Mind The (Train) Gap? A Look at the World Class Capacity Upgrades
Some TfL panels are always worth keeping an eye on for unexpected developments, and the most recently announced Rail and Underground Panel meeting set antennae twitching at LR Towers with notable indications that something significant was involved. The date of the meeting has only been recently been publicised which left us wondering, perhaps erroneously, if this suggested something urgent was to be discussed. The agenda also suggested that the public and press would be barred from some of the discussion. Finally, that same agenda only features two items of significance and these are closely related.
It is also notable that the previous Finance & Policy Committee meeting was held on 16th February, whilst the Rail & Underground Panel is meeting on 24th February and the Finance & Policy Committee is meeting yet again on the 2nd March. The TfL board, meanwhile, is due to meet on the 17th March. The reason for this urgency appears primarily to be that signalling procurement for the Piccadilly, Waterloo & City, Bakerloo and Central lines is now on the critical path. That’s a topic for a separate article though. Here we will look at the other significant item to which it is closely related – train procurement (or the potential lack of it) in service of London Underground’s “World Class Capacity” upgrade.
What is (and isn’t) in a name
Like most media-savvy organisations, TfL like to give their major schemes positive sounding names. Unfortunately as a result these aren’t always very meaningful. The names of the Northern Line Extension and the Metropolitan Line Extension projects, for example, don’t provide much context as to where they are actually going to and from. In a similar manner, TfL Underground rolling stock capacity work is now centered around the amorphous names of “New Tube for London”, “Four Lines Modernisation” and “World Class Capacity”.
World Class Capacity is in fact TfL’s project to combine upgrades on the Jubilee, Northern and Victoria lines. The objective appears to be to achieve world class capacity on these lines by running trains at 36tph – which is a figure genuinely among the best achieved in the world. This is not to say that TfL intends to settle for significantly less on all other lines. On the Central line, in particular, at least a sustainable 34tph should also be possible post-upgrade. Simply that this project relates specifically to the lines named above.
We will look at plans for the World Class Capacity lines in order of complexity and issues involved. This means starting with the Victoria line and then looking at the relatively innocuous plans for the Jubilee, before wading into the issues involving the Northern.
The Victoria line upgrade saw the end of the under-powered, by today’s standards, 1967 tube stock and the very crude Automatic Train Operation (ATO) system on the line. These have been replaced with modern trains (with decent acceleration) and the current state-of-the-art ATO system, which has been a definite success story. The changes on the Victoria line may not have been dramatic but they have been continual and, even if change has been gradual and incremental over many years, the line is a vast improvement on what it was just five years ago.
Currently the Victoria line runs trains every 105 seconds in the peak between Brixton and Seven Sisters. This rounds down to 34tph but is actually slightly better than that – 34.28tph. Indeed work last August to improve turnout speed at Walthamstow Central crossover means that the only thing that appears to be preventing running 34tph throughout the line is the current renewal of escalators at Walthamstow Central. Even the current service pattern causes difficulty clearing the platforms here at the moment, and 34tph would likely push this into dangerous territory, particularly if the remaining escalator in service were to break down.
The escalator work at Walthamstow Central is due to be complete by April this year, allowing extra trains to serve this station from the May timetable change. Clearly this won’t improve capacity into central London (as the trains would fill up anyway further down the line) but it will make the line easier to operate and provide a better service to those who board and alight east of Seven Sisters. A huge increase in usage at Walthamstow Central due to changing travel patterns and area demographics means it is now busier than Seven Sisters. Any past rational basis for terminating some trains at Seven Sisters, other than for operational convenience, thus disappeared some time ago.
Later this year London Underground is due to introduce the final upgrade to the Victoria line, at least for the foreseeable future, when the interval between trains will go down from 105 seconds to 100 seconds. This will enable 36tph to be run throughout the length of the line and bring a capacity improvement of exactly 5% on the current service. This will be done without having to procure extra rolling stock thanks to some forethought – sufficient trains were ordered when the 2009 stock was introduced to cater for the possibility that in future this level of service could be achieved.
