Last Thursday at Piccadilly Circus, in front of a small crowd of journalists and television cameras, Mayor of London Boris Johnson and Mike Brown, MD of London Underground, pulled the covers off of a new Tube Map.

When realised the contents of that map, which spread swiftly across the internet and media causing a great deal of discussion and debate, will mark as big a change in the daily relationship between London’s transport network and its passengers as the introduction of Crossrail. For that map indicated that London Underground would begin operating a limited 24 hour weekend service in 2015.

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The unveiling of the Night Tube

A Packaging of projects

Given the implications and opportunities for passengers offered by the introduction of night services, it is no surprise that it is largely on the “hows” and “whens” of this new arrangement that discussion has focused. Yet the “Night Tube” was not the only major change announced by TfL and the Mayor that day. Indeed information on the Night Tube made up barely a quarter of the word count in the associated information pack. The rest focused on what will be a larger and far more contentious change to the Underground – the reorganisation of ticket sales arrangements and associated staff. It’s a change that – if all goes as TfL plan – the majority of passengers will barely notice, but the impact behind the scenes on how London Underground organises both its stations and staff will be enormous.

What will these changes to services and stations actually entail? And why have TfL clearly decided to package them together as a single package of changes? Here in Part 1 we consider the first question, in Part 2 we will look to answer the rest.

Taking the night train

The map unveiled on Thursday (included below) gives a good idea of TfL’s nocturnal intentions. In late 2015 London Underground will look to begin phasing in 24 hour operation on large sections of the Central, Jubilee, Piccadilly, Northern (Charing Cross) and Victoria lines.

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The provisional service map

This 24 hour service will operate on Friday and Saturday nights, with a planned minimum service pattern of 4 trains per hour (tph) through the core. This frequency may be increased depending on demand on each line after launch.

Spotting the gaps

There are three notable absences from the current night map. Services on the Bakerloo and Northern (Bank) do not feature at all. TfL have indicated that this is primarily due to where they expect initial demand to be, but technology and infrastructure have clearly (and understandably) played a part in the decision making as well. Of the lines featured all with the exception of the Piccadilly and Central will have been heavily upgraded by the time night services begin, with the Central Line’s last major update still within recent memory.

That engineering reasons play a key part in what will, and what won’t, open at night is emphasised by the fact that the third major omission, the Sub-Surface Railway (SSR) – District, Metropolitan, Circle and Hammersmith & City, is not intended to remain an omission for too long. On Thursday Mike Brown confirmed that although a service pattern had yet to be decided, there would be 24 hour SSR services once the current upgrade programme on those lines had completed.

That these services will be possible thanks to the extensive and wholesale upgrade works carried out across the network is something TfL seem keen to make clear. The payoff for that decade of closure and curtailment, the narrative goes, is not just a more reliable network with more frequent services but a network that can finally afford to sacrifice two nights of precious maintenance time in order to support London’s nocturnal economy. Broadly speaking that narrative is correct. Already the majority (but not all) of the work carried out on Friday and Saturday nights is upgrade, rather than maintenance, related.

Getting Specific

The devil, however, will ultimately be in the details. For the above effectively represent the entirety of public knowledge so far about the plans. This likely reflects the fact that, behind the scenes, TfL’s own plans are still yet to be entirely defined.

In staffing terms implementing these services will mean looking at the number of Train Operators (TOs) currently employed with numbers, in the short term at least, perhaps likely to increase. It may also mean that London Underground hope to re-evaluate the current shift structure. In both cases (and most certainly in the latter) this will require significant planning and engagement with staff. Just who staffs stations at night, and how they are supported, will also require serious investigation.

On an engineering and logistical level there is also much to be addressed. Although upgrades work may currently represent the largest pull on weekend night closure time, there are still issues with the rolling stock and track that can arise and need to be addressed. With extra operating pressure on both, this is not a situation that is likely to change and just how these issues will be mitigated remains to be seen. Just how long the Piccadilly Line remains a feature of the Night Tube is also a question requiring an answer, given that – funding allowing – it will enter its own period of upgrade in approximately 2017.

Finally, the implications for the current Night Bus network will need to be established. TfL have stressed that they do not see this as an opportunity to reduce either night bus routes or services – that it is more a question of how the two networks will be integrated rather than whether one can replace the other. It’s a noble goal, but it will be interesting to see whether it will survive the additional financial pressures being placed on the bus network in the next two years. If a situation arises whereby TfL believe they have a choice between cutting back day time services or on night bus routes which significantly overlap the route of the Tube, it seems highly likely that they will choose to retain the former.

Overall then, the Night Tube announcement, whilst very much welcomed, still leaves a lot of questions to be answered. This is perhaps understandable, given the time that will pass between now and its implementation, but it does highlight that the announcement was made earlier than one might normally expect. Just why that might be, and how these changes relate to the much more sweeping changes to ticketing and stations, is something we will explore in Part 2.

n.b. To avoid confusion and to keep things focused please limit comments on this article to discussion of the Night Tube plans only. Part 2 will follow in a few hours, and that will be the place for wider discussion about the timing of the announcement and the ticket office changes. Any comments which stray on to that topic here will thus be deleted.

Written by John Bull