We last looked in detail at the state of the Piccadilly line upgrades in January, when we revealed that TfL planned to leaseback the Crossrail fleet to pay for new rolling stock. This month sees the Programmes & Investment board look at the project once again.

Item 8 on the agenda for May’s meeting covers the upgrade. Interestingly, whilst the project remains the same, it seems we have reverted to an earlier name. What had become the ‘New Tube for London’ is now ‘Deep Tube’ once again. It is a minor change, to be sure, but one that perhaps reflects the desire of the current Mayor to distance this project from his predecessor.

That this distance is necessary at all speaks to how long the Piccadilly upgrades have been brewing. The current Piccadilly fleet was first rolled out in 1975, with a forecast life of 40 years. Due for replacement in 2014, TfL were in fact forced to life-extend them instead thanks to the failure of the Public Private Partnership that was meant to deliver their upgrade.

The story since then has remained largely the same – the line needs new rolling stock, as do the other ‘Deep Tube’ lines which share a similar unit profile. The problem, however, has been the price tag. Tube fleets are bespoke and that costs money – a lot of it up front, as rolling stock manufacturers aren’t particularly inclined to build fleets they can’t sell to other clients without some cash in hand. For all it’s income, TfL has become increasingly cash-poor in recent years, partly due to the wash-up from the PPP deals and the expensive failure of original project to upgrade the signalling on the Sub-surface Lines, but also due to ongoing cuts to its budget by central government. As a result, the only real movement for a long time seemed to concern the name – with ‘Deep Tube Programme’ becoming the ‘New Tube for London’ and now, it seems, back again.

This was a situation, however, that couldn’t persist forever. The state of the Piccadilly line fleet has continued to deteriorate, as has that of the other fleets that Deep Tube is intended to eventually replace – those of the Central, Waterloo & City and Bakerloo lines. To quote TfL themselves:

A number of age-related issues have begun to occur on these trains. This is being proactively managed through an inspection and repair regime to maintain train availability. Reliability performance has declined in the last three years and is projected to deteriorate further in the final six to eight years of asset life as it becomes more challenging to sustain reliability and availability whilst addressing an increasing volume of repairs.

The leaseback

With no large pots of money on the horizon, and the extra budget pressure of further central government subsidy reduction and a fares freeze, TfL were finally forced to get creative. The leaseback of the Crossrail fleet was (or rather is) their solution.

As we wrote at the time, it is a rather clever and pragmatic one. The chances of a rolling stock leasing company (known as ROSCOs) agreeing to leaseback the Piccadilly fleet itself was always going to be low (or at least very expensive) simply because the potential for that ROSCO to shift a bespoke fleet on to another supplier is small. When the only other place your trains regularly run is the Isle of Wight (and even that now has its issues) then you’re not an attractive prospect to a ROSCO. The Crossrail (or rather Elizabeth) fleet, however, is a different prospect. The Bombardier Class 345s are eminently marketable to other train operators.

You can read more about the workings of that deal here, but the critical outcome was that it created a pot of money of sufficient size to cover the cost of a new Piccadilly line fleet, at least. Whilst the current P&I papers don’t break that cost down in detail (the appendices are not included in the public papers) the TfL Board Papers from December did give us a headline price – £1,549m has been allocated to stage 1 of the Deep Tube project, presumably representing the sum total of the leaseback arrangement and whatever earmarked capital cash TfL still had in the kitty.

What does £1.5bn buy you?

What these current papers do finally give us is an idea as to what that actually translates to in terms of physical assets. Stage 1 covers the design, manufacture and purchase of 94 new trains, along with the necessary new infrastructure and enabling works to run them. It also includes extensive improvements to Northfields and Cockfosters depots, as well as upgrades to the stabling and maintenance facilities at South Harrow. As TfL explain:

These depots were constructed in the early 1930’s and the building fabric, plant and equipment will require extensive reconstruction and renewal. This is to provide the environment and facilities required for the maintenance and repair of modern rolling stock for at least the next 40 years.

Stage 1 also covers the upgrade of high voltage traction power supplies, the DC power distribution system, platform CCTV equipment and legacy signalling systems – all of which are required before the new trains can enter service.

Project timings

That service entry is targeted at the middle of the next decade. Handily, the P&I papers give a rough timeline for the whole project across all lines, although they also accept that it is currently somewhat provisional and dependent on further project scoping.

Current Deep Tube timeline

Elsewhere in the papers, however, we do get a more specific forecast date for first-train delivery. This is August 2023, meaning that Piccadilly line passengers can likely expect to see new trains enter service in early 2024, if that date holds true. We also get some idea as to what improvements the arrival of those trains will enable – an initial push to 27tph by 2026 (A train every 2.2mins). If Stage 2 of the project is granted – new signalling – then that frequency will climb even further. The ultimate goal is clearly to match the 36tph that the Victoria currently manages to achieve.

The trains

Just what those trains might look like remains to be seen. TfL released their own vision for this rolling stock back in 2014, and much of the overall specification seems to remain the same. Most critically, in that they will carry an operator.

TfL’s Deep Tube concept from 2014

An internal view

The exact look and feel of the trains, however, will ultimately come down to the selected bidder. Five rolling stock manufacturers originally expressed an interest in the contract, but this was reduced to three after two combined to bid together and one (CAF) withdrew. The remaining bidders are Alstom, Bombardier/Hitachi JV and Siemens, with the winning bidder to be announced later this month (those wondering why the Siemens CEO is in town should look no further than this).

Competition for the contract will no doubt have been fierce, not least because the potential value of it beyond the Piccadilly line stock is huge. The total Deep Tube requirement is closer to 250 trains, making the run-on orders for the other lines a very attractive prospect indeed. It’s not just the manufacture either – this contract covers fleet maintenance too.

Piccadilly to Ealing Broadway

One of the interesting side-notes of the papers is that they also finally provide official confirmation of TfL’s plans for Ealing Broadway: that it should be taken over by the Piccadilly line. We first posited that this would happen back in 2014 and there have been a number of allusions to it from those within TfL since. Nonetheless, this does seem to be the first time the move has perhaps been made official.

The benefits of this transfer won’t accrue to the Piccadilly but to the District line. As the report highlights, it enable an uplift of 50% on District line Wimbledon trains to Tower Hill, and similar benefits to Richmond. With Crossrail 2 progressing slowly, this will be welcome news to commuters using the line.

Next steps

With the money for stage 1 in place, the immediate future for Deep Tube – at least with regards to the Piccadilly – seems finally secure. More money will be required to see the project through, but once work is underway this will get easier to support. There are few other major capital projects on the horizon for TfL, so it is hard to see how Deep Tube won’t have an element of financial priority. Whilst finding an interested ROSCO may prove hard, it is also not out of the question that TfL might not try and leaseback this fleet to fund the next stage of the project. What matters for now, though, is that Deep Tube is finally underway. We now await news of the successful rolling stock bidder.

Written by John Bull
John Bull is the Editor of London Reconnections. A transport journalist and historian, his writing often focuses on the political or strategic challenges facing London's transport network and beyond.