Exploring The Night Tube Part 1: Making the Case


Ask the average commuter how many peaks exist in a week on London transport and, after a bit of thought, they’ll probably tell you ten – five morning inbound and five afternoon return. In truth though there are more. The Sunday evening rebound via London main line termini and airports, after a weekend or week away takes us to eleven but there is also another. For many of the capital’s workers stay behind, have a drink, have a meal, or go out. Add evening-only visitors and, particularly on Friday and Saturday night, another peak appears.

The Night Tube, now arriving at a West End platform (and along selected lines) near you, is a response to this. It’s been a bit delayed from hopes of delivery in 2015, but it is time to take a look at where it came from, what’s now being delivered and what more might be possible.

Night Buses as pioneer

As most denizens of London’s night will know, Night Tube is not the first means of nocturnal transport in the city. The precursor in strategic change was the reform of the Night Bus network, over 32 years ago. This was introduced in April 1984 during the narrow window of policy opportunity between the election of Ken Livingstone’s GLC in May 1981, the eventual successful introduction of reformed fare structures on 22nd May 1983, and the Government’s enforced dissolution of GLC’s control of London Transport on 29th June 1984.

Previously the Night Bus schedules (and those of Night Trolleybuses and Trams) had been aimed at essential night workers, such as workers in Fleet Street and the Docks, and office cleaners, not revellers. Hardly any buses ran on Saturday night before the dramatic change. There were limited alterations beforehand, including extending the N97 to Heathrow Airport as a major location for 24-hour employment outside central London, on 28th January 1978. That was also the first time a service ran with a 30min frequency at night. At that time, LT was also still running (on contract) the London – Heathrow direct bus service with Routemasters and luggage trailers, which included night operation. The combination of the ‘daytime’ Piccadilly Line extension from 1977 and the N97 from 1978, however, led to the end of that service in March 1979.

In launching a revised network, it was relevant that 1983 had been the first year in many when London’s bus services were free of the twin constraints of staff shortage and a lack of serviceable buses – which the 1983 LT Annual Report celebrated after several decades of reporting struggling performances. Previously there had seemed little point trying to expand service delivery throughout London when the basic ‘daytime’ network was still deficient.

A review of night bus operations was undertaken in 1983 by the Oxford University Transport Studies Unit, sponsored by LT and with GLC support and the transformation from April 1984 was – quite literally – an overnight success. It was presaged by increasing operational frequency of the previous Night Bus network during 1983, including running those established routes on Saturday nights. The reshaped 1984 network with greater suburban coverage and emphasis on seven nights a week operation caused huge passenger volumes to converge on Trafalgar Square and Aldwych (the new overnight local transport hubs), and at other major interchanges.

The network has continued to grow, and London now has a high frequency and high-density bus network at night, reaching into many outer suburbs and along orbital corridors. A variety of London routes now run 24/7 alongside the other night-only routes. There are currently few built up areas within Zone 5 without a Night Bus service within a mile, which makes its own point about the scale of demand. It also points to the underlying potential for night Tube and train operations. A small scan of the 2014 network is shown below to provide context for the current scale of operations. Readers are directed to Mike Harris’s website if they wish to acquire his maps of Night Buses, or of London’s surface public transport more generally.


London Night Bus services 2014 (blue routes) copyright Mike Harris http://www.busmap.co.uk/

Parliamentary predecessor

The level of service described above is a long way, both in time and scale, from the ‘Special Late Buses for Members and Staff of the Houses of Parliament’ which also ran in 1946/47


Featuring Routes A-K – which went to such diverse places as Becontree, Enfield, Highgate, Queensbury, Harrow-on-the-Hill, Sudbury, Isleworth, Kingston, North Cheam, Purley and Sidcup – these were introduced for MPs, Lords and parliamentary staff during the marathon sessions of the first Attlee Government. They were also used as a marketing exercise by the London Passenger Transport Board, with a lot of information about London Transport in the service leaflet that it was perhaps hoped bored MPs would read on the bus home. Conventional Night Buses and Night Trams aren’t mentioned, though Embankment night trams would have served Westminster as usual, plus the 290 night bus passing Parliament Square on its way between Pimlico and Edmonton.