Unlike the other upgrades the two phases of the Victoria line upgrade are, to the public, somewhat artificial as there was no obvious distinction between them. In fact the initial committed plan was only to go from approximately 27tph to approximately 33tph (21% improvement) in phase 1. With the confidence of phase 1 behind them, further plans were drawn up to increase the frequency further from 33tph to 36tph (9% improvement) along the whole line and money was made available to do it. The aforementioned forward-thinking stock purchase made the business case for this much simpler.
With the Victoria line pushing towards what must be the theoretical limit for a line with that amount of rolling stock and – more importantly – two-platform termini, there are no plans to further improve the service. Indeed the challenge of procuring more trains and finding the depot space for them would probably discourage any such plans on its own. This does not mean that the line will be forgotten, as both Oxford Circus and Walthamstow Central are on TfL’s top ten hit list of stations in need of a major capacity upgrade. Simply that the days of pushing more trains through the same stations more quickly have passed. In the case of Walthamstow Central it is highly likely that the next step will be making the station double-ended, with an entrance near or in the shopping centre.
Long time readers will know that the difficulty of getting ATO to work satisfactorily on the Jubilee line has been recounted here, and elsewhere, many times. A sort of signalling version of the Vietnam War, its mere mention causing many a signalling veteran to sweat and have flashbacks. Today, the line is extremely busy but the lack of rolling stock only allows a 30tph service in the peak – a train every two minutes. Furthermore there is a desire to run more frequently off-peak with a train every 135 seconds (2¼ minutes) which is around 26.7tph. The desired off-peak service cannot really be run at present because it only provides a very limited opportunity for train servicing.
A long standing plan has to been to provide functionally equivalent trains to the existing stock. A proposal before the Rail and Underground Panel is to approve an “Invitation to Negotiate” in April 2016 which would involve purchase of 10 new trains for the Jubilee line. This would enable 36tph (every 100 seconds) in the peak. There is a fallback option, if 36tph were not achievable, of running at a stated 34tph (actually a train every 105 seconds). The 36tph service would run between North Greenwich and West Hampstead with 27tph (actually a train every 135 seconds) between Willesden Green and Stratford and 18tph to Stanmore.
The paper to be presented to the Rail & Underground panel notes that the Jubilee line upgrade has an extremely good BCR – quoted as 8.6:1 – and has been included in the current budget. Fears of various projects being at risk due to the 2015 Comprehensive Spending Review, however, mean that all plans are being looked at. Nevertheless the Rail & Underground Panel (R&U) are advised that
[O]f R&U’s uncommitted projects this is one of the lowest risk, and highest benefit and therefore R&U’s intention is to preserve this project in all scenarios.
This is hardly surprising as the infrastructure is basically already in place. All that is required, in terms of capital investment, is the actual trains. It should also be noted that the 8.6:1 BCR quoted is actually open to a little bit of interpretation. Some of the preparation work, such as cooling Bond Street station to take into account the extra trains, has already been done and, presumably, the BCR is only looking at what is currently outstanding to do to implement this – any past preparatory work being disregarded in this calculation. As more and more preparatory work is done, the BCR to justify continuing with the scheme can only really get better.
Not stated in this report (but purely because there is no reason to) is the fact that this project relies on relocating the 7-car S-Stock stablers that currently occupy space at Neasden Depot and these will probably be stabled in future on the Metropolitan widened lines. There is no suggestion that this cost is included in the BCR which seems to focus on the trains.
The Northern line has seen quite a remarkable improvement in service over the past few years as it has benefited from the same ATO technology as the Jubilee line, without the trauma of being the first to use it. Until publication of the latest paper, this improvement looked set to continue but it seems that both the purchase of new trains to cover the extension to Battersea Power Station and purchase of further trains to provide a general uplift in service frequency are now in some doubt.
Before looking at the possible non-ordering of rolling stock it pays to have a look at the plan as it was confidently envisaged until very recently.
The initial upgrade of the Northern line to introduce ATO and a more frequent service with the existing fleet is generally referred to as NLU1 (Northern Line Upgrade 1). Although this was generally regarded as completed in 2014, there have in fact been ongoing minor improvements behind the scenes. More obvious to the public will be the trackwork improvement due to take place in April on the High Barnet branch. This should allow higher speeds and make a slight improvement in train frequency possible.
