Test tube: RAIL goes underground

Billions of pounds are being spent transforming the London Underground network. New trains, new infrastructure and rebuilt stations are top of the agenda as Transport for London seeks to improve the passenger experience for those who must go underground to get around the city. 

Part of this plan will see stock that dates from 1960, and which is still in use on the Metropolitan Line, replaced by the first ever air-conditioned Underground train on the LU network. 

Meanwhile on the Victoria Line, the last of the stock introduced in 1967 has just been withdrawn, replaced by trains that were first introduced in 2009. On the latter, regenerative braking has been introduced - benefits include cooler stations and tunnels (the Victoria Line is the only LU line that is entirely underground) because trains will not be using their brakes so much.

Both trains have been built by Bombardier at its under-threat Derby Litchurch Lane factory. The Victoria Line order is complete, with 47 eight-car trains delivered as part of the £10 billion TfL upgrade, but the ‘S-Stock’ is only just beginning to enter traffic, and even then on limited services only. 

While the Victoria Line trains were delivered by road, the ‘S-Stock’ arrives in the capital by rail having undergone testing on the Old Dalby line. They are hauled to London by Class 20s (a design that dates from the 1950s), and are delivered about once a week (RAIL 658). This will continue until 2014.

At the time of our train test (July 7), the ‘S-Stock’ was operating on the Metropolitan Line mainly between Watford and Baker Street, although three services are now taking the trains through to Aldgate at peak times. 

RAIL has never carried out a train test on Tube trains before, so this was a new experience - one very much led by RAIL photographer Paul Bigland (until recently a regular commuter on the Victoria Line). 

It was not the intention to put the trains ‘head to head’, but rather to get a sample of what London’s commuters are using these days, and whether TfL has invested in trains that will improve the experience for those travelling on the LU system.

The plan was to travel on the Victoria Line first as far as Walthamstow Central, before heading to Baker Street for a trip on the ‘S-Stock’ as far as Wembley Park.

With the last of the Victoria Line trains withdrawn on June 30, the route is now exclusively operated by those trains introduced in 2009.

We boarded a Victoria Line train at King’s Cross, bound for Walthamstow Central. The train, like all those on the Victoria Line, was made up of eight vehicles, and featured 11063-14063, 11064-14064. 

We were in coach 12063. This vehicle has 32 seats that are 15 inches deep by 18 inches wide, with a back 13 inches high. There are also two tip-up seats in the vehicle. Six of the eight coaches have 32 seats, while the middle two have 30 - this is because those in the middle are fitted with more disabled access, including six tip-up seats. 

Bench seats are fitted at each end of the carriage, and there seems to be more headroom on this train than on other LU trains. Each seat has an armrest that is 12 inches long and two inches wide, while the seats are fitted in the standard longitudinal way, as per most Underground trains. 

Each vehicle has 12 priority seats, with a total of 96 per train. Unlike most trains these are not any larger than usual, nor are they a different colour, although they are situated next to the doors. There are grab rails above the seats. Internally the colours are bright and (according to Paul) co-ordinated with the Victoria Line colour on the famous London Underground map.

There are plenty of signs on the train, providing a good level of information for passengers who are perhaps not as familiar with the network as those who travel day in, day out.

Announcements are made electronically, with a digital recording telling us what the next station is as we approach, as well as informing passengers of the destination of the train. They also, helpfully, inform passengers which side the platform is - a very useful piece of information.

The external doors are wider than those on the trains they are replacing. As the doors open and close there are audible warnings, while door warning lights flash as they slide shut. 12063 is fitted with two sets of double doors (at 1/3 and 2/3 along the bodyshell). There is also a single door at each end of the vehicle on both sides, giving a total of three entry/exit points on each coach. There are no door controls for passengers to use, because they slide open upon arrival at each station.

CCTV is fitted to the trains, but it is hard to see where it is. 

Acceleration is impressive and quick, while braking is also smooth. Paul says that the ride quality is noticeably better than what was on offer before.

It is a typical British summer’s day - the weather is not hugely warm, and above ground it is tipping down. That shouldn’t affect the Victoria Line because it is entirely underground, although it is quite stuffy. However, with some trains already using their regenerative braking, the level of heat experienced by passengers is dropping, and will continue to do so.

At Walthamstow Central we change trains, and board another set heading southbound. We see here where the platforms have been raised to meet the two middle vehicles (the 140xx coaches) that are fitted with disabled access. The Victoria Line trains have destination boards on their bodysides as well as on the front - our train is made up of 11075-14075 and 11076-14076. The trains run as fixed formations.

From Walthamstow we travel to Victoria. The train is busy, but not full. All the seats are taken, but there is not a feeling of being crowded. As we speed towards King’s Cross, Paul tells me that the noise has dropped considerably compared with the old trains. The racket as they hurtled along this stretch, he says, would make children cover their ears, and conversation was impossible. That is not the case here. A crossover outside the station that used to make the older trains lurch around is not felt as we travel over it.

So what is to be made of the Victoria Line trains? Firstly, unlike so many of the trains RAIL has tested, many aspects are missing. But then these are things that have never been needed on the LU network, such as toilets or WiFi connection. There are no luggage racks (like on the A60 stock now being replaced), but again there is no need for these facilities.

While there are grab rails, straps (as fitted to London Overground’s Class 378s, RAIL 634) would be useful in the spaces near the doors, and this does seem a somewhat strange omission. 

What are the positives? The seats are comfortable, the trains have good space for when they are busy, and the ride quality is good. What could be interesting is if TfL orders Tube trains with air conditioning that could fit on the Victoria Line (RAIL 672). 

