It’s a London Underground Saturday! Woo! Yeah! (exposes breasts)
Now you’ve had time to calm down, I’ll explain why I have declared this momentous occasion. Today was an open weekend at Upminster Depot on the District Line. Upminster is Terra Incognita as far as I’m concerned. Well, the District Line already has termini at Kensington Olympia, High Street Kensington, Wimbledon, Richmond and Ealing Broadway. I mean, I can’t visit every end of the line. It’s like Cthulhu or something. Besides, Upminster’s way out in Zone 6, I’m not Superman.
The Open Day was being held in celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the depot, which was built as part of a major investment programme by London Transport. Therefore, this was an excuse for a big old display devoted to the District Line. The fact that they were holding engineering works between Barking and Upminster meant that a) the current was switched off, making the depot safe for visitors and b) that there was no District Line service to the depot. Ho hum. Instead, the Da and I took the c2c service from Fenchurch Street to Upminster Station. From there, classic buses were laid on to take us (not just us, obviously) to the depot itself.
RT bus. Predecessor to the Routemaster, as I have discussed previously within these pages.
We got the AEC RT seen on the left. In layman’s terms, this is the type of bus used in Summer Holiday and, with one or two modifications, as the Knight Bus in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Riding in it is a very different experience from a modern bus. It’s more cramped, but the seats are so much more
DO NOT SPIT: PENALTY £5. You've been warned.
comfortable. It’s also a rather noisier, bumpier ride and on the top deck there’s a distinct tendency for the bus to sway on corners, on bumpy roads or just for the hell of it. I quite liked it, but I can kinda see why modern buses don’t ride like that. Still, the growl of the engine is quite something.
RLH - like an RT, but with a flatter roof.
The depot was a lot cleaner than I imagine these things. But then, most of the working railway depots I’ve visited have been steam ones, with the associated soot and grime. I suppose Health and Safety wouldn’t allow that sort of thing today (n.b. the first person to use the term “nanny state” gets a clip round the ear ‘ole). The staff were very friendly and helpful, very willing to explain what everything was and how everything worked.
Under a District Line train. That boxy thing in the middle is the driver's air conditioning unit. Yes, the driver has air conditioning.
As I have said many times before, I live in Colliers Wood, near Wimbledon. I used to live in Twickenham, near Richmond. When I was born, I lived in a flat in Barons Court backing on to the Underground. I’m therefore no stranger to the District Line, which has used the same trains (give or take a refurbishment or two) since before I was born. I’ve come to take these things for granted – they’re just the not-very-interesting trains that go into London via the respectable suburbs.
A row of D and C stock. That's District Line trains in laymen's terms. At the far end is a battery locomotive, used for maintenance trains.
So the chance to look underneath one, to go into the cab and to watch the staff going over the various controls and equipment was something of an education. For instance, I never knew that the seats could be lifted up to access the various electrical gubbins that power the train – if there’s a breakdown, the driver can isolate individual systems in order to get the train going again. And you know when you’re on the train and it suddenly hisses really loudly?
The prototype Routemaster, RM1.
Turns out that what that actually is is the safety valve for the compressed air reservoir, the thing that powers many systems on the train. Looking in and around these trains, you come to realise that actually, they’re a pretty ingenious bit of kit. There are all sorts of odd little devices to ensure that the train can keep going or, if necessary, stop in an emergency.
R Stock, predecessor to C and D stock.
All this was related clearly and engagingly by the staff. The chap showing us the underside of the train apologised for not being sufficiently up on the technical side to go into massive detail, but he was informative enough for Yr. Humble Chronicler, who doesn’t know his brown boxy things from his brown cylindery things.
There was a display a bit further on of wheel-turning equipment, which I don’t think would be particularly interesting to anyone who isn’t as geeky as me. Suffice it to say that it is possible for a Tube train to get a flat tyre.
Early four-wheeled wooden carriage from the Metropolitan District Railway - what is now the District Line.
As well as the modern day-to-day equipment, there was a fine display of historic District Line equipment. On the right is a Metropolitan District Railway coach from around 1865. If it looks a bit familiar, that might be Thomas the Tank Engine’s coaches, Annie and Clarabel, look almost exactly like this.
The silver carriage above is R stock, which came before the C and D stock. For a while, London Transport decided not to bother painting their trains as a cost-cutting measure. The bodywork was aluminium and so didn’t need rust-proofing. A similar experiment with buses was a dismal failure, as on foggy days the buses became invisible. You’ll notice that the bodywork swoops outwards at the bottom – that was a safety measure to prevent people falling into the gap between the train and the platform. It’s the train that minds the gap for you.
Interior of a Q Stock carriage. Hell of elegant.
I couldn’t get a decent exterior shot of the Q Stock carriage behind the R Stock, so you’ll just have to make do with this interior shot. I absolutely love the interiors of these old Tube trains, and this one, with its inlaid wooden panelling, might be my favourite. The dark green is a pleasant contrast with the deep red exterior. The Q Stock, as you might guess from the decor, was built in the 1920s and 30s. It also has a rather old-skool clerestory roof.
On a siding outside was a 57xx. It’s an interesting fact that London Underground was still using steam engines for odd jobs long after most of the Underground had been electrified. In fact, not only that, but they were using them three years after British Rail had got rid of steam.
Great Western Railway 57xx class
The Underground used various types of steam engine, but in the later years the engine of choice was the 57xx pannier tank, so called because it carries its water in high-slung tanks that look, yes, like panniers. To return to Thomas the Tank Engine references, Duck is based on this type of engine. They were built by the Great Western Railway and were, simply, a damn good engine. Rugged and versatile, they were as at home shunting in a yard as they were on commuter trains. As the GWR sold them out of service, there was no shortage of willing buyers, and as a result several members of the class survive today – no fewer than six being ex-Underground. In London Transport service, they wore a rather handsome brick-red livery that suited them well.
Having shown us past and present District Line trains, it was only fitting that they should also show us some future stock. This took the form of a mock-up of the S Stock, seen on the right. The S Stock is currently under construction and, when complete, will replace the current trains on the District, Circle, Metropolitan and Hammersmith & City Lines. Probably its most notable design feature is that it’s open-ended, with corridors linking the carriages. What this means in practical terms is that passengers can move from coach to coach without having to leave the train. It also allows a little more room. The seating layout is rather similar to that on the Docklands Light Railway, if you’re familiar with that. For some reason, modern Tube and bus seating seems to have been designed with the express purpose of numbing the buttocks, and the S Stock is no exception. It’s a bad idea to let people sit down in historic stock before you’ve let them sit in your new train, those old seats were comfortable as the dickens.
The tour, coupled with the aforementioned purchase of a destination board formerly at Camden Town, left me with a feeling of immense goodwill towards the Tube. A sense of goodwill that evaporated on the way back as soon as I discovered that line interchange at Bank is still out. Still, that was a pretty positive fifteen minutes.
- Some footage of the Underground in the 1960s, including a fair bit of Upminster.