The final timetable improvement as part of NLU1 is expected to come with a timetable change in May, when the objective of running 32tph to and from Morden in the peak will be achieved. This will effectively mean that train intervals at the southern end of the Northern line will alternate between 120 seconds (2 minutes) and 105 seconds.
The next upgrade was expected to be in late 2019 with the opening of the Battersea Power Station extension. It is worth noting that extra trains were to be specifically ordered for this. In addition, it was expected that even more trains would be ordered to provide a further increase in service frequency across the entire Northern line. The exact number of trains required was recently established to be 17 – five to cover Battersea (which were to be delivered first) and 12 for the general frequency enhancements. These improvements were generally referred to as NLU2 (Northern Line Upgrade 2). This further increase was originally slated for completion in 2022, but it later seemed that this was brought forward by two years due to travel demand rising faster than anticipated. This earlier date was confirmed, hidden away in a press release about Tottenham Court Road station, last year.
Beyond NLU 2
Other significant dates in the next few years are the upgrade of Bank station, which would be largely complete by the summer of 2020 and the upgrade of Camden Town station due for completion in 2024. The upgrade work on Bank station is far too far committed to be delayed and one cannot envisage work being delayed on Camden Town station either, as the programme for this vital upgrade relies on taking advantage of the planned closure of Hawley Road Infants School to provide an almost ideal worksite and entrance. This is an opportunity unlikely to repeat itself.
NLU2 in doubt
Unfortunately, the 2015 spending review appear to have placed the Northern line rolling stock order under threat. In a small way, things have probably not been helped either by the delays at Battersea Power Station station itself, due to adding an additional entrance and the developers redesigning the station to include more over-station development. Apparently, it is not just London Underground who are affected, because the Thames Tideway tunnel presumes various aspects of the Northern Line Extension work is complete before they are able to commence. As a result there must be huge pressure to keep the delay to a minimum.
Whatever the reasoning, the latest Rail & Underground paper goes back to quoting 2022 as the implementation year for the additional Northern line rolling stock. It also makes no mention of some stock being available in 2020 for the Battersea opening.
Make do with what you have got?
One of the slightly surprising things about the original proposal for the Battersea extension was the inclusion of extra rolling stock. Given the small number of trains required (believed to be five) one would wonder if, on its own, it were worth it. It made more sense when it was expected to be combined with expected additional Jubilee line stock (the two stocks are very similar) and more sense still when there was talk about more rolling stock to improve frequencies on the Northern line.
The Northern line does seem to have some opportunities to terminate trains short of the final terminus in order to maximise usage of stock. In particular, the layout at Golders Green is perfect for this as Colindale, with its central siding, offers an alternative further down the line. People from Edgware, Burnt Oak and other places that would be affected may not like it, but as a short term expedient it would appear to be a very attractive proposition. Providing, of course, it fits into some long term plan.
At the other end of the line, the demand in the early days at Battersea Power Station and Nine Elms station is unlikely to tax the system and one would have thought terminating every other train on the Charing Cross branch at Kennington would have left a perfectly adequate initial service to be provided to Battersea Power Station.
The hidden agenda
There are certain announcements that make one wonder if there is some hidden agenda or ulterior motive. An obvious one for this current announcement is that this is designed to spell out to the chancellor and the treasury just what the consequences would be of the envisaged cuts. This would not be the first time this has happened. In June 2013 there was a notable TfL press release about the consequences of the work at Bank station not going ahead, just days before the chancellor was due to announce major spending decisions.
Alternatively, it could just be that the issue of not ordering more trains has been brought up to make sure it is out there as a mayoral election issue. One can just see the journalists posing their question to mayoral candidates ”How are you going to ensure that we have the capital investment to buy much needed trains for the Northern line?”
It is now or never for more existing-style Northern line trains
The report briefly covers why New Tube for London would not be an appropriate option, but the reasons given seem to be more relevant to the Jubilee line than the Northern line. What appears not to be considered is the option of installing ATO kit appropriate for the Northern line on New Tube for London. What the report does make clear is that:
Deferral is not recommended for this project as the payback time on the additional trains is limited by the asset life of the existing trains.
