Transport Committee Intermission: The Elephant in the Committee Room

Part One of the above article generated a lot of interest and a lot of comments based around the issue of driverless trains. This certainly was the issue that seemed to interest the politicians and subsequently also some of our readers. It was not, however, the issue that Mike Brown, MD of London Underground, appeared to be desperately trying to get across to the Assembly – as a number of commentators recognised.

To save you having to re-read the transcript, the short summary below provides the gist, in a very loose way, of what was said.

Q (to Mike Brown): Are you proposing to introduce driverless trains?

A (MB): We have no plans to do so with existing stock. It is meaningless to talk about driverless trains with new stock on the Bakerloo and Piccadilly lines until we actually have the finance in place to buy new trains.

[Now repeat the question or a similar question worded differently ad nauseum along with various replies that make the point that there has been no commitment to order Bakerloo or Piccadilly line trains in the future]

How Long Is An Underground Train Expected to Last?

One can see what is concerning Mike Brown. In the past the life expectancy of underground stock was generally considered to be 30-35 years. Like an old car, after a certain time it becomes too dated and too difficult to maintain and the sensible thing is to go out and buy a new one. In 2011 he saw the last of the Victoria line 1967 tube stock run after 43 years in service and very recently the last Metropolitan line 1960 A stock ran after well over 50 years in service. In the former case, it was probably not a moment too soon. In the latter, it should have been done years ago since the trains could not provide the performance really needed for the service they provided. Indeed the only saving grace was that the signalling was also so antiquated, and for many years the track so bad, that simply replacing them with new stock would have provided little real benefit.

Ultimately, Mike is no doubt aware that when it comes to delaying replacing railway stock you can “get away with it” once or twice and possibly even half a dozen times but eventually you are going to get caught out.

When can we expect to get new trains on the Bakerloo line?

London Underground’s Tube Upgrade Plan timeline extracted from a document dated February 2011. The provisional timescale for the Bakerloo and Piccadilly lines now looks very optimistic.

In London Underground’s much publicised Tube Upgrade Plan the above diagram appears. This is referring to line upgrades of which new trains is usually a vital component. Of course this timeline gives much flexibility in when the new trains would start to appear but one would expect a pre-production train or two followed by a period of evaluation and then gradual introduction of the whole fleet. What one would not expect is the first train to appear in the last year of the line upgrade.

It is then a little concerning that it has been widely reported that Boris has, according to the Evening Standard allegedly stated that:

The first driverless trains, operating with ‘train captains’ like the DLR, will be running on the Bakerloo line by 2021.

By then the 1972 stock (which is based on the 1967 stock design) running on the Bakerloo line will have been in operation for 49 years and it would be likely that some of the trains will see over fifty years in service. We don’t know if “first driverless trains” means first production trains or first prototypes. Now undoubtedly the trains could soldier on but it is only to be expected that they will get more and more difficult to maintain. Their life would exceed the 1967 stock by more than six years, and this on a line with sharp punishing curves unlike the well-designed gently-curved Victoria line which was built in an era when it was not necessary to follow the street alignment above. So even before thinks about driverless trains, Mike Brown must be getting concerned about how long he has to keep his existing trains in service.

A further concern for Mike Brown must also be that that the Mayor seems to have already decided on the nature of the replacement – namely “train captains” like the DLR. Readers have pointed out that a recent article in Modern Railways has very effectively made the point that a “train captain” must be the worse of all possible scenarios for the underground. The author of that article argues that a better option from an operating perspective would be to have someone who was there “just in case” that normally did nothing.

The problem of the Piccadilly

If that wasn’t something to keep him awake at night there is also the issue of the Piccadilly line. Current thinking is that the Piccadilly line stock is replaced after the Bakerloo. As the idea of tailor-made stock for each line is out of fashion the Bakerloo and Piccadilly lines need to have common stock, but here’s the problem:- The Piccadilly line shares track and signalling with sub-surface stock at various places so if the Sub-Surface Lines (SSL) are fully upgraded by 2018 then it would highly desirable to have new Piccadilly line trains compatible with the SSL signalling available by 2018 as well.