Night bus and trolleybus map January 1958, services mainly ex-motor bus and tram routes


Night bus map from 23 October 1976, similar network to 1958, nor even to Heathrow Airport yet


2016 Night Bus & 24/7 buses in Central London

The Tube’s capacity for change

Returning to the modern day, the case for overnight Tube operations, previously unthinkable, has now come to the fore. It is partly stimulated by the Night Bus network, itself becoming saturated with demand on major London corridors. It is also a result of changing lifestyles which require a more 24/7 London. This isn’t to say that Tube and bus haven’t overlapped before – some Night Bus routes were marketed as providing overnight cover for parts of the Tube network from the late 1980s onwards. The N1 ‘Northern Line‘ bus to Barnet being one example.

Night Tube has been created not only to match this growing travel demand for more (and later) trains, but also to take the stress out of London’s currently over-subscribed last Tubes – particularly on Friday and Saturday nights. It is also likely to bring more people into popular night-time locations later than people now turn up, and create more of a fully 24-hour leisure and hospitality metropolis.


Last weekday tubes from central London, in mid 2016

This growing nocturnal city isn’t just a popular myth or aspiration. Changes in the usage of different types of Tube stations during weekday evenings and at weekends have provided ample evidence as to the growing London overnight economy for some time. Demand in the high-density inner suburbs may mean these areas take the greatest advantage of the new travel facility (perhaps linked to population revival and lifestyle changes). 62% of the busiest 2012 stations exited (over 2,000 passengers exiting after 10pm, based on weekday volumes) are in Zones 2 and 3.

As with the Night Buses, the ability to transform tube operations into overnight services has relied on the Tube itself being highly robust and competent at its ‘daytime’ job. It is not an overstatement to suggest that the huge logistical preparations for, and great operational success of, the Underground during the 2012 London Olympics, when there were some extended operational hours, gave TfL confidence that more could now be asked from the Tube.

The Tube ran approximately one hour later every night during the Olympics and Paralympics, except for during the Olympics Opening ceremony where two hours extra service were provided. The lines serving the Olympic Park (Central, District, Jubilee, Hammersmith and City) operated a ‘third peak’ between approximately 23:30 and 00:30. It wasn’t quite a full peak service but accommodated the longer dwells for loading at Stratford and West Ham.

Developing a business case

TfL gave thought post-Olympics to which lines would be most suited to Night Tube operations. The business case was developed by TfL from existing demand for Night Bus travel, based on analysis of over 100,000 Oyster tap-ins on Night Buses. While the market demand highlighted the deep tube lines through the West End as the obvious priority, there was also a case for some of the sub-surface lines: the initial feasible network included District line services between Wimbledon and Edgware Road, Wimbledon and Barking, and the Hammersmith & City line.

The criteria applied to define the actual network worth operating were:
1) Services where there is an existing demand for overnight transport.
2) Minimum 6 trains per hour (tph) per direction through central London.
3) Each line to pass at least one train maintenance depot.
4) Minimal impact on major upgrades, where the SSR upgrade and Bank capacity works are negative factors.

The importance of the existing demand for overnight transport was recognised. This has meant defining an Underground night network which reflects, so far as is possible, the busy night bus routes. The Night Bus network has evolved to have some termini at Tube stations, for example Stanmore (bus N98), Edgware (bus N5, N16, N113), High Barnet (N20), Cockfosters (N91), Morden (N155), Heathrow (N9). The N8 passes Hainault station to terminate just beyond in a suburb of Hainault.

The single busiest part of the night bus network is Leicester Square to Camden, where route N29 operates 18 buses-per-hour (bph) all night. This led to the decision to operate all Northern line trains via the Charing Cross branch (at 8tph, a higher frequency than the minimum 6tph), with 4tph onwards to each of High Barnet and Edgware.

