How do you solve a problem like the Central Line?

A photo of a prototype train for the Central Line, now on display at the London Transport Museum Depot in Acton

The Central Line of the London Underground is not having a good time at the moment. We experienced this first hand on our recent trip to London. As the Young V&A is close to Bethnal Green tube station, when we visited we tried to use the Central Line to head back into central London.

We gave up after two trains stopped where it was literally impossible to fit on. Every carriage was crush-loaded, and this was mid-afternoon on a Saturday – not exactly rush hour.

The issue is with the trains that run on the Central Line. These are 1992 Stock, which, as the name suggests, date from 1992 and were built by the newly-privatised BREL. Specifically, it’s the traction motors on these trains, which are failing at a faster than expected rate. Without a working motor, the trains can’t move, and so they have to be taken out of service. Consequently, there are fewer trains available for service, and so passengers are being crammed into less frequent services.

Transport for London have short, medium and long-term solutions to this issue:

Short term

In the short term, there are fewer trains in the timetable. With around a third of the fleet out of service, the timetable has been cut to reduce short-term cancellations. It’s something we’ve seen elsewhere in the country – Transpennine Express cut several trains to improve reliability.

Medium term

In the medium term, there is the Central Line Improvement Programme (CLIP). This is a major refurbishment of the trains, which includes replacing the troublesome motors as well as installing CCTV and accessibility improvements. For example, trains will now have wheelchair accessible spaces, and there are new screens with visual announcements of the next stop – standard on other lines, but new to the Central Line.

As an aside, I can’t help but feel that CLIP is a boring name when Central Line Improvement to Train Operation and Reliability Investment Scheme was right there. Even if the acronym does spell CLITORIS.

The CLIP started before the reliability issues came to ahead, and the first refurbished train was in service in December. But it’ll be a while before work on the full fleet of 77 trains is completed.

Long term

Ultimately, these are 30 year old trains, and eventually they will need replacing. They’re not the oldest on the network – that ‘honour’ goes to the Bakerloo Line, with trains that are over 50 years old. Slightly newer, but only just, are those on the Piccadilly Line, which are being replaced with 2024 stock to support an increase in service. Right now, there’s only funding available for new trains for the Piccadilly Line, but TfL’s long term aim is that the same trains will run on the Central, Bakerloo and Waterloo & City Lines too. Whilst the first units are being assembled in Germany and Austria, most will be built by Siemens in a brand new factory in Goole, East Yorkshire.

Where I live in the north of England, a big deal was made out of the replacement of 1980s era Pacer trains which were no longer fit for purpose. And whilst there’s a feeling in the north that London gets more than its fair share of UK public transport spending, the oldest tube trains are 10 years older than the oldest Northern Rail trains. Ordering a completely new fleet for all the London Underground lines that need it will result ensure skilled manufacturing jobs remain in Yorkshire for at least the next decade.

Step-free access on London Underground

Bakerloo at Waterloo

I’ve talked briefly about our recent trip to London. It was our second trip with our toddler, but last time I drove us all down. This time, we went via train, and we brought a pushchair.

Our toddler now has two pushchairs. There’s the big Bugaboo Chameleon, which we’ve used since birth, and a lighter folding pushchair. The latter fits in our car boot more easily and can be stowed away in luggage racks, but it’s not so good on rough ground and doesn’t have a rain cover. So we still use the Bugaboo now and again, if it’s wet or we’re going somewhere off the beaten track. But for London, we took the lighter pushchair.

On the whole we coped well. The only station where we had major problems was Kew Bridge, a South West Trains station near where we were staying. Although it’s a simple two platform station with a footbridge, there’s no step-free access, and a very wide gap between the train and the platform edge.

We coped okay with the Underground. King’s Cross St Pancras has lifts serving all of its platforms, following a comprehensive rebuild of the station to tie in with the new Eurostar station. This is a major improvement over 2004, when I travelled to London with a friend in a wheelchair. It took two of us to balance the chair on the main escalator. Fortunately we were heading for Olympia, and both Earl’s Court and Kensington (Olympia) stations had lifts even back then.