The chances of that happening are getting vanishingly small of course, so either the Piccadilly line trains are driven manually over shared SSL territory (in which case there are implication for running a high frequency service using automatic trains on the SSL) or the very old 1973 stock will need some modification to make it compatible with the SSL signalling.

45 year old trains, which experience severe vibration in daily life and also extremes of temperature (from winter days in the exposed suburbs to the stifling heat of the deep tubes), tend not to have the sort of electrical wiring one really wants to mess around with unnecessarily.

Why are we in this mess?

The problem largely appears to be down to PPP – the Public-Private Partnership imposed on London Underground and the Mayor by the Government of the day. One thing even the detractors of PPP generally accepted was that the advantage with PPP was that capital investment was forthcoming. So Metronet or Tube Lines would find the capital on the open market, and London Underground would only have to find the annual charge – rather like taking out a mortgage to avoid having to pay for the entire cost of a house upfront. It made sense to replace the dated trains after around 40 years, so that was what the PPP contract required. When the PPP deals collapsed though, London Underground may have gained the benefit of not being tied to some unnecessary day-to-day payments but it unfortunately also lost a reliable source of long-term secured funding.

Resignalling the Piccadilly in a sensible way

One of the many absurdities of the PPP arrangement was that the two firms involved, Metronet and Tube Lines, were free to put whatever signalling system they wanted to so long as performance targets were met – even if it was incompatible with everything around it. So Metronet, which controlled the Sub-Surface Lines, was going to put in a signalling system with little regard to what Tube Lines was later going to install on the Piccadilly. Fairly early on after the collapse this issue was tackled and it was decided that the Sub-Surface Lines and the Piccadilly Line would all be resignalled under the same contract.

Because of performance penalty payments the Infracos (Metronet and Tube lines) had every incentive to maximise capacity and reduce journey time but very little or no incentive to reduce staff costs, other than their own, since it would not be them that would see the benefit. With such decisions now back within London Underground, it can take a more holistic approach to the whole issue.

Enter the Evo Train

We can see that one of the problems with the PPP is that it discouraged risk-taking even when there were great gains to be had. One would be penalised for stepping out of line, but not necessarily rewarded for benefits achieved by doing so. When PPP was abandoned, it thus made sense to step back and consider what trains were really needed for the Bakerloo and Piccadilly, bearing in mind that these trains may be expected to be in service for up to 50 years. Sadly the opportunity to factor the Victoria Line into the equation had already been missed. As a concept, the idea of a tube train that was walk-through and either had a cab which could be later removed, or no cab at all, was thus developed. It was recognised that a lot of opportunities and issues related to this had to be looked at in detail.

The Excuse to Delay

With London Underground wanting to “get it right” and the cost of a single tube train amounting to around £10 million, the temptation for the accountants to want to put off the introduction of yet more fleets must be quite great. Remember that in the past few years Transport for London (or rather the Mayor and the treasury) have had, or will have, to fund:

  • 47 trains of 2009 stock for the Victoria line.
  • 58 trains of S8 stock for the Metropolitan line and the follow-on order of 133 S7 trains then (assuming the Croxley link is approved) a further S8 train.
  • 57 4-car Class 378 electric stock for London Overground at least some of which are likely to be extended to 5-car sets by 2014.
  • 8 class 172/0 two-car unit replacement diesel stock for the Gospel Oak-Barking line.
  • 6 new trams with an additional 4 in the future likely.

One can understand any keenness there is to put off replacing Bakerloo and Piccadilly stock for a few years.

Just Tell me what you want

The problem for Mike Brown seems to be three-fold.

