UK: The ambitious project to renew one of London’s busiest Underground lines is nearing the halfway stage. Despite the high-profile collapse of PPP infraco Metronet in 2007, new trains and radio-based signalling are expected to bring a major capacity increase by 2013. Nick Kingsley investigates.

New Victoria Line train (Photo: TfL).

The Victoria Line upgrade is ‘broadly halfway’ to completion, according to London Underground’s General Manager for the line, John Doyle. Under the terms of the original output-based PPP contract, Metronet Rail was required to enhance the service by 2013 through the introduction of new rolling stock and signalling, and the upgrading of track and stations.

Speaking on November 13, Doyle confirmed that the collapse of Metronet (RG 7.07 p461) had allowed some degree of simplification of contractual relationships, and that the precise timescales agreed under the PPP may no longer be relevant. However, he suggested that whilst the overall completion date for the £1bn project remained 2013, all substantial work affecting passengers should be complete before the start of the 2012 London Olympics.

Although Transport for London has effectively taken over Metronet, the key supply agreements covering rolling stock and signalling renewal on the Victoria Line continue as planned. Bombardier has supplied two pre-series trains for testing during evening and weekend possessions. The programme of early evening closures during the week came to an end on November 20, and there are no plans to repeat the practice in 2009, although there are likely to be more weekend possessions.

Deliveries of the production build of new Victoria Line stock will increase after the arrival of the third train in the summer of 2009. Once series production has been ramped up, Bombardier is expected to deliver a train every two weeks for two years, replacing the 1967 stock on a one-for-one basis until all 43 of the original trainsets have been retired. Bombardier is supplying a total of 47 sets, of which 43 will be required for peak passenger service.

The new fleet benefits from a slightly larger loading gauge than the 1967 stock to exploit the specific clearances of the Victoria Line, as it will not operate on any other LU route. Doyle acknowledged that the train is designed to ‘be reliable rather than innovative’, but it does feature four wheelchair spaces per unit, making it the first small-profile metro design to comply with the lastest European accessibility standards. TfL aspires to make all the stations on the Victoria Line ‘step-free’, with the exception of Pimlico, although as yet there is no firm timescale for this.

In addition, Doyle suggested that conventional passenger information screens could be replaced with TFT panels, borrowing from technology used in Tokyo, as part of a series of modifications that will be made before series delivery begins. Bombardier will provide ‘maintenance support’ to LU staff at Northumberland Park, but it is understood that the maintenance element of the rolling stock supply contract no longer applies.

Overlaid signalling

Westinghouse Rail Systems is installing Westrace electronic interlockings with Distance-To-Go Radio to replace the legacy ATO and ATP systems on the Victoria Line, which operate via rail-borne coded signals.

Currently, tests are assessing the performance of the overlaid signalling that will use Westrace interlockings equipped with Programme Logic Controllers to translate the legacy ATP and ATO codes so that onboard equipment on the new trains can process them. Doyle explained that the engineering teams are ‘working hard’ to allow running under possession at night with full DTG-R ‘by spring 2009’. However, the full potential of DTG-R can only be exploited in service once the old fleet has been entirely withdrawn in 2011. Testing of the new trains in traffic hours is likely to commence in the summer, but they will not carry passengers in revenue service until late 2009.

Benefit of hindsight

‘I’m an operator not an engineer or a politician,’ Doyle affirmed when asked what might be changed if the Victoria Line upgrade were to start from scratch tomorrow.

‘Leaving aside any political views I or anyone else may have, the shape of what is happening is very much a product of the PPP’, Doyle acknowledged. He stressed that the major advantage of the PPP is that ‘it has brought money. This is the biggest spend we have ever had, and whether this would have happened without the PPP is a very hypothetical question’.

Under the output-based PPP structure, the upgrade has been driven much more by reliability than technological innovation, he explained, although the resignalling of the line involves a complex process of overlaying two different signalling systems. The Westinghouse system is a development of a proven product using radio transmission when other methods have generally been used elsewhere.

Even with the benefit of hindsight, Doyle felt that that a blockade of the line for 12 months or more would not have been feasible given its surging ridership - traffic levels have increased by ‘about 32%’ in the past 10 years.

‘In purely mechanistic terms’ the integration of Metronet into TfL ‘is undoubtedly making the project easier’, he said, by eliminating some of the contractual layers that kept LU ‘several stages removed’ from its suppliers. But Doyle’s personal view was that there may prove to be disadvantages to LU’s absorption of Metronet because the defined contracts between the two parties provided a precise framework for both sides to work to, and some of this clarity risked being lost by the merger. ‘We’ve also absorbed any cost issues that Metronet would have had to deal with’, he added.

But he refused to be drawn on future funding issues in the wake of the publication of TfL’s business plan for the period up to 2017-18 (RG 12.08 p930). ‘I am fortunate as the recipient of the improved railway, in that the upgrade had gone so far under the PPP that it would be impossible to stop it now’, he said.

On board Test Train 2

‘It’s a superb train to drive – a complete contrast to the old fleet’, our driver commented as your correspondent entered the cab of Test Train B at Seven Sisters station on November 13. LU, Westinghouse and Bombardier are co-operating to undertake a comprehensive testing programme using the two pre-series units during night engineering possessions. Currently, trains are running three times a week, generally on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, and the distance covered by the test runs is steadily growing. During our visit, the train operated a return trip from Northumberland Park depot to Warren Street.

Although our train ran from Seven Sisters to Finsbury Park under manual operation, this will remain a rare occurrence for the Victoria Line driver team. The route was a pioneer of attended ATO when it opened in 1968, and there is no requirement for drivers to engage manual controls during the course of normal service. Indeed, Victoria Line General Manager John Doyle suggested that as part of the upgrade, automatic operation could be extended to include the branch into Northumberland Park depot, although this must be balanced against the need for drivers to retain and practice their manual driving skills.

Our driver confirmed that it is extremely difficult for a manually-controlled train to keep to time, and this disparity is likely to grow because of the enhanced performance of the new rolling stock. Improved acceleration, smoother braking and a higher maximum speed of 80 km/h against the current 76 km/h will all contribute to reduced journey times - LU hopes trains will complete the Walthamstow Central – Brixton trip in just less than 30 min from 2011.

But a considerable amount of testing remains before then. Switching to automatic mode at Finsbury Park, an alarm sounded in the cab, indicating that we had momentarily lost the connection to the legacy signalling via the interface PLCs. A member of the Westinghouse Rail Systems signalling team, which was crouched behind the cab amid a phalanx of laptops, advised the driver to proceed at a crawl to the next signal. A few moments later, another tone sounded, and we re-established the connection. Running automatically, our train sprinted into the darkness, quickly reaching the 80 km/h maximum speed. A few moments later, we burst into the lights of Highbury & Islington station, and the brakes engaged to bring us to a stand by the marker at the platform end. ‘We reached the platform at 46 mile/h,’ the driver explained, highlighting the train’s braking capability; ‘you probably wouldn’t drive manually that way.’

A light illuminated to unlock the doors on the platform side only. Given that the majority of the Victoria Line’s stations are island platforms, the driving position is on the right of the cab - most British trains are driven from the left.

After a brief pause, we restarted for King’s Cross, where security staff were present to accompany us to the surface, leaving the engineering team to continue to Warren Street.

  • Sydac has supplied two full-size simulators to facilitate driver training on the new trains. The cabs were built by Bombardier to ensure as realistic a training environment as possible.
  • One of two pre-series units supplied by Bombardier enters Blackhorse Road station during testing.
  • Test Train 2 at Northumberland Park depot. A number of modifications will be made prior to series delivery of the remaining 45 sets.