Practical operating reality is that there will inevitably be some unplanned stock swaps, just as there are now. Therefore each line needed to pass at least one maintenance depot. On the Central, this led to the decision to go to Hainault at the east end, as well as via Woodford which is the busier corridor (White City is just a stabling facility and not a good place to put a defective train).

Parts of the Underground are in the midst of major upgrade works. Line modernisation with the Sub-Surface Railway (SSR) resignalling programme (Four Lines Modernisation or 4LM) and related works meant there was good reason not to infringe on the engineering closures, at least until those works were complete. This is now further into the 2020s than previously foreseen. So the biggest impact of these works is that the Night Tube is not initially operating any of the Sub-Surface Lines. There remains a good case for operating much of the District line (e.g. Ealing/Wimbledon to Barking) as a Night Tube. The forthcoming Bank station capacity works also influenced the decision to not operate the Northern on the Bank branch.

The New Tube for London project was some way down the timeline, and any Night Tube engineering complexities with that will have to be addressed as those schemes come forward.

Proposed extent of network

The diagram below represents the proposed 2015 extent (and emerging 2016 extent) of the Night Tube. In geographical spread around London, this translates into the second map below. So there are large areas of London missing out, though this is as much to do with the inherent geography of the tube lines, as to do with choices about which lines to open up as the initial night system:


Map of Night Tube services on Friday and Saturday nights, once initial network fully open

Oyster Zone stations are colour coded (eg, Green for Zone 3). Catchments shown as 800m.
Density of Zone 1 stations means these are not highlighted.


Three tubes were excluded from TfL’s business case outputs:

  • Waterloo & City shuttle (this is commuter-oriented, so is hardly a surprise)
  • Bakerloo
  • Northern Line Bank Branch.

The Bakerloo exclusion could be questioned, as the line primarily serves inner north-west London and thus might be a good source of high density inner suburban travel. It also serves Trafalgar Square, one of the busiest Night Bus hubs in central London. TfL’s analysis of Night Bus demand in the corridor, however, showed there simply wasn’t enough travel volume in the catchment. Meanwhile, the Jubilee is quite close for the section through central London, and it isn’t so far either at some of its north-western end.

Part of the Bakerloo’s problem, too, is that it doesn’t really go anywhere on the south side of the river, so lacks a two-way flow through central London. A further secondary consideration is Network Rail’s infrastructure, with a depot located on that part of the railway. The current requirement for the line’s trains to be given a life extension – see our previous article on there being no do nothing option for Bakerloo trains – was not actually a material factor in the Night Tube exclusion.

The reconstruction work at Bank station, at least until 2021, is an important factor for not running the Northern Line Bank Branch now. Also demand looks to be much higher on the Charing Cross branch in any case, so initial operation has been focused on the West End.

The evidence of three Northern Line Bank Branch stations (Angel, Old Street and Elephant & Castle) being in the busiest stations’ lists for 2015, and with Kings Cross St Pancras and London Bridge on the route as well, might point to a demand case for eventual Night Tube operation. Moorgate/Liverpool Street as a unified station might also count in favour of the Bank Branch night opening once the Elizabeth line (Crossrail) opens, which itself is another night-time operations target.

More generally, a longer term Night Tube demand case might also look to Night National Rail operations, something we’ll investigate in Part 2.

Early gearing-up for Night Tube

The business case formed part of the Underground review which led to the mayoral announcement about the ‘Tube future vision’ in November 2013. TfL had then written to all stakeholders to set out the policy and planning basis for Night Tube and offering to discuss matters in further detail. The announcement said:

From 2015, Londoners and visitors to the capital will be able to take the Tube home at any hour of the night on Fridays and Saturdays, supporting London’s vibrant night-time economy and boosting businesses, jobs and leisure opportunities. The new ‘Night Tube’ network has been made possible because significant parts of the LU network have been successfully modernised.

From 2015, weekend services will run through the night on core parts of the system – initially comprised of the Piccadilly, Victoria, Central and Jubilee lines and key sections of the Northern line. This network, which will be expanded to include other lines in subsequent years, will dovetail with existing 24-hour and Night Bus services to give passengers an extensive and integrated service throughout the night.