The introduction of the new trains is not the only improvement on the line. Once work to remove the old signalling is complete in 2012, the upgrade of the line will allow a 21% increase in capacity - an extra 10,000 passengers per hour.

“This is an upgrade we have inherited from the PPP, which we have managed, so it is now well ahead of its contractual schedule of being completed by 2013,” said London Underground Capital Programmes Director David Waboso.

From September an additional two trains per hour will run on the line, and it will rise to 30 trains per hour from the spring. 

Work to double the capacity of the fans at all the main ventilation shafts along the route is due to be completed later this year. So far 11 fans have been treated, with two more being worked on. With the new trains also using regenerative braking, this will further reduce the amount of heat being generated in the tunnels. 

Overall, these are a good addition to the LU fleet. They are modern, with no frills. Their regenerative braking is not only helping put a lot of power back into the network, but is also helping to cool down the passengers. A good train!

With the Victoria Line test complete, Paul and I headed for Baker Street to sample the very latest Underground trains. 

These are perhaps the most eye-catching on the LU network, and certainly one of the most innovative. In a deal worth more than £1 billion, 191 new trains are being built by Bombardier at its Derby factory. This is currently the only train building deal on the manufacturer’s books beyond the end of the year - it will continue to make these trains until 2014, when the last is delivered. 

The ‘S-Stock’ are sub-surface trains that will be used on the Metropolitan, District, Hammersmith & City and Circle Lines. They are a mixture of seven- and eight-car trains (133 of seven vehicles and 58 of eight vehicles). The latter are currently being delivered. 

They have 25% more accommodation than the trains they are replacing, although that is offset by there being 32% fewer seats. LU is introducing a train that has a lot more standing space (similar to the ‘378s’ in use with London Underground) - less seating allows for greater capacity, with people standing because the journey times are not particularly long.

At the moment, the trains operate selected services on the Metropolitan Line with most terminating at Baker Street, although a handful do continue through to Aldgate. As more trains come ‘on stream’, so the duties will be expanded. They are replacing, initially, trains built by Cravens that date from 1960.

But what are they like? First impressions are good. Our train glides into one of the bays at Baker Street with little noise, and its passengers hurry off through the rain. 

Made up of vehicles 21019-24019, 25020-28020, the train is very new – indeed, it is not even fitted with any advertising posters, as is usual on LU stock. 

It is fitted with a mixture of bay seats for passengers travelling all the way to Amersham, and longitudinal seating for those making short trips. 

All the seats are 18 inches wide and 15 inches deep. The longitudinal seats are 23 inches high, while the bay seats are 25 inches high. Each bay has four seats - the bay seats do not have armrests, while the longitudinal seats do.

The number of seats varies per coach. For example, the 240xx vehicle has two bays of four seats, 23 longitudinal seats and six tip-ups seats (a total of 37 seats). The 250xx vehicle has four bays of four seats, 18 longitudinal seats and four tip-up seats (38 seats). 

Priority seating is fitted in every vehicle, and is located next to the doors. It is not picked out in a different colour, but is in a good location to allow passengers who need these seats to immediately sit down. 

The air conditioning is immediately noticeable. This is certainly a different experience on the LU network, and helps to make ‘S-stock’ feel more like a main line train, rather than one built for LU. 

Upon departure its acceleration is smooth and quiet, although the incorrect information is displayed on its passenger information screens. We are travelling on the 1252 to Watford, but the driver tells passengers to ignore the PIS because “the train thinks it is going to Uxbridge”, and he has to rectify this on the computers. The PIS system is fitted in all the coaches, and is similar in fashion to that fitted to the ‘378s’ and ‘379s’ with a screen near the doors. The error is eventually corrected.

Like the ‘378s’, the ‘S-stock’ has no vestibules and the entire train is open from one end to the other. Having no gangway provides more space for passengers, and indeed in my notes I have written: “feels like a ‘378’.” This is not a bad thing, as these are designed to be mass people movers, and need to maximise the space.

The train is fitted with plenty of grab-rails, including in the doorways. This makes sense, given that LU expects the majority of the passengers using this train to be standing.

Lighting on the train is provided by strip lighting with 35W Lumix energy saving bulbs that also help the environment. It is good, although when combined with the pale interior colours and the finish on the grabrails it does provide a slight yellow tinge to the train. 

The train is level with the height of the platforms, so wheelchair access is much easier. There is also plenty of space for wheelchairs and buggies on the train, with these able to be parked where the tip-up seats are.

Unlike the A60 stock currently being phased out, ‘S-stock’ is not fitted with luggage racks, although again it could be argued that these are not needed. 

On the return journey it was noticeable that the trains suffered from hard riding, and the passengers were thrown about a bit. We were standing and it was quite hard to remain in one place - and we were in the middle of the coach as opposed to being directly over the bogies. The Metropolitan Line is being upgraded at the moment, so perhaps it was the track, especially as it was not this bad on the outward journey.

So, what is to be made of these trains? Overall they are superb. The number of seats will annoy some, but it must be remembered that these are mass people movers designed to move great numbers of people around the capital. Passengers travelling ‘long distances’ from Amersham or Watford are likely to be able to get seats, while those travelling in and around the capital will only have to stand for a short distance.

Air conditioning was not a major factor on the day we travelled because of the weather, but is likely to prove very useful and most welcome for Londoners used to sweating on LU trains. 

The seats are comfortable and the ride quality, save for the patch of rough riding, was impressive. Overall they are a very good train with little to gripe about. Could the design be tweaked for the main line, perhaps?

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