral part of new metro systems.

The downside is you’re likely to boil every time you get the Central line in summer for the foreseeable future.

*LeftOutside has since been in touch to tell me he was summarising another article, from the Ian Visits blog. I haven’t read that one – the above article is drawn from the two articles I reference, plus some bits from TfL. But in the name of politeness and an easy life I'm acknowledging its existence and adding a link. Read that too, if you like. 

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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It’s time to rethink how the British railway network works

Nothing doing: commuters await a long-delayed train. Image: Getty.

The recent meltdowns on Northern and Thameslink not only left many passengers besides themselves with frustration about not being able to get to work on time, if at all. It also led to a firestorm of criticism and condemnation from politicians and media alike.

With the immediate shock of that first Monday morning of the meltdown passed, there’s a now a bigger debate about whether the way that rail services are provided for cities needs some far reaching reform. But before coming to that, the first thing to say – and as we set out in our Rail Cities UK report, launched today – is that the fundamentals for urban rail remain very strong.

Here’s why. All cities want to become denser, more dynamic places which attract the best people to the growth sectors of the economy (including the ‘flat white economy’ of media, communications and information). In order to achieve this, as well as to improve air quality, cities are also reducing space for motorised traffic in favour of space for people.

It’s very difficult to see how this can be achieved without expanding rail networks and their capacity. What’s more, if housing need is to be met without creating more sprawl and traffic congestion, then again its rail that will be key – because it opens up former rail-connected brownfield industrial sites, it extends commuting range, plus housing can be built above or around new or existing rail stations and interchanges.

In some ways there’s nothing new here. From Metroland to Docklands, successful cities have always grown with their rail networks. And to be fair, there is significant investment going into urban rail at present. Northern will get a lot better (the pacers are doomed) and both Merseyside and Tyne & Wear are getting a whole new fleet of trains for their urban rail networks.

However, much (but not all) of this investment is incremental, or replacing rolling stock on its last legs. It stops short of the wider vision for the rail cities that we need.


What would that look like in practice? There comes a point when the biggest cities need more cross-city routes, because running trains in and out of edge-of-centre termini can’t cope with the numbers. That explains the push for Crossrail 2 in London, but also the need for more cross-city capacity in cities like Birmingham (on the Snow Hill route) as well as in Manchester (on the Oxford Road to Manchester Piccadilly corridor, as well as a potential new underground route).

Tram-train technology can also help – allowing the lucky commuter that benefits to get on board at their local station and get off right outside their city centre office on main street in the city centre, rather than piling out at a Victorian railway terminal on the edge of that city centre.

Tram-trains aren’t the only tech fix available. Battery packs can extend the range of existing electric trains deeper into the “look ma, no wires” hinterlands, as well as allow trams to glide through city centres without the expensive clutter of overhead wires.

More mundane but equally useful work to increase capacity through signalling, station, track and junction work offers the opportunity to move to turn-up-and-go frequency networks with greater capacity and more reliability – networks that start to emulate the best of what comparable German rail cities already enjoy. Interlocking networks of long distance, regional express, regional, S-bahn, U-bahn, trams and buses, all under common ticketing.

But in talking about Germany and common ticketing I am now getting back to where I started around the debate on whether some fundamental change is needed on how urban rail networks are provided. Obviously there is a bigger national discussion going on about whether the current structure is just too layered, with too many costly interfaces and too fractured a chain of command. And in addition another, on whether the railway should be publicly or privately owned and operated.

But it’s been heartening to see the growing recognition that – regardless of how these debates are resolved – more devolution for urban and regional services should be part of any solution. That’s not only because fully devolved services have been out-performing comparators both operationally and in passenger satisfaction; it’s because local control rather than remote control from Whitehall will mean that the dots can be joined between rail and housing, between rail and the wider re-fashioning of city centres, and between rail and local communities (for example through repurposing stations as wider hubs for local community use, enterprises and housing). It will also allow for rail and the rest of local urban public transport networks to be part of one system, rather than be just on nodding terms as is all too often the case at present.

The crisis on Northern and Thameslink has been a miserable experience for rail users, affected cities and the rail industry. If any good has come out of it, it is that it shows how important rail is to cities, and opens up a space for some bigger thinking about what kind of rail cities we will need for the future – and how best we can make that happen.

Jonathan Bray is the Director of the Urban Transport Group which represents the transport authorities for the largest city regions. You can read the group’s full report here.