This led to major discussions throughout London. They included not just the trade unions, with union and staff discussions and extensive training which was taken in hand, but also political, community and other stakeholder groups, and key business groups and targeted industry sectors.

There was an especially detailed borough engagement programme including:

  • Senior executive meetings with London Councils’ Transport & Environment Committee
  • London Councils’ licensing sub-committee
  • Briefing with all borough Environmental Health Officers
  • Presentation to London Local Authority Noise Action Forum
  • Bespoke meetings with transport lead councillors and officers.

This had to work in practical terms at individual borough and station level, as TfL intended that all stations on each open part of line would be available for public use.

Night Economy study for the Night Tube

To supplement the business case, TfL and London First (the latter being focused on improving the London economy) commissioned a detailed review in early 2014, this time from Volterra Partners. Volterra reported in September 2014 (see the executive summary and full report), having researched the benefits to the night-time economy.

Volterra restated the summary highlights from the TfL business case in their report, including TfL’s analysis from a year before about the historic travel trends and some data to 2012. Comparing ‘day’ and ‘night’ buses, and ‘day’ and ‘after 10pm’ Tubes, the late evening and night travel demands were growing faster than ‘daytime’.


Demand for travel 2000 – 2011. Source: TfL

The demand for the Underground on Friday and Saturday late evenings was well above average, as shown in the table below.

demandafter10pmLondon Underground station entries after 10pm

Looking at individual stations, the ‘Top 20’ for entries and for exits were listed for actual rather than projected 2012 volumes. As well as the predictable Friday and Saturday entry locations in the West End and neighbouring areas, and the South Bank, there were some significant suburban entry stations: North Greenwich (O2), Stratford, Camden Town and Hammersmith.

Among exit stations, there was considerable overlap with entry stations where a main line interchange was involved. Busy inner suburban stations also featured. Recent comparable 2015 LUL data analysed for London Reconnections is shown alongside, including weekday and 6-day averages (not just Fridays and Saturdays):


Late evening Underground entries, 2012 and 2015


Late evening Underground exits, 2012 and 2015

There is clearly some impact on volume when stations are partially closed for major works, such as during 2015 at London Bridge and Tottenham Court Road. However travel would often divert to other stations, so the bigger headline is that there has been only small growth in late travel demand in the 2012-15 period at existing busy stations. There is even some evidence in the original data of a softening in demand, when comparing 2015 with 2014. So the arrival of Night Tube could be an important stimulus for a stronger London night time economy.

The tactical problem remains, of considerable pressure on the last three hours of Tube services particularly on Friday and Saturday nights. The historic change in Tube travel demand in the late evening is unmistakable:


Late evening tube travel volumes, central London, 2000-2015 (JRC analysis of LUL data)

Opportunities and benefits

There was substantial modelling by Volterra of narrow and wider economic benefits. Readers are encouraged to search the main report for full explanations of the analyses undertaken. The summary headlines are below.


Volterra’s summary

This might not seem a large jobs gain, but over a year there can be millions more contented customers at night-time venues as well as on the Tube, and hundreds of millions in additional spending. So the truism applies – transport is a means to an end, not an end in itself.

The impact on taxi and private hire vehicles was included in these analyses. “The total number of taxi and PHV [Private hire vehicle] trips at night is relatively low, equivalent to less than one hour of night bus trips. Nonetheless, it is clearly a potential source of mode shift to London Underground once the Night Tube is operational.”

Unsurprisingly, a shift of demand towards suburban railheading was foreseen along Night Tube corridors, which would also influence Night Bus operations, as well as suburban demand for taxis and PHV. Volterra observed that “a sizeable proportion of night bus passengers are either travelling to or from work, or on employer’s business – 49% in total. This is based on data from the 2008 Bus Survey Analytical report produced for TfL… Thus night bus usage goes far beyond the perception of people making leisure trips after a night out to a bar or nightclub…”

Volterra also noted the likelihood of Night Tube having greater effects than estimated:

Overall demand projections for the Night Tube suggest that usage between the hours of midnight and six am will make up approximately 5% of total London Underground usage on Saturdays and Sundays. This can be benchmarked against equivalent usage of the New York Metro during the night to give a reference point. Over 7% of total Saturday and Sunday usage of the New York Metro is between the hours of midnight and six am, which suggests that the demand estimates for the London Night Tube may be conservative.

