King’s Cross Light-wall Subway
Having an hour to spare in the run up to Christmas I found myself wondering how the Northern Line was getting on with its automatic train operating system and its (even more recent) timetable enhancements. You may recall my blogs in 2013 (2 July and 11 July) where, following a couple of visits to the northern heights, it appeared that the automatic driving system didn’t seem very passenger-friendly. Another visit seemed called for.
I thought I’d get on at King’s Cross in order to ‘enjoy’ the experience of getting to the Northern Line with the main route from the ‘tube’ ticket hall unavailable (the lower escalator flight is being refurbished, again). To reach the north ticket hall I had the opportunity to pass through St Pancras International, which I enjoy doing if only to pause and listen to the musicians who play the pianos provided along the concourse for the uninhibited to just turn up and show off their talents to anyone who has the time to stop and listen. London & Continental (the station operator) has provided three well-used upright pianos and generally there is someone playing at least one of them, and they are usually superb (often, I suspect students).
This route allowed me to see if any improvements had been made to the bus information (there hadn’t been – blog 2 July 2012) and then an excuse to go and look at the new light-wall subway, which leads off the passage between the Underground’s north ticket hall and St Pancras. It wasn’t very busy (given the time of day) but I thought it was breath-taking. Generally subways are at best tedious and uninteresting (and at worst oppressive and unpleasant enough to avoid at any cost). At long last someone has produced a subway that I liked and felt I wanted to spend time in it! This is not done by means of architectural flourishes or features, the atmosphere is created entirely by light. In fact lots of light, but all very subdued. The light is partly created by small overhead spot lights (to provide adequate illumination of the floor) but rather more comes from a giant light-wall that runs the whole length of the subway, which is cunningly curved so you can’t quite see one end from the other, adding to the visual interest. I do hope this kind of imaginative approach is used elsewhere, but I note it was built as part of a private development and is not a TfL feature (though passengers will probably assume it is). Do go and have a look.
I eventually reached the Northern Line platforms at Kings Cross. Compared with the light-wall, in a quiet airy subway, I’m afraid the Northern Line platforms couldn’t have been more different. Works are clearly still in hand, but as a public space it is dreadful. Grubby, poor decoration, indifferently lighted, nothing like big enough, very noisy, extremely crowded and far too hot. The northbound indicator was poorly located, perhaps in an attempt to get people moving along the platform (on two previous visits it wasn’t working either). However, at 17:30, imagine my surprise as the trains rolled through and the second (to Mill Hill East) was not particularly crowded and I got a seat. Not bad at 17:30!
Over-aggressive train control fixed (in part).
I proceeded to High Barnet (changing at Finchley Central) and as far as I can see the dreadful see-sawing that I described in earlier blogs has now been pretty much fixed. Neither on the long straight runs along that section of line, nor up or down the Highgate gradients, was the effect I described at all obvious and one might have imagined the trains were being driven manually (except they were definitely in automatic). So – good! Train performance on modern trains reflects the software operating on various computer systems and is subject to periodic upgrading, especially when trains (or the signalling or automatic driving systems) are new. In days gone by, such fine tuning would have been far more troublesome and only carried out to cure serious local problems and would have involved relocating trackside equipment – it took a year or so before the automatic driving system on the Victoria Line fully behaved itself as every change involved altering hard-wiring in some way.
Staff on the Northern Line acknowledge improvements since automatic operation was introduced but draw attention to some odd and annoying behaviours that seem to defy obvious explanations (including a few new ones). These include unaccountably slow speeds entering certain stations and seemingly random braking for no reason or heavily over-braking when approaching a speed limited area, then having to increase speed. They hope that constant reporting of these issues will result in some improvements next time the Vehicle Control Centres are upgraded. There have already been some notable improvements in top speeds attained at the north end of the line, but rather less in the tunnel areas.
Northern Line Timetable Improvements
Returning to the new timetable theme, you may know that from 12 December the Northern Line began operating a new 96-train service to begin taking advantage of the capacity unleashed by the new signalling (the last timetable to offer this level of service was in the 1970s, prior to awful staff position followed by the ‘Fare’s Fair’ debacle which caused service cuts from which the Northern Line failed to recover). Today the mid-peak service is advertised as 24 trains an hour (2½ minutes) on the northern branches and also on each central London route, and this is slightly better than (say) a typical early 1970s timetable which only offered about 22 trains an hour. South of Kennington, the new timetable is designed to produce an even 2-minute service. The 1970s equivalent timetable had a near-equivalent service. So, after 40 years or more, we’ve got back a reasonable train service on the Northern, whose traffic has gone up considerably in the meantime.
The off peak service is also improved these days, though this is nothing to do with the signalling. The 1972 timetable shows the mid-day off peak required 54 trains in service. Today it is 80! This gives some idea by how much travel patterns have changed.
I have sought to identify how the service today is materially better than in the 1970s and have concluded that it is a combination of slightly faster running times because of better train performance (despite heavier loadings) and faster turnaround times at termini, especially at Morden where operators now ‘step back’, with a different operator taking out an incoming train. This perhaps improves overall Northern Line service by a notional three or four trains. In turn this means that on a like for like basis the 95-train service of the 1970s is bearing comparison with a service today that provides the equivalent of a 100-train service (but actually using only 96 trains, if you see what I mean). But all this just relates to the schedule. As a regular user of the Northern Line in the 1970s I suspect my travelling habits were more regular than the train service actually operated in those days, which wasn’t very good and cancellations and bunching were endemic. Today the new signalling system comes equipped with a train management system that actively manages the train service, if necessary at every station and junction. I have good reason to think that the train service actually provided today is perceived as hugely better than forty years ago irrespective of what any timetable might say.
Though the Northern Line service is better than for many years, there is much more to do though. Most passengers hate changing trains if it can be avoided, so for many journeys where a specific central London route or a specific northern branch is required then the effective train service (without changing) is still only going to be a train every five minutes (average wait 2½mins). Compare that with the Victoria Line with 33 trains an hour mostly all along a single route, or the Central’s intensified service with the branch junctions much further out, and we see the Northern in a slightly less happy light: their average wait is 55 seconds! The Northern Line extension to Battersea, and all the new trains about to be ordered to supplement the existing ones, will obviously allow intensification all round. Nevertheless, if too many people who use the Charing Cross branch and who live along the Clapham Road then have to change at Kennington that will greatly mitigate the benefits to the line as seen by them.
The long term plan (though a bit vague) is to run trains at up to 36 per hour along much of the line and with the service management system capable of managing the timely arrival of trains at junctions we can perhaps hope that passengers aspirations will be well met. I do fear for the long term operation of the Charing Cross – Morden service though, since the Bank branch shows every sign of using up the whole of the train service capacity coming up from Morden.
In truth the Northern Line isn’t really a model of how best to arrange an effective Metro service and reflects the ideals of a century ago, for that is when the ideas for joining the two separate railways up were hatched. Still, at least it doesn’t have the flat junctions the Circle Line has, which would make it all so much more fun.
By the way, whilst I was still at Kings Cross I mused that before the Northern Line took over the High Barnet branch I could perhaps have walked a few yards to Kings Cross (suburban) and got a direct train to Barnet and a first class seat. The rose-tinted spectacles were at their most malign. On later checking my 1934 Bradshaw, I found direct trains from Kings Cross (suburban) to High Barnet could not be obtained between 5 pm and 6 pm, for they didn’t call there. One had to catch a train (ex Moorgate) from King’s Cross (Metropolitan) and even so there were only two of those, at 5.14 and 5.37. Journey time was 37 minutes compared with 30 today. Things have actually got better!