London Underground: should lines be completely shut to speed up engineering work?

The London Underground is used by as many people each week as the total number of people who use the nation’s railway network. Caroline Pidgeon sets out why modernising the underground is so important and why new ways of undertaking the upgrades might now be necessary.

At London’s City Hall I’m leading an Assembly investigation into overcrowding on the Tube and what Mayor Boris Johnson can do about it. For many years now Tube passengers have been used to cramming themselves into crowded trains wedged against someone’s armpits. More recently stations like Victoria, King’s Cross, London Bridge and Holborn have had to be closed altogether in the rush-hour until dangerously crowded platforms have been cleared.

Caroline Pidgeon investigates tube engineering worksUpgrading the Tube is the key to ending overcrowding. With state of the art signalling, renewed track and new communications systems London Underground will be able to run many more trains per hour much more reliably. But Gordon Brown’s failed PPP led to Metronet going bankrupt, and even Tube Lines are under great pressure to complete vital re-signalling and other upgrade work on the Jubilee Line by Christmas 2009.

They have had to ask for more line closures to complete the work, and dislocation for passengers has been horrendous. Both Wembley and the O2 Arena have suffered and at times the Rotherhithe area has been practically cut off from the rest of London.

Unless lines are suspended, the only time upgrade and maintenance work can be done is in the middle of the night. On a site visit I saw how at half past midnight squads of workers gather at a station entrance with all their gear so that the moment the last train had gone and power to the tracks was switched off they could stream down to platform level and get to work. Within twenty minutes they were laying new track bed, re-wiring, tiling or painting. But by 4.30am all their gear had to be packed up and got back up the escalators to the surface in time for the first early morning train to run.

In many ways it’s a miracle of organisation and efficiency, but it is basically insane. Tim O’Toole (until recently boss of LU) once compared it to carrying out open-heart surgery on someone while they trained for the Olympics.

The highly unpopular weekend closures don’t really cut it either. A four/six week closure of a section of a line means it is worthwhile bringing down much more efficient high-tech kit to speed up the work. Closing a station for weeks means you’ve time to install lifts to deliver step-free access: you can’t do this if passengers need to use the entrance every day.

The extremely busy Central Line was closed for three months after the Chancery Lane derailment in 2005. Somehow all those passengers found other ways to travel.

LibDems and Londoners need to face reality: would you prefer a six week closure of a section of Tube line and get the work over and done with (more efficiently and so at lower cost), or do we stick with 19 weekend closures and take four months ? We have many years of this work ahead so it is perhaps time Boris made up his mind.

What would YOU want him to do ?

Go to and have your say. Let me know too ([email protected]) and together we can develop LibDem transport policy for London.

Caroline Pidgeon is the Liberal Democrat London Assembly Transport Spokesperson and Chair of the London Assembly Transport Committee.

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This entry was posted in London and Op-eds.


  • In the case of Rotherhithe why could this long planned closure of the Jubilee Line could have been foreseen when the East London Line was closed, and sufficient work completed to reopen the old section of the line first so people could at least connect with the overground and the District Line, rather than waiting to reopen the whole thing as extended next Spring?

  • I lived out in Leytonstone when the Central Line was closed after the Chancery Lane crash. It took me an extra hour to get to work every day — up an hour earlier to travel and home an hour later — and I wouldn’t recommend it.

    To damage businesses and inconvenience workers by closing for months to make the tube ‘the best network in the world’ misses the point. All anyone ever wants from a mass transport system is reliability, and if this can be achieved through work every night then that is enough.

  • John Lefley 26th Jul '09 - 3:26pm

    More weekend closures are the answer. I was in Fincley Road this afternoon – stacks of ‘rail replacement’ buses, all virutally empty.
    Locally, Camden Town is an immense problem. TfL’s grandiose plans to finance work via destruction of Camden’s heart were RIGHTLY rejected – but the pressure at peak times is intolerable. In 2012 it will be far worse!
    Emergency action is needed. Can the lift shafts be re-opned as a stop-gap?
    PS Old Street is also often closed during the evening peak because of overcrowding.

  • There really is no easy answer to this, because every solution creates its own problems.

    I think it was daft to start upgrading so many lines (over and under ground) over the same period, firstly because all the alternative options for a particular journey are often shut down at the same time and secondly because it’s created a sudden, hugely challenging demand for specialist skills that will be largely cast aside once the work is over. But there’s not much we can do about that at this stage.

    I’d agree that working through the four hour night-time window can be horrendously inefficient, as well as being unpleasant and frustrating for all the people who have to do that work.

    My belief is that lines should be closed for longer and more often at weekends if that helps to get the work done more efficiently; and that closing two alternative routes on the same day (usually Sunday) is far more disruptive than closing one of those routes for the whole weekend.

    Closing lines for more extended periods, through the traditional working week should only be done if that’s the only way in which the work can be done or if all the alternatives are grotesquely inefficient.

    And, if it’s not already being done, closures on the underground, overground AND suburban rail network should be fully coordinated.

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