The ‘A’ Stock Laid to Rest

The Metropolitan Line A stock has been so much a part of my life that its demise could not go unmarked. Preferring to avoid ‘special’ trains I decided to pay my respects on its last ‘official’ day in passenger service, Wednesday 26 September 2012. I thought the day’s service operation was very well thought out and reflected well on the organizers and operators involved. Much has already been said about that day so I will add only a little before moving on to my wider reflections. I should first observe that the train was one of the better-riding ones, which was good news for those parked on it for a couple of hours or so.


I was surprised at the number of people who came out to witness the event. My guess (as wild as they come) is that perhaps 300-400 chose to ride on the train at some point during the day, not, fortunately, all at once; they came, they enjoyed a trip or so, then they went and in due course others came aboard. Even I cannot believe anyone stayed on the train all day (but one never knows). Perhaps 100-150 were on board when the train came out of service at Harrow. More surprising was the number of carefully positioned photographers up and down the line, occupying the better vantage points during the day. It was also interesting to watch the ‘ordinary’ passenger react to the various announcements that this was the last day of service for these trains, and watch them whip out a camera and record the event (including quite a few women). It seemed to me that there was an underlying affection for these trains that touched many regular travellers who use the line.

My own affection for these trains is closely connected with the observations just made, which would have been a great deal more difficult had I not been able to see out. From that point of view they were wonderful, every seat fore or aft, on any one train providing no less than 184 window seats! I am one of those people who gets huge enjoyment from looking out of the window on a train journey and letting my mind wander as the scenery drifts by, and generally keeping an eye on things. I have not yet quite made friends with the S stock, but on those trains there are only 56 window seats and as it appears I am not alone in liking them, I observe they tend to fill up first; when I get on there are usually very few opportunities to sit by a window. I really, really miss the experience and now find myself more inclined to use the parallel Chiltern line, where convenient.

Window seats apart, why would anyone have affection for a mere piece of machinery?  I wondered long and hard about this during the afternoon as I realized I would probably never travel on one again. On the whole I came up with two thoughts. First, the trains are astonishingly successful. It is true other odd cars have lasted 50 years or so, but never (I think) pretty much the whole fleet. OK their appearance has suffered of late as maintenance has sensibly been run down, but actually they still don’t look bad and their prodigious carrying capacity of 448 seated is very welcome on the comparatively long (and commensurately expensive) journeys; there are also 16 tip-up seats but they were really not very useful at the height of the peaks. So, they appeared to be eminently fit-for-service, well made and well lasting and perhaps we feel they are going, through no fault of their own, just a tad too soon, and that is (to humanize things) a pity. I did not feel the same ‘affection’ for the 1983 stock when it disappeared, years before it was worn out. It was a rotten, creaking, uninteresting train and when it went after little more than a decade in use I didn’t miss it and didn’t even trouble to seek out the last one. Good riddance! So somewhere along the line the fitness for service of each type of Underground train does seem to make an impact upon us, however subconsciously. I suppose I also have a dislike for throwing away things that hundreds of people originally planned and put together. Perhaps I even feel guilty that we seem to be ungrateful for their efforts, especially when what is produced is a success and still going.

Probably more relevant to how we feel is nothing to do with the nuts and bolts. We become emotional because we have become used to these trains and have come to understand and live with their funny little ways. We lament not so much their passing as the challenge to our own way of life, as we are obliged to get used to something new and our experience of A stock is now consigned merely to our memories. I spent a year commuting in the early 1970s when the trains were fairly new and hung about to watch the coupling up and uncoupling at Uxbridge and contrived to enjoy the long non-stop runs then possible (at somewhat higher speeds than of late). I later spent 5 years working with them on the Metropolitan and then 25 years using them as a regular customer. I don’t think you can get so involved with those trains without them leaving a heavy trace upon one’s soul! That I won’t travel on one again will have its effect, and that makes me sad.

The A stock was a long time coming. There were thoughts before the Second World War about what, in due course, should replace the former Metropolitan Line fleet but it was not until just after the war that the emerging issues began to be addressed, the main problem being how to replace the existing largely-compartment stock with electric multiple units without upsetting all the passengers. We must remember that a 6-carriage compartment stock train could carry over 500 people in reasonable comfort (including some First Class). There were three prototypes successively put into service and a great deal of market research and other mock ups. It was fully understood that there needed to be enough doors, and large circulating area inside the doors, to provide minimal dwell times at stations and on the whole it all worked reasonably well. The decision for all-transverse seating was the only way to maximize seating capacity; it was a close run thing to go for 3+2 seating. The options were for a 2 + 2 layout with fairly generous widths and a slightly wider gangway, or a narrower seat and gangway with an additional 80 seats. Noting that the ‘third’ seat in a 3-seat unit would probably only be used at the height of the peaks, this was the design adopted. On the whole, I think this was the right decision. The 3+2 layout was only possible by building to the greatest possible width of 9ft 8ins, partly achieved by recessing external handrails and door furniture.