This time, we were heading for Waterloo, to take a train to Kew Bridge (as mentioned before). Though not the most direct route, we were able to take the Victoria Line to Green Park. Lifts were installed at Green Park in 2012, ahead of the Olympic and Paralympic Games. Changing at Green Park took quite a long time, with some long walks between the platforms. Had we been able to use the escalators, I expect this would’ve been quicker.

Then, onward to Waterloo on the Jubilee Line. When the Jubilee Line was extended in the late 1990s, all of the new stations had step-free access from the beginning. Unfortunately, at stations like Waterloo, this didn’t include existing lines, so although it’s possible to get from the Jubilee Line to the street and mainline station without steps, you can’t change to the Northern, Bakerloo or Waterloo & City lines.

Step-free Tube guide

Transport for London (TfL) publishes quite a good step-free Tube guide. Whereas the basic tube map only shows stations with step-free access from the street to the platform or train, the guide goes further. For example, there is step-free interchange between the Bakerloo and Victoria lines at Oxford Circus, but no lifts to the exit. Others, like Cannon Street, have step-free access in one direction only. A map is provided and it greys out stations and lines that are not accessible. The whole of the Bakerloo Line south of Oxford Circus is missing, for example, as is the whole of the Waterloo & City Line.

It also tells you how wide the gap between the train and platform is at those stations which are accessible, and there are some detailed notes. For example, changing trains at Kew Gardens requires a 600 metre walk on nearby streets.

It’s perhaps also worth mentioning that the entire Docklands Light Railway, and Croydon Tramlink are step-free, should you find yourself in East or South London.

Future improvements

TfL is rebuilding a number of Tube stations, and these should all gain step-free access. Farringdon and Blackfriars recently became accessible as part of the Thameslink Programme, and Crossrail… sorry, “The Elizabeth Line”, will see many other stations gain lifts. These include Ealing Broadway, Paddington, Bond Street, Tottenham Court Road, Moorgate, Liverpool Street and Whitechapel.

Additionally, TfL are rebuilding Victoria and Bank stations, with plans for Camden Town. Again, these should all become step-free when the work is complete. Frustratingly, the recent rebuild of Shepherd’s Bush tube station on the Central Line, to tie in with the opening of the Westfield shopping centre, did not include the addition of lifts, apparently due to costs.

Taking the Megabusplus to London

Leading on from yesterday’s post about our trip to London, here’s a little more about the Megabusplus service that we used. I’ve taken it before, when I needed to get down to London to fly to France for a holiday in 2009, but this was Christine’s first time, and also my first return trip.

Like the regular Megabus, it is run by the Stagecoach Group, and takes advantage of the fact that Stagecoach is also the current East Midlands Trains franchisee. So rather than getting a coach all of the way, time-wise roughly half of the journey is by coach and the reminder by train, with the switchover talking place at East Midlands Parkway railway station.

This is significantly quicker than taking a coach all of the way. Taking Halifax-London as the example, to do this by coach takes almost 6 hours in total. Megabusplus knocks this down to a little over four hours. You also arrive into London St Pancras railway station, which has much better onward transport links, than Victoria coach station. And I find that I can’t read on coaches (I get travel sick), so for me there’s less ‘downtime’ than a regular coach.

However, compared with a direct train Megabusplus is still slower – the 08:06 Grand Central train from Halifax left a few minutes after our coach and would have reached King’s Cross a full hour before we did.

The prices are about the same as regular Megabus, with fares starting at £1 one way, plus a 50p booking fee. I was too late to get it this cheap, but it was still much more affordable than the train at the last minute. Your ‘ticket’ is the reference number that you get by email when you pay – most people print this out but you can just show it on your phone to the driver, like I did.

The Halifax service actually starts from Bradford, then calls at Halifax and onto Huddersfield, before running direct to East Midlands Parkway. I say ‘direct’ – Huddersfield’s links with the southbound M1 are pretty poor and so we went on some very narrow and windy roads to get there. On the way down we briefly called at a service station, but this was only to change to a different driver and customers were not allowed to alight. East Midlands Parkway is effectively a service station though, with a café, toilets and a vending machine.

