What's Gone So Wrong With the Piccadilly Line?

By Aatif Sulleyman on at

Take a look at the Piccadilly line Twitter page, and you’ll see a depressing, seemingly endless stream of updates reporting delays, repairs and a shortage of trains. Scroll down (further, no further, keep going) and you’ll eventually come across this:

That’s the initial announcement. It’s been followed by about 10,000 variations of the message, such as:

Not exactly ideal, but especially troublesome now, with workers across the capital already struggling to cope with December’s frantic blend of extended working hours and brutal nights on the company card.

In a blog post, TfL has revealed that leaves are behind the trouble:

“We are sorry for the current disruption to customers using the Piccadilly line. This is due to a longer than usual period of leaf-fall, which has damaged the wheels of many of our trains. We will be able to return more trains to the line each day. However, there is a backlog of trains. We are working to restore a full service as quickly as possible.”

It goes on to explain that a lengthy period of leaf-fall combined with Storm Angus led to Piccadilly line train wheels to lock while braking, causing unprecedented damage to both the trains and the track. TfL says it’s working “around the clock” to fix the wheels at depots, but even then only around two trains are returning to service each day.

Why has the Piccadilly line been so badly affected? As TfL explains, “Some areas of the Piccadilly line are also particularly surrounded by leaf-shedding trees, particularly on the Rayners Lane branch and between Oakwood/Cockfosters, so the problem is more pronounced here.”

Predictably, considering the size difference between a leaf and a train and Angus being a bit of a rubbish name for a storm, the announcement has triggered widespread ridicule.

Knowing absolutely nothing about engineering, I swallowed my venomous jibes and approached London Reconnections’ John Bull for his thoughts. It turns out he’s written an excellent and comprehensive feature on the matter, which you can read here.

As well as the ins and outs of the so-called flats, the significance of weight and the repair process, Bull also explains why the age of Piccadilly line trains is such a crucial factor.

“Unfortunately, the Piccadilly line rolling stock is not new rolling stock,” he writes. “Not only this, but (to make things worse) the design and construction of the 1973 Stock (as it is known) came after train design had moved on from traditional block braking (which at least had the benefit of helping to clear leaves and mulch from the wheel) but before modern [Wheel Slide Protection that makes wheels relatively easy to detach and replace] had been invented.

“As a result, the Piccadilly line trains are particularly susceptible to wheel slip when track conditions are bad or if not handled well.”

Unfortunately, there’s no quick fix, and Bull believes that these troubles could end up affecting the planned December 16th launch of the Piccadilly line Night Tube services. The big day’s less than a week away, and TfL has given little indication that normal service will resume before then.

“No doubt TfL are under pressure from the Mayor to see that deadline met, but at the same time neither party will want to do so if there’s a risk that it will damage day time services even further,” adds Bull.

“Perhaps this, then, is the barometer which affected passengers should look to for now. If the Night Tube launches then this would suggest that the worst of the damage has been overcome. Should it be delayed, then that may suggest that there is still some way to go yet.”

Image: shando via Flickr