The trains were designed as two fully reversible 4-car units that could operate independently at quiet times of the day. I recall vividly the coupling and uncoupling at Watford, a most unpredictable activity. On the whole, coupling up worked out OK, even if not at the first attempt. Generally one 4-car set was ‘called on’ to the previous train, and the resulting gap was covered by an 8-car brought in empty from Rickmansworth. The second train was supposed to come into the occupied platform and stop short, detrain and then couple up. I recall one occasion when the service was unduly late when the train just came straight in and coupled up before the doors even opened, it never even paused for breath. The passengers were a bit surprised. Because an odd number of trains was needed off peak there was always an extra 4-car set stabled at Watford during the day and this had to be got into the platform before the passenger stock arrived (this was in middle of coupling period for some reason and disturbed the pattern). I did once notice a rogue 8-car running about in the afternoon which I mentioned to the controller as it was due to couple up to something in the platform on its next trip. Judging by the response it had been forgotten; I often wondered if the driver would have accepted the calling on signal and given us a 12-car problem to deal with.

Uncoupling rarely went well. Usually at least one of the four 8-car sets wouldn’t come apart despite all the proper procedures being followed, and sometimes two or even more. It was chaotic, with train crews all over the place. The controller was invariably uninterested and after one occasion when I sought advice (to be told ‘you are the one on site – just tell me what you’ve done when you’ve sorted it’) I adopted my own procedure in conjunction with the signalman. Basically, it was vital that the signalman did not ‘pull off’ for the empty stock for Rickmansworth  in the adjacent platform until we’d established if the uncoupling train was going to come apart. If it wasn’t going to, then it had to go out as an 8-car set and we commandeered the empty to form what would have been the second train from the uncoupled set. The hardest part was to get the right crew on board the empty and reform it accordingly, together with odd confused passengers that might have turned up. This seriously annoyed the crew who had been going to take the empty away as they were invariably due to finish at Rickmansworth and would now have to make their own way, via Moor Park. Great fun. Usually the car examiner would attend on the next circuit to get it apart and we then had spare units to dispose of. The problem was that the coupling engines had to turn at the same speed for all the electric and pneumatic connections to operate in the correct order, and basically this was asking a lot. I understand errant trains were sometimes mysteriously uncoupled up the line where a crew and car examiner could be assembled, or else changed over for a short train somewhere. Sometimes it was later attempted at Watford. We had to fill out coupling returns where all this was recorded; I’m sure nobody ever looked at them.

I recall late one evening at Watford when a driver came up to say a train on 24 road was electrically uncoupled, and thought he ought to mention it. I had a look and head and tail lights were on in the middle, which was impossible on a correctly coupled train. It had obviously stabled OK but suspicion fell upon a new train cleaner I had spotted. Cleaners had all the keys to fire a train up because they needed air and lights on the train to clean it. I don’t know how he managed it, but I suspect he operated the uncouple button instead of the cab light in one of the middle cabs, though the buttons are nowhere near each other – the units didn’t separate because the handbrakes were on. I didn’t call out the car examiner (with whom I played chess on long Sundays) as we had an ‘arrangement’. I sorted it out and it went out OK following morning.

After the trains were modified for one person operation the units were no longer reversible and with the creation of A-end, D-end and double ended units the coupling arrangements became very inflexible. I think it emerged that there were 16 possible coupling arrangements when every combination was totted up, and two of them were forbidden without special precautions being taken. By then I was on the Northern Line, but our divisional governor lived on the Met and was an ex rolling stock engineer. To his great misfortune his train failed on the way in one morning and as the senior manager on site he found himself unavoidably involved in sorting out what was becoming a serious incident. He called on the following train to assist, but being unfamiliar with the modifications didn’t realize he was about to make one of the forbidden couplings (one can imagine an ‘is that wise’ thought bubble from the crews). Anyway, he succeeded in immobilizing the second train as well and it was now impossible to uncouple them either. Something that might have been fixed in ten minutes or so turned into a two hour incident. To add salt to the wound, the delay allocated to the mishandling was allocated to the Northern Line! I happened to be in the Traffic Managers office when he came to confess, in high dudgeon, and couldn’t understand why we burst out laughing.