The Megabusplus coaches themselves are reasonably bog-standard – single-decker, space below for luggage, and a toilet. There’s no on-board catering, and seats aren’t allocated. Most of the people on the two journeys we made were travelling on their own, so if the coach is busy you’ll have to sit next to a stranger. Pre-booking is mandatory – there’s no facility to turn up and pay, although you can book up until the night before, as I did. On the other hand, this means that if everyone arrives early, then the coach can leave early – as happened on the return leg.

I would definitely recommend bringing a music player. Unlike trains, there’s no quiet coach, or any way of moving to another carriage if it’s too noisy. On the way back there was a very restless baby, so I was glad I had some music to listen to.

If you need to get to London cheaply, and don’t want it to take all day, then Megabusplus is worth it. But if you’re able to get a cheaper train ticket, then the train is a quicker and better experience.

London’s public transport

Bakerloo at Waterloo

As a non-Londoner who doesn’t drive, I am generally in awe of London’s public transport.

While any Londoner who’s had to make alternative arrangements during a tube strike will probably disagree, compared to the public transport available in most other British cities London is well ahead.

London Underground, or The Tube, is especially good. You get something like 20 trains every hour through central London, so you rarely have to wait more than 3 minutes for one. And it comes with at least 8 carriages, so you’re likely to be able to get on.

Its buses are cheap – £1.20 with an Oyster card for a single adult ticket (at the time of writing) – and pretty frequent too. And talking of Oyster, you have one card which lets you pay for basically any train, bus, tube or tram in greater London.

It’s not perfect; strikes, for one, happen more frequently than they probably should, and overcrowding is a problem. And the chaos which occurs when something breaks down during the peak periods.

Compare this to Bradford, where we have more expensive buses and no trams or tube to fall back on. The trains are thankfully cheaper but nowhere near as frequent, and not as pervasive – railway stations tend to be fewer and far between, so you’re left with the buses. Though we have some integrated ticketing, it’s only in the form of day rover tickets (which are only sold at travel interchanges) or weekly/monthly travel cards. There’s no pay-as-you-go scheme and it’s not a smartcard like Oyster.

London’s transport is on my mind as Christine and I are spending this weekend in London, and will hopefully be visiting London Zoo. It’s the first time I’ve been to London properly in almost three years, so naturally I’m a little excited.

Buying rail tickets


Buying rail tickets for train travel in the UK is complicated. Despite some simplification introduced last year, it’s still possible to buy a range of rail tickets at different prices that will get you on the same seat on the same train.

The fantastic Money Saving Expert has a very thorough guide and it’s well worth a read, but here’s my summarised advice:

  • Buy your rail tickets in advance, and as early as possible – you can get them up to 3 months ahead.
  • Rail tickets bought on the day (so-called ‘walk on fares’) offer lots of flexibility but are also usually the most expensive – you can book as little as 48 hours in advance and save a lot of money.
  • Avoid – it charges extra fees.
  • You can usually book any ticket from any train company, even if your journey doesn’t use their trains. So you could book with CrossCountry to travel on a First Transpennine Express (FTPE) train and get the same price as you would booking direct with FTPE.
  • Rail Easy displays fares in a different way which can make it easier to find cheaper tickets. I also found that they are more likely to send tickets by first class post for free, rather than charge £6 for next-day delivery. They do charge a booking fee though.
  • If you spend more than £76 per year (or £6 per month) on rail tickets, get a railcard. If you are between the ages of 16 and 25 you can get a 16-25 railcard. You can order a new one right up until the day before your 26th birthday too. Family railcards and senior railcards are also available. They give you 34% off the price of almost all train tickets, including those booked in advance.
  • Sometimes two single rail tickets are cheaper than a return – always check both. This is especially true if you book in advance.
  • Megatrain is worth a look as its fares start from £1 (plus 50p booking fee). Trains run from Sheffield, Derby and Portsmouth into London, but there are connecting coaches from cities like York and Bradford (I travelled from York to London for a total of £3.50 last year). There’s also additional discounts for NUS Extra card holders.

There are many more tips out there, which shows how confusing the system is. Ultimately, the best way to get the cheapest fare is to book as far in advance as possible, use a railcard and shop around a bit.