Firstly, he does not want to get the blame if reliability plummets on the Bakerloo and Piccadilly through no fault of his own – something that our second piece on the Transport Committee will show he is acutely aware happened on the Metropolitan Line. Nor does he want the blame for “performance pollution” on the Sub-Surface Lines due to interference from the antiquated Piccadilly Line stock. By emphasising the issue to the Greater London Assembly has has thus covered himself by having a “I did warn you” strategy.

Secondly, he does not know what the real objectives are for the Mayor:

Is “Train Captains on the Bakerloo” really an objective or merely how the mayor envisages the true objective being carried out?

Is the real objective not to rely on skilled drivers? In which case whether or not there is a cab at the end of the train is really a side issue.

Has this whole issue become so political that if the experts decide at the end of the day that conventional drivers in conventional cabs on automatic trains really is still the best solution it will be rejected because of political idealism and a dislike of the unions?

Indeed possibly one of the most telling comments made by Mike during the Committee meeting was that he does not know what is on the Mayor’s mind. How can he possibly plan ahead if he has not been given a clear objective by his political master?

Contrast this with President Kennedy’s speech committing to “putting a man on the moon and safely returning him to earth before the decade is out”. NASA knew exactly what was expected of them. By contrast, Mike Brown and London Underground are probably not really quite sure what they are trying to achieve and don’t really have a timescale they can work to. Any military strategist will tell you that without a clear objective you are asking for trouble.

Those who have been on this planet longer than the current generation will remember the days of Horace Cutler in charge of the GLC and the consequences of decision-making then. London Transport’s management was highly criticised at that time but many would say that the problem was that the GLC interfered with day-to-day running, which it should have left to the transport experts, whilst criticising them for not making the strategic decisions and setting the objectives – the thing that the GLC itself should have focused on doing. Increasingly, there seem to be worrying parallels with the current day.

The third problem Mike Brown has is that he has a team investigating and evaluating what is possible. When we say “what is possible” we mean in terms of getting an accepted safety case and satisfying any regulatory body, as we know all of the technology is possible and has been so for several years.

Unfortunately, as it stands, this team just does not know what target date to aim for. If, for example, they had a target of first production train in service in 2020, they could plan for a pre-production train in service in 2018. That may seem a long lead-in time for those unfamiliar with rolling stock rollouts, but as the Victoria Line rollout and the Jubilee signalling conversion made abundantly clear, when it comes to trains on the Underground it is critical that you test offsite, and then test and test again.

All this would mean finalising design in 2017, based on the technology and safety cases agreed up to that date. Without a firm target delivery date, however, the project team will not know if they should be doing blue-sky thinking prior to implementation in the early 2020’s, or knuckling down to work with the technology available today and building a safety case as quickly as possible ready for putting contracts out to tender in the near future.

Getting the Right Emphasis

Ultimately, we are not trying to suggest that the issue of “driverless” trains is not an important one. Indeed as the Committee meeting – and the newspaper headlines that followed it – showed, it is probably going to be one of the most significant decisions of the next decade for the long-term future of London Underground. If you thought the drama which surrounded the introduction of the New Bus For London was excessive, then you haven’t seen anything yet. Indeed if Channel 4 are hunting for a sequel to “Made in Chelsea,” then “Made in Derby” may well end up providing a similar level of faux-outrage, angst and sweeping dramatics.

We must, however, not lose sight of the fact that decisions relating to the Deep Tube upgrades, and the rolling stock strategy therein, are critically important to the future direction of the Underground – and to its ability to run a reliable service on a daily basis. Thankfully this appears to be something that Mike Brown has recognised, as there is a lot of long term planning to be done, which may even include thinking about a near-end-of-life refurbishment for the Piccadilly line 1973 stock. This would allow investigations into what technology can do to maximise capacity and reliability, and minimise whole-life costs, to continue, with the results of that work to be incorporated into the new stock that followed. Whatever the long term plans, Mike seems fully aware that what he needs to sort out now is the finance and the timescales. For without a clear idea of both, debate over driverless trains is just that – debate.

Written by Pedantic of Purley