This is slightly strange given that it appeared, until recently, that the latest plan was to introduce new Northern line trains in 2020. Which means they appear already to be deferred.
An alternative agenda
There is perhaps another reason for hesitating to buy new functionally equivalent Northern line trains. It does, however, involve New Tube for London – despite the report’s rejection of their suitability for the Northern line.
If all goes to plan, and there is no reason to suppose it won’t, Camden Town station will be upgraded in 2024. This will ease interchange and remove the last major operational obstacle to running the Northern line as two separate lines. This is just two years on from when the functionally equivalent trains are supposed to be in service, should the proposed order for functionally equivalent trains go ahead.
If you were to run 36tph from Morden to High Barnet via Bank, currently a journey of around 67 minutes, then assuming a three minute turnaround time at the termini for the trains, current timings and a full end-to-end service, this would require 84 trains. Add one train for the Mill Hill East shuttle and add a generous 10% to allow for vehicles not in service and that amounts to 95 trains. There are currently 106 trains for the entire Northern line.
To run 36tph between Edgware and Battersea Power Station would require around 55 trains in service. Assuming the better initial availability of new trains this could require around 60 trains in total. So the question could be: what would be better value for money in the long term – around 60 adapted “New Tube for London” (NTfL) trains resulting in a maximal service on a split Northern line? Or 17 functionally equivalent trains that still don’t use the Northern line to its full potential and will make moving over to more modern rolling stock much harder in future?
They are intriguing questions, although they could also be irrelevant. Ultimately it doesn’t matter how good value for money something is if you simply can’t afford it. And if the money isn’t forthcoming now, why should a greater sum of money be forthcoming in the future? It does seem incredible though that there are proposals for Crossrail 2 to call at Balham by 2030 to help relieve the Northern line at a cost that must be in the order of £1bn (including extra tunnelling costs), yet there will not be the money around to provide extra trains to use the Northern line to use it maximal extent including 36tph down to Morden (via Balham).
One has to caution that just because an idea appears to be possible it does not follow that it is. Neither does it follow that, because it is possible, it is a good idea. An obvious weakness would be the premature scrapping of existing Northern line Tube trains, assuming a mixed fleet of existing trains and new trains is unacceptable. There would, of course, be lots of other issues about such a scheme to split the Northern line. Not least would be the issue of depots and depot space and how much work would be necessary to ensure NTfL would fit the tunnels. However, you wouldn’t need platform edge doors as there would be no intention to run in driverless mode and, assuming suitable equipment could be put on the trains to work with the current ATO system, resignalling would not be necessary.
The do nothing scenario
What is hard to fathom is how TfL can contemplate not providing more rolling stock at all – despite the obvious financial pressure. Questions would seem inevitable on the point of extending to Battersea Power Station and upgrading Bank station if the desired additional rolling stock to complement this was not also ordered – politically, the transport equivalent of ordering aircraft carriers without aircraft. As it stands, if a decision is delayed and TfL find themselves under a lot of pressure to provide more rolling stock then there is a risk they will find themselves in a scenario where they only have two options: An uneconomical purchase of conventional trains with a probable short service life, or the purchase of NTfL despite having declared it inappropriate in this situation.
Whatever happens, it seems (now) Transport Commissioner Mike Brown will be hoping that the London Assembly doesn’t keep its Transport Committee webcasts archived for too long. As we pointed out in 2013, his famous – or perhaps infamous – proclamation that “we will never order an Underground train with a cab again” was a very brave comment to make. Understandable, perhaps, given the political pressure to say so that he was so obviously under. Nonetheless he would likely not welcome the noise that a main-stream journalistic revival of that comment would make at the same time as having to explain two rolling stock scenarios that aren’t particularly ideal anyway.
And so on to NTfL
Ultimately, if the years go by without buying any new Northern line trains then the preference must surely swing towards further towards purchasing NTfL trains over building more of today’s, whatever the briefing report says.
With committed deep-level tube plans for four Underground lines based around NTfL we, hope soon to take a look at how the plan for introducing this train is being progressed. We will also look at complementary plans for the associated signalling and why this too is being discussed by the Rail & Underground Panel.