The Northern Line today started its journey into becoming an automatically run line, by opening the first section of track controlled by a computer. This is the section from West Finchley to High Barnet in North London (or Middlesex, if you are that way inclined!) – right at the top of the Tube map.
The system being used is called TBTC, which stands for Transmission Based Train Control, and is very similar to the system used on the Jubilee Line. This was turned into a totally automatic running line between 2006 and 2011 – giving upgrades to the signalling system and allowing trains to run much faster and much closer to each other – while still (hopefully!) being safe to use. This means that the train’s speed, acceleration and braking is monitored by a computer – and all the driver has to do at each station is open and close the doors (and indicate the train is ready to leave). The Victoria, Central and Jubilee all use ATO (Automatic Train Operation) – so the Northern Line is just joining some others, which already use similar systems!
The Jubilee’s upgrade took a little longer than originally planned and had quite a few problems when it was rolled out, causing a bit of frustration for passengers. It was known informally for a while as “the new misery line” – taking the mantle from the Northern!
We went down there to have a ride between Finchley Central and High Barnet, and see how it was going at all – or if any of the general public could tell the difference.
On arrival at Finchley Central, there were lots of members of staff around, and a lot of signs and warnings where the train operator would be inclined to look. Boarding the first train heading north, we sat for a while as the crew changed over, but after remaining in the platform for at least five minutes, we were told the train was going out of service, and to return to the platform.
We were initially told there had been a signal failure, but then a more railway-minded traveller walked up to the staff at the head of the platform, and asked what was going on – as he was there to ride an automatic train! He was told that the operator of the train we were on had not enabled the automatic operation at East Finchley, and so the train could not go any further than Finchley Central… whoops!
The next train rolled in, and we boarded. It was the usual drive up to West Finchley, considerately speeded, where we dwelled in the platforms for a couple of minutes. The signals were bagged over with black plastic, and white tape to indicate they weren’t in use, but a rather sinister blue light shining instead.
And then the doors closed, and we were off! The acceleration was a lot swifter than a “normal” journey, and the train quickly gained speed. Around me, the couple in the next seating bank carried on chatting about the shopping, and the lady opposite dialled up a taxi to her home, from High Barnet station. They didn’t feel that anything much was different.
But it sounded completely different. On the way northbound, the train sounded a lot more lively (and/or broken) than normally heard on the Northern – it was trying to accelerate, or brake, all of the time – so when hovering around the line speed for the area, it would lurch forward a bit with some braking, and then lurch backward with some accelerating. I’d imagine the line rises quite a bit up to Barnet – as most of the time the motors were whirring instead of the brake screaming a bit.
We then returned back to Finchley a few minutes later, where this audio was taken. The journey seems a bit more downhill on this part – as there is a lot of braking (high squealing) and less accelerating – but it maybe explains the noises in the previous paragraph!
We then made a return journey (why not!) where, similarly, the rest of the passengers had no clue that their train was automatic – apart from, again, being asked to leave the train at Finchley as it was being cancelled and turned around. Indeed, why should they know what was going on, or be inclined to care? As long as they get to their destination in good time and healthily, I wouldn’t imagine they would notice any difference…
Definitely an different thing to do, of a Sunday afternoon! It will also be interesting to see which parts of the line are upgraded next, and are then automatically-run. Fingers crossed for a smooth transition, and for more efficiently-timetabled trains!
You can view a few more of my photos on Flickr.