Happy birthday, Night Tube. The engineering behind the innovation

Jonathan Bray, Senior Track Engineer
07 November 2017
Image of a London Underground entrance.
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As the first anniversary of Night Tube services on the Jubilee, Northern and Piccadilly lines approaches in November 2017, Amey’s Senior Track Engineer Jonathan Bray explains how the application of sound engineering principles helped overcome the doubters.

There’s been much in the media about the success of the Night Tube, the 24-hour services on five underground lines which launched last year. On a network as extensive and old as the London Underground, the concept of running all night Friday and Saturday services is possibly unique, and certainly an amazing feat.

Three of the five lines to pioneer this game-changing shift in public transport provision are maintained by Amey under a management contract with Transport for London. The Jubilee, Northern and Piccadilly lines launched their Night Tube services slightly later than the first Central and Victoria lines, but the volume of passengers has exceeded even the most optimistic forecasts. By August 2016, the five combined lines had marked their eight millionth journey since the service began.

As well as the obvious advantages for leisure use (no more anxiously looking at your watch worrying about missing the last tube whilst at gigs, clubs or parties anymore!), the Night Tube has been a boon for shift workers and those working in support industries who have early or late starts and finishes.

London Underground Operations deserve enormous credit for organising the continuous timetables and recruiting and training the extra drivers and station staff needed to provide reliable services at up to ten-minute frequencies in the Capital.

The engineering challenge

But what of the engineers, the unsung heroes of the piece. It’s widely known that the UK’s rail network is overcrowded and that maintenance work is vital for its smooth running to avoid disruption to services. Their challenge was and still is to provide the reliable trains and infrastructure to ensure an uninterrupted Night Tube operates. When the idea was mooted, many people doubted the Night Tube was possible as a sustained operation.

To put the main issue into context, it is important to understand that London Underground infrastructure and trains were maintained every night of the week. There is a specific maintenance period, from after midnight to the start of traffic around 5am, called ‘engineering hours’. The introduction of Night Tube now means that on certain lines trains are running continuously from the early hours of Friday morning until around midnight on Sunday, a period of roughly 68 hours. Or to put it another way, maintenance access on those lines has been decreased by about 30% whilst at the same time the network usage has increased.

The value of preparation and analysis

So what did the engineers do? As with all projects, the key was effective preparation. Using basic asset management principles, especially the analysis of data such as asset condition and fault history by location, we were able to identify appropriate actions:

  • For some of the highest risk areas works were undertaken on the assets to either eliminate the problems or at least reduce the associated risks with the assets.
  • Maintenance regimes were changed, including staff rosters (no point in people coming to work on a Friday or Saturday night when it is not possible to work!) and inspection and cleaning schedules.
  • Based on the data analysis it was also possible to review and change some of the maintenance standards to ensure that they were still appropriate for the latest asset configurations and maintenance techniques.
  • Finally there was a complete review of processes. This ensured that in any weeks’ work there was no reliance on access on the Friday and Saturday nights. It also dealt with all the potential ‘what if’ scenarios. For example how to respond to a signal or track fault reported during Night Tube operation.

The above demonstrates that significant change doesn’t always have to be driven by innovation. What is equally important is the application of sound engineering principles, particularly making engineering decisions using fact based data analysis.

Well done to Transport for London for having the vision. And well done to the engineers who played their part in creating the environment within which that vision can be realised.

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