Victoria Line Train Indicators and Train Despatch

The new automatic train control system on the Victoria line was introduced during 2011 and allowed service levels to be increased, a 33 trains per hour service being introduced during January.

A consequence of the new system is the loss of the old station starting signals that were built into the station headwalls. With an eye to economy, the signals were visible both to the train operators and platform staff. It may be thought odd that train operators needed to be able to see the signals when the information was available in the cab, but actually it was extremely useful. The line was so busy that operators had to lean through the cab windows to choose the optimal moment to close the doors, and in such a position they could not see the train controls so sight of the headwall signal was crucial. Self-evidently, platform staff needed to know whether a train could proceed or not in order to do their job too.

The removal of the headwall signals was not relevant to drivers of the new 09 stock trains because they have in-cab CCTV which gives them all the information they need about platform conditions, without leaving their seat. But what about the station staff?

The new signalling incorporates a train control system that can hold trains in any of the platforms in order to manage headways. Because this headway management system can be applied at every station, the delays are rarely noticeable on this busy line, but conditions do arise where trains are held just a little longer than is necessary for boarding and alighting. It is therefore vital that train despatch staff on the platform have information about when a train is authorized to proceed. On the Jubilee Line this is achieved by means of a discreetly-located white lamp, usually about half way along the platform. On the Central Line, ordinary 3-aspect signals are mounted on the headwalls.

For reasons that have so far eluded me, the Victoria Line project opted for arranging the train indicator to display the message ‘Ready’, at the right hand end of the display, when authority to proceed had been given. Normally this part of the field would be blank when a train was berthed in the platform (it is where the count-down times appear for approaching trains).

To say this was a rather subtle approach to providing important information is understating the case. It relied on despatch staff being located where they could see and read the indicator (which ruled out standing underneath it), and didn’t seem to allow for the fact that many of the indicators were life-expired and hard to read anyway. As soon as an LU senior manager explained how the system worked, I naturally rushed out to see for myself. OK, it did exactly as had been described, but seemed far less convenient than the Jubilee Line method of signifying train despatch. It seems the staff agree, but evidently some new factor has aggravated the situation.

Within the last month or so, the old headwall signals have been partially reactivated so that the lunar white aspect (the bottom one) is illuminated when a train is authorized to proceed. This is a clear indication which is visible along the whole length of the platform, and is also useful for the odd passenger who is ‘in the know’. I thought I’d have a look and found some odd things, one of them being that new train indicators are being installed. These are ‘boxier’ affairs compared with the older ones but at least are properly illuminated. It is disappointing to see they are still of the dreadful dot-matrix type of display, where recognizable typefaces are impossible to achieve, which makes them a lot harder to read from any distance compared with modern comparable displays: surely this antiquated 1980s technology will be overtaken by something better before long?

What struck me is that at some stations (such as King’s Cross) the old ‘Ready’ indications are still offered. It was fun doing some timings. Time between train despatch white light showing and ‘Ready’ appearing on the original indicators (which were still in situ) was between 8 and 18 seconds. Equivalent timings on the new indicators could be anything up to 40 seconds, in most cases long after the train had pulled out! It was also obvious that the ‘clear down’ time of the new indicators (time for departing train destination to be replaced by the next train) could be anything up to a minute; the old indicators were better, but still not instant. This is no better than those awful and much derided indicators on the Northern Line of the early 1980s, and that was basically a prototype system!

On a 33 tph railway it is no good at all having train indicators with a clear down time of a minute! It is almost impossible to conceive that modern technology can be as slow as this. Something is not quite right. In the railway industry we call it ‘teething trouble’, a name for any phenomenon that would be called ‘unacceptable’ anywhere else! It is hardly new technology. My suspicion is that the old worn out indicators at least functioned well enough for the ‘Ready’ indication to be serviceable for train despatch (even if inconvenient), but that the project to introduce the new indicators has created a problem. Whatever is being done to commission the new indicators seems to have introduced some unforeseen gremlin into the train description system making it unusable for train despatch and required the quick work around just described. This brings the Victoria into line with the Jubilee, and one looks for consistency of approach in any future installations. It is not helpful for staff training to have to accommodate each line doing its own thing for no particularly good reason.

I did notice at King’s Cross the doors on one train close a second or so even before the white light appeared, and that suggested there was a delay in getting the indications to the platforms even when available instantly on the train. This doesn’t make the job of platform staff any easier. By the way, the introduction of S7 stock on the Circle Line has caused many signals to be relocated in the tunnel. I noticed at Paddington that there was now no signal visible from the outer rail platform, and no repeater had been provided. OK this is only temporary, but I do make a plea not to forget the station staff during these big projects.

I also noticed a different design of train indicator at Highbury (southbound). This looked rather like the old Piccadilly Line indicators in size, a box perhaps 2ft high and 3ft wide and able to show four lines of information, each line being a great deal smaller than the standard dot matrix displays. I found the destinations impossible to read more than three cars away (as all trains go to Brixton this was hardly a problem). To me the indications were too bright for the size. The LEDs create a kind of glare when over-bright, which makes the letter shape harder to make out. I’d love to know what kind of legibility tests are done, if any. I hope this is only a test, and would be happy to make some objective observations to anyone who cares to ask.


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
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2 Responses to Victoria Line Train Indicators and Train Despatch

  1. G. Tingey says:

    Another thing that makes p/f staff's life difficult is LUL's bullying insistence on “announcements” – the staff are disciplined if they don't shout, hector & verbally assault the passengers with 150% unnecessary “announcements” as often as possible …


  2. plcd1 says:

    The new design of LEDs on the Vic Line are pretty awful. As you suggest they are unreadable over any longish distance. Many Vic Line platforms only have one indicator and not always positioned near the entrance to the platform so legibility over distance is important.

    I suspect your Kings Cross issue is related to the fact that there has been a switch of both line technology and station technology. In the old world the train running info was collated from the line signalling technology and displayed on line assets (the indicators). As stations have been modernised (as KX has) then there has been a switch whereby the train running info is passed to a station level computer which then feeds the platform displays. The Dot Matrix indicators are now typically a station rather than a line asset. This is why at Green Park and Finsbury Park there are Tube Lines procured DMIs on the Victoria Line platforms rather than LU / Metronet design ones. Something tells me that the lag you observed in platform displays changing is due to “slow comms” within the station comms network. Patching the old “white lights” keeps asset to asset communication within the signalling system rather than whizzing around a station system. Please note I am speculating here based on what I understood was happening as a result of the new systems delivered as part of station modernisation projects. I never was an engineer!

    Paul Corfield (a name you might recall from long ago).


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