OK there was a down side. The riding quality was to say the least variable, and some trains could resort to great violence, with passengers thrown out of seats (especially at car ends). They were rarely over-warm, partly because they sat around for ages at terminal stations with the doors open and were like ice boxes. This was not helped by the inclination to remove heater fuses in ‘summer’ and being slow or indifferent about putting them back. The brakes were quite ‘interesting’, very noticeable when you wanted them at speed. The Westinghouse brake was mildly treacherous, though a few drivers, making some point or other, would get it into their head to use it at every station. You always knew: apart from the distinctive noise when the air was reduced the braking sensation was very different from the usual ep brake. The trains accelerated slowly. Unlike any other stock, when the flag switch was raised it cut the rate of acceleration to ‘low’, to reduce starting current required on the long and remote sections (the flag switch was raised north of Finchley Road and gave a higher top speed, not necessary in the tunnel sections). A late running crew was not averse to dropping the flag until the train had got up to about 20 mph then raising it, though one needed very long arms, or an assistant, as the switch was on the other side of the cab. When I rode in the cabs it was often a job I fulfilled. Staff latterly became a bit forgetful about use of the switch. I did some timings for my own amusement and concluded that an 8-car with flag down could clear an 8-car platform in about 12 seconds, but with flag wrongly in up position it could take 18-20 seconds. This cannot have helped manage headways. It mattered less in the open air if the flag was down as speed limits had been so heavily reduced that the top speeds achievable by field weakening were rarely possible.

I also found that the trains had a frivolous spirit and they loved sliding. It didn’t take much to set them off. A little drizzle on a greasy rail would happily destroy adhesion, and the less said of leaves the better (some memorable slides there, occasionally for half a mile or more). The result was a train that was prone to flat wheels, the kind that make an annoying bang each time they rotate. I think the A stock were much more prone than I recall any other stock being. The drivers would report it if the flats were on their cars, but if in the middle of trains I sometimes wondered if there were bets about how long it was possible for a train to stay in service. Wheels get flats when they lose adhesion and lock, a groove soon being created. Good drivers will hear wheels locking as it makes a very characteristic swooshing noise (locking is more likely on the leading car), but trains do not necessarily lose braking as the remaining cars can compensate, within limits. I’ve been on A stock trains when it is obvious all four wheels of leading car have locked (it creates an eerie silence, mildly terrifying if braking reduces as well). Trains often stopped on the mark, but the racket afterwards was incredible. All trains slide about occasionally, but the A stock seemed more prone, although it might partly have resulted from less frequent service pattern.

A little known A Stock fact is that when the fleet was ordered a number of spare driving cabs came with it (I recall someone telling me there were 12). I have never heard of this being done with any other stock, and would be interested to know if it had been. I think the supply of spare cabs had been used up by the late 1980s. I would not suggest that the A stock was particularly accident prone, but it was a reasonably large fleet and has been around for a long time. Many of the mishaps were in Neasden depot but there were several serious accidents out on the main line. Perhaps the most serious was at Kilburn on 11 December 1984 when one train ran into the back of another at speed on a foggy morning. It was the driver’s first day in the grade and he was unfortunately killed in the incident. It seems he overran a signal at speed, resulting in the train being brought to a halt by the safety system. For some unaccountable reason he then just started up and accelerated away to line speed instead of following the rules that required him to go no faster than a walking pace until he had passed two clear signals (which would have proved the track was clear). I went to the Inquiry where suspicions about his driving competence were raised with the Area Manager who had tested him the previous day and signed the certificate. When I became an area manager, and had to test drivers, I recalled that experience and made sure I was satisfied beyond doubt that the driver understood what was required. I didn’t want to be in the position my colleague had found himself.

The other very unusual accident was at Harrow in 1981. Owing to a signalling fault that  had not been thought possible, part of the electromechanical locking failed as a northbound train was passing across Harrow North Junction. Here there is a double junction where Metropolitan trains to and from Harrow can switch to and from the so-called ‘main’ lines that provide a non stop run to Moor Park and beyond. The junction includes two diamond crossings where one track passes across another. Unusually, these crossings incorporate ‘moveable angles’; these are designed to provide a smooth ride by avoiding the large gaps in the rail where routes cross, and in form are rather like two sets of points butted up against each other. The angles move in concert with the crossover points so that the operation of a single lever in the signal box operates two sets of points and the moveable angles simultaneously. On this occasion, as the northbound train approached the junction expecting to go straight on, the southbound crossover reversed right in front of it, including the moveable angles. The train hit the diamond crossing at speed and the leading bogie jumped the track but carried on more or less along its correct path the trailing bogie, and all behind, received friendlier treatment and behaved as though they had discovered a new set of points, the whole lot taking the route onto the adjacent track. The front of the leading car thus proceeded along the northbound local, whilst its rear end and the rest of the train found itself on the southbound main. The driver was thrown out of his seat and on getting up saw the train was proceeding sideways, as it were, and about to collide with a large signal post located between the two tracks – he returned to the floor until the train had stopped. Moveable angles are not designed to divert trains from a through route and certainly not expected to accommodate a train along an incorrect route, so it is remarkable that more carriages did not derail and that there were no serious injuries, though the train was a bit battered. The problem was simply that a locknut had fallen off one of the electric locks that is supposed to hold a route until a train is clear if an alternate route is selected by the signalman, which is possible at Harrow. The signalman had quite correctly preselected a conflicting route from southbound main to southbound local but the failure meant it was executed immediately rather than after the first train was out of the way. I have not heard of a train being switched onto more than one track on a running line, or being caused to switch tracks at moveable angles, so it was quite an achievement for an A stock to manage it. The signalman involved happened to live at Watford and when he came through very late in the evening was still shocked by the harrowing experience which he could see from his signalbox window; I could only offer him a cup of tea, though I think he could have done with something stronger.

