A selection of writers consider what happens next for the London Underground system as its 150th anniversary year comes to an end
To end my mini-series on the future of the London Underground as its 150th anniversary year draws to a close I’ve pulled together the views of a variety of experts and enthusiasts who write about the Tube. The wider context for their thoughts, as with all aspects of London’s evolution over the next couple of decades, is the need to provide a bigger and better service at the same time as national government is providing less of the money required to pay for it.
Stephen Colebourne, who writes the UK Rail blog, puts it succinctly:
The elephant in the room for transport in London is the growth of population and the resultant increase in population density. Transport for London boasts that Crossrail will add 10% to London’s transport capacity, but London’s population is growing faster. The urgent need for another one or two new Crossrail lines should not be underestimated.
This view is not out of line with Sir Peter Hendy’s comments at the Transport Times London Transport Awards night back in May, when, stressing the need for a long-term funding programme beyond 2015, he predicted that when Crossrail opens in 2018 “it will be immediately full” and that every transport network will be under “increasing strain” before the end of this decade. You can read more from Stephen on the galloping growth in demand for all rail services in London here.
Meanwhile at London Reconnections contributor Pedantic of Purley has been tracking the progress of TfL’s upgrade programme against the plan published in February 2011. His verdict? “It really must, in all reality, be considered dead.” Upgrade work hasn’t suddenly ceased, of course, but, argues Pedantic: “What seems to have happened is that the plan has been substantially deferred and altered.” Why? “The heart of the problem seems to have been money.”
Pedantic goes on to cast doubt on predictions by transport chiefs, first made last year, that London Underground would never again order a Tube train for with a cab for a driver at the front.
The hope and belief clearly was that development and delivery of the new generation deep-level tube trains would mean that trains would be specified without a driver’s cab. This would apply to all future train orders. The problem was that [what has come to be called the] New Tube for London is a major technical advancement over what we currently have, and the idea that the necessary development, placing of orders and delivery could be achieved in the timescales required ultimately turned out to be quite unrealistic, no matter how good the intention. In particular the emerging need for delivery of new trains on both the Northern Line by 2020 and the Jubilee Line by 2018 (to support extenstions and upgrades there) coupled with virtually no flexibility available to move stock around between different lines means that never ordering a train again without a driver’s cab simply wasn’t going to happen.
The politically-convenient fantasy that Boris Johnson will fatally weaken the Tube unions by bringing in “driverless trains” has therefore, according to this account, become even further divorced from reality. Even Johnson acknowledges that in any “driverless” future Tube trains will still be staffed, and no one anticipates those staff being prevented from joining unions. As one of the Underground’s most senior bosses told me earlier this year, the gap between management and Bob Crow on this aspect of the connection between staffing and passenger safety is pretty small.
The full London Reconnections piece looks at the improvements likely to occur (and otherwise) on the Bakerloo, Jubilee, Central, Victoria, Northern and Waterloo and City lines (with the Piccadilly to be examined separately soon). A further end-of-year article examines plans for the sub-surface lines.
No gathering of Tube writers would be complete without a contribution from Annie Mole, whose blog Going Underground captures the colour and culture of Tube travel so vividly. I asked her for her thoughts on what the Underground should and might be like in the future. She obliged as follows.
From the original 3.75 mile line and six stations to a system with 250 miles and 270 stations, the London Underground is much more than an enormous people-mover, it’s an icon of London. Classless, constantly changing, at times clunky and often showing its Victorian heritage, is it finally getting the respect it deserves? Upgrading the Underground after years of underinvestment is a massive challenge for all involved.
When looking at futuristic cities science fiction writers often imagine more monorail systems – the space above our heads rather than below our feet comes into its own. Why don’t we take to the skies rather than tunnel deeper underground? I predict that we will eventually see a more overground Underground.
I’ve travelled on the elevated Skytrain in Bangkok. It’s efficient, cool, airy, light and a huge contrast to the super busy hot and frantic congested Bangkok streets. The idea of taking an elevated train over London’s West End excites me. A monorail running over Regent Street was proposed by the GLC some 45 years ago in a bid to ease congestion.
Will we ever see more elevation than the current cable car across the Thames? Or should the Underground remain underground, even though currently 55% of the Tube system is actually on the surface? What percentage of trains should run underground for the system to still be called the London Underground? Perhaps it’s time for the London OverUnderground to come into its own.
Finally, here’s an extract from a piece written early this year by Christian Wolmar, the distinguished transport commentator, author of The Subterranean Railway and Labour mayoral hopeful. Though marking the 150th anniversary of the Tube, Christian also had an eye on the future.
The Underground…has been a civilising influence [on London] even though people understandably have no affection for it when they are they are squeezed, nose to armpit, into the cramped trains. However, that is the result of the system’s very success but also, sadly, the failure to understand its value by successive generations of politicians who withheld money to invest in the system.
Remarkably, in London, by 1907, all but two of the current Tube lines had opened all built by private companies. Then, however, as funding became the responsibility of government because of the rising costs, the opportunity to build on that situation was missed. Consequently, in the following 62 years, there were only extensions into the suburbs rather than any additions to the network in central London. Indeed, even the two more recent additions, the Victoria (opened in 1969) and the Jubilee (1979 and 2000) had no new stations within the central London bounded by the Circle Line.
That means there are still significant areas of central London that have no Tube such as Chelsea and Fleet Street, and in effect London is short of a couple of lines. And again, the sceptics are being allowed to dominate the debate. Sure, Crossrail, the new tunnel under London linking Liverpool Street and Paddington stations, will be completed by the end of the decade and it will be built to a very high standard with fantastic stations, but it took 50 years from drawing board to construction.
Worse, there is nothing definite on the stocks. There is vague talk of a Crossrail 2, the old Chelsea to Hackney plan, but the Mayor, Boris Johnson, has been slow to work up plans for any major new lines, concentrating, instead, on the rather minor extension from Kennington to Battersea which, it is hoped, will be largely developer-funded. Places like Streatham, Camberwell and Harlesden, ripe for tube extensions or new lines, will remain off the wonderful Harry Beck map seemingly forever.
London, therefore, is still suffering from the failure of imagination that has dogged the history of this great invention in its homeland. The politicians are always looking at “business cases” or suggesting new lines “need to pay their way” when, in fact, it is so obvious that a healthy and growing Underground is the very basis for a health and growing London economy. Even 150 after years of success and worldwide imitation, that lesson has still to be learned.
Christian’s full article can be read here. Your wise comments on any of the contributions above are, as ever, welcome.