The data presented above provides a basis upon which to estimate the economic impacts of the Night Tube, as summarised in the main report. It should be noted, however, that the impacts may go beyond this. For instance, it is effectively assumed that trips are only affected from midnight onwards, whereas in reality there may be a larger impact than this. As well as people staying out later in a particular area and therefore making a later return journey than they otherwise would have done, a higher number of people may travel to a particular area earlier in the evening, and therefore the pattern of trips before midnight could be affected. This has not currently been addressed in the analysis.

Volterra ran sensitivity tests for Sub-Surface Line operations on Fridays and Saturdays, and for the five core tubes running also on Thursday night. The Sub-Surface Line chosen were: (Metropolitan) Aldgate to Harrow-on-the-Hill, (Hammersmith & City) Tower Hill to Hammersmith, and (District) Barking to Wimbledon. Extending the Night Tube service to further lines would increase the level of job creation by around 5% relative to the base case, whereas extending the Night Tube to Thursday nights would increase the net additional jobs by almost 20%.


Results of sensitivity tests

As shown above, many outputs and outcomes arising with Night Tube will be quantifiable directly, such as the potential for a longer period of over-night leisure activities for large numbers of people, greater night-time employment, and in volume of extra tube travel (plus changes in Night Bus service patterns and demand).

Other outputs may harder to define but nonetheless significant – wider economic values, impact on some suburban as well as central London evening and night hot-spots, and quality of travel for essential overnight/late evening/early morning workers (at least for two nights a week).Then there are the intangibles, which will still matter: such as changes in lifestyle patterns, London’s world city ranking, and whether the ‘must catch the last Tube’ syndrome fades from memory. Above all, the question is: will London ‘embrace’ the Night Tube?

It’s necessary to pinch oneself a bit – this is not a New York-style 24/7 operation relying on an extensive four-tracked network, where trains switch onto parallel tracks from lines and signals under repair and maintenance.

Putting it into operation

Partial single track operation, Eurotunnel style, would be a massive billion pound engineering challenge logistically and financially to retrofit into parts of London’s Underground network. It would also be virtually impossible operationally for multiple reasons, particularly where demand was greatest and pointed to high frequencies. So overnight operation on London’s twin-tunnel single track network is, at this stage, only for Friday and Saturday nights, and reliant on successful engineering outputs on the other five nights a week.

Steps towards implementation

The Night Tube project could be considered to have gone live in November 2014, in terms of policy endorsement, benefits to London as defined by Volterra, and definite commitment to delivery. It achieved full delivery focus from 16th July 2015 when a specific report was submitted to the TfL Rail & Underground Panel at its meeting that day about project progress to date, and final steps to implementation. It covered some of the recent history as described above, following the ‘Tube future vision’ of November 2013.

The main report was endorsed. Basically it was up to TfL to get on with it, from that point onwards. The prevailing branding, mainly used for internal audiences, was shown (see below) as a Tube train in tunnel with strong headlights illuminating the future train path. The Night Owl logo was also present in some draft material, as well as early use of ‘Free the Night’ slogans and graphics.


An example of Night Tube branding in official TfL communications

Delayed introduction

It was then planned to launch a complete five lines Night Tube service, simultaneously, on 12th September 2015. However there was a delay, arising particularly from an industrial relations dispute. This took time to discuss and work through at staff representatives’ level as well as with national trade unions. The final stage to introduction, initial results and the potential for broadening of Night service operations, will be discussed in Part 2.

The author wishes to acknowledge Walthamstow Writer for his help with Night Bus information on the N97 data. For more on the rollout of the Night Tube, listen to our podcast episode with Kevin Dunning, the Director of Asset and Operational Support for London Underground.

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Written by Jonathan Roberts