Speed limits crept in owing to deteriorating track condition, and 50 mph was latterly regarded as the maximum. A typical Liverpool Street to Amersham Journey in 1965 was timed at 58 minutes, but was 6 minutes longer in 2012. Aldgate to Uxbridge was 53 minutes (fast) but in 2012 was 1hr 3mins (no fast trains). Watford was 55 minutes (semi fast) but the equivalent run in 2012 was an hour. The worst riding area was Neasden. The points to the depot at the north end of Neasden (NB fast) were usually quite exciting as the trains could easily be going at 60 mph and the PWay staff seem to have had endless trouble keeping the through road straight, resulting in a violent lurch. This was eventually solved by removing the points, a pragmatic if inelegant solution. Such pragmatism was impossible on the southbound line through the ‘thickwork’ and to be on board a late running train with a determined driver was likely to be memorable, especially if the train was already excitable. Such dedication to timekeeping was eventually rewarded with the imposition of a 40 mph speed limit. This created a different kind of damage because the road south of Neasden is uphill for a while so trains struggled to recover their lost momentum. I reckon it added a minute to the journeys and reckon passengers would have preferred the rough ride. The actual answer was of course to fix the track, still, apparently, not achieved. The more accommodating ride of the S stock should, one might think, result in this damaging speed limit coming out at the earliest opportunity. We shall see.

The 1990s refurbishment rejuvenated the trains. It was mostly all to the good, and passengers thought the trains were new (which was the point). There were two things that didn’t work at all well. The vertical grab rails and associated horizontal handrails ran adjacent to all the 2-seat bays. If you were in a 3-seat bay trying to extract yourself from a window seat to get out, and the other seats were occupied, there was absolutely nothing to hang onto. It a was perilous thing to try if the train hadn’t stopped, and hard even if it had. It was not something that could be achieved with panache and sometimes one had to resort to leaning across another passenger to steady ones self against a seat back. If the handrails had been attached to the triple seats then these antics would have been avoided. I bet the mock up arrangement had not been tested on a busy service train or such an arrangement would surely have been different. The other gripe was the new window toplight arrangement. The refurbished trains lacked any end protection to the opening glass that tilted into the carriage. The slightest rain would be drawn by the slipstream towards the top of the glass and drawn to its unprotected edge where it sprayed merrily onto the passengers. It was no good shutting ones own window, the water came from windows ahead. (The original A stock had end guides which reduced water ingress, though in heavy rain it wasn’t perfect either.) This was just poor design; again, it was probably not tested in anger with real weather. These are small things really, but I do dislike omissions that are entirely foreseeable.

These and dozens of other stories and tales of a train that has existed throughout most of my life means it is indelibly engraved on my memory, as you can tell. Personally I will miss them more than I cursed them, and I don’t think we will see their like again. They are the only complete fleet London Transport ever purchased from Craven brothers whose fortunes diminished rapidly in the 1960s (some say partly due to superb workmanship of the A stock, which incorporated several novel features). The company records are with the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry, and I wonder if anyone has garnered their end of the A stock story? Anyway, I shall retain my memories of the final trip, and my impressions of the previous forty years. I don’t think I’ll be quite so effusive about C stock or D stock which just quietly goes on delivering every day. Mind you, I suppose that is actually what we want from a train.

I will miss the A stock’s window seats, and really begrudge the new trains having quite so many fewer seats anyway. This may be all that is possible under present legislation, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it. Three cheers for the A stock. It served us well.

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About machorne

I have always lived in London and taken a great interest in its history and ongoing development. This extended into the history of its transport services, about which I have written a number of books - I have spent most of my working life working in the industry and observing changes from within, mostly to the good, but not always so. I continue to write, and have a website with half finished stuff in it so that it is at least available, if not complete. Several new books are in hand. I have many 'works in progress' and some of these can be found on my website; the we address is http://www.metadyne.co.uk
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