This, to the surprise of many, was issued on New Year’s Eve: “London Underground (LU) and Bombardier Transportation today announced that the signalling contract for the Circle, District, Hammersmith & City and Metropolitan lines (Sub Surface lines) will be re-let by LU following discussions between the two companies…” Writes Grahame Taylor

We live in an era of positive press releases. Perhaps we always have done. When a project is announced there’s the first release. Client
X has awarded a contract to Company Y for a vast and ‘challenging’ project. There’s a quote from the client outlining how challenging the project is likely to be and expressing unbridled confidence. There’s also the inevitable quote from the contractor expressing their delight
(a very common word in this context) at being awarded the contract.

And then it goes quiet for a while.

Before the final release announcing successful completion there may be interim statements talking about successful trials and work being ‘well on the way’. Those outside
of the contractual ring hear or read nothing more. Those on the edges may be aware of the daily toil of the real world, but everyone is so discreet these days.

Early indications

The brief announcement in the TfL (Transport for London) press release that a contract – a major contract – had hit the buffers and was being re-let (a rare, but very positive verb) caught many on the hop.

But there had been signs, and these were not in the form of press releases. They were hidden away in the agendas and minutes of the Transport for London Board meetings, the deliberations of which are open to the public – generally.

In September 2013, Minute 65/09/13 had the paragraph: “To address the significant challenges for the signalling system proposed for the Sub-Surface Railway (SSR) Upgrade, senior managers from London Underground and the signalling contractor were meeting to review the current status and expedite the technical solution and delivery strategy, to achieve the required capacity uplift benefits by the overall completion date of 2018. Members would be updated on the progress of the SSR Upgrade signalling discussions.”

October was quiet, but in November 2013 the TfL Investment Programme Report – Second Quarter 2013/14 stated:

“Noted that the demonstration of the ATC system at the Old Dalby test track was not achieved by the August 2013 “key date”. Following LU review and challenge, it has been acknowledged that this will not be achieved until at least June 2015. LU believes that if the current plan is continued, there will be a similar delay in contract completion taking it beyond the DfT target date of 2018. This would also lead to significant LU exposure in excess of SUP funding. A range of options are being considered to maintain delivery of the upgrade by 2018.”

In November 2013, a meeting of the TfL Board, open to the public, was briefed by Mike Brown, Managing Director, London Underground and London Rail. It was an ‘oral briefing’ and it seems that the public, if they were there at all, did not pick up on any contractual nuances.

Then, right in the middle of the festive season, came notice of an Extraordinary Meeting of TfL’s Finance and Policy.

Committee. The meeting, scheduled for 19 December 2013 at 8am(!), was open to the public if they’d have been moved enough to get up at that time in the morning. However, all they would have heard would have been apologies for absence and declarations of interest before they were booted out, because item 4 ‘Sub Surface Railway Upgrade Programme’ contained a paper with information that was exempt from publication. That was the only item for discussion.

An Extraordinary Meeting, an 8am start, just before Christmas and a public lock-out – this did not augur well…..

After six working days, frantic activity and presumably several people having a rotten Christmas there came the positive announcement in that press release.


Now, turn the clock back to June 2011. Transport for London formally announced Bombardier Transportation as the winner of the £354m contract to upgrade signalling on London Underground’s Sub-Surface Lines – a deal which Bombardier said was the largest it had ever won for a signalling project. Their press release at the time used quotes such as, “We are very pleased to be awarded this new contract by London Underground and look forward to working together on this exciting project…….”

TfL’s quote was: “This is a major step forward in our plan to upgrade the Tube…”.

All positive stuff, and indeed it all tended to make sense as the manufacturer of the new S stock for the SSR, which would be fitted with signalling equipment, was none other than …..Bombardier.

The signalling system that had been selected was the Bombardier Cityflo 650.

Cityflo 650 is the top end of the established Cityflo range of systems. The base level Cityflo 150 integrates signalling and auxiliary systems
and is designed for light rail/tramway applications. The range increases in complexity through the 250, 350, 450 and 550 variants. The TfL selected solution, the 650, is “a system for driverless (DTO) or unattended (UTO) train operations designed for moving block advanced metro operations……”

It wasn’t brand new, untested, a stab in the dark. It had been installed in several cities across the globe and performs reliably and safely to this day. Some of the installations are on relatively short airport links such as those at Heathrow, Gatwick, Seattle, Dallas and other US locations. Far more significant are the installations on heavily used metro railways; the Neihu-Wenshan line in Taiwan, the Shenzen Metro Line 3 in China and lines 1 and 6 of the Madrid metro.

The Neihu-Wenshan line is a combination of the Wenshan line built in 1988 and the Neihu line which opened in 2009. The layout is relatively simple, but usage is very high.

Shenzhen Metro Line 3 opened in December 2010. It, too, is heavily used over its 25 mile route.

In slight contrast, the Madrid metro has lines which date back to the early part of the last century. Line 1 started life in 1919 but was extended progressively up until 2007. Line 6, a circular route was completed in 1995 having been started in 1979.

These railways have a few issues in common. They are heavily used, they are relatively modern – apart from parts of Line 1 in Madrid – and few, if any, have any regularly used critical junctions.

Sub-surface complications

Closer to home, on the other hand, there are the railways which comprise the London SSR – the Circle, District, Hammersmith & City and Metropolitan lines.

As well as being a much larger and older system, there are mixed operations such as a shared network with Chiltern Railways and London Overground. It is a complex layout interfacing with the Jubilee and Piccadilly lines and with several major critical junctions – such as the like of Baker Street, Aldgate and Edgware Road. The infrastructure is Victorian. The existing signalling, whilst complex, is understandable. There are track circuits, axle counters, lineside signals and train-stops. However, the system is also running at capacity and could be improved significantly with innovations such as moving block signalling.

The SSR is a railway that lies within a system that has been bruised over the years with reliability problems involving the introduction of new signalling. Problems with the Jubilee line are all within recent memory and further back there was the cancellation of the contracts, again on the SSR, let by Metronet to Westinghouse.

What now? The very popular S stock continues to be built with spaces for signalling equipment that are as yet unfilled. There’s a new control building – as yet unfilled. The hundred or so staff involved may be moved to other projects and there will be another period of inactivity at the ever-mysterious Old Dalby test site.

A somewhat daunting notice has appeared in the OJEU (The Official Journal of the European Union) outlining the requirements for the SSR Automatic Train Control System. “Only proven systems requiring little or no product development for deployment on the SSR will be considered. Companies with ATC systems requiring high levels of product development” need not apply. Just in case tenderers were unaware, under ‘Additional information’ is the statement that “Transport for London (TfL) is a complex organisation…..”.

So, can the engineering and practices of the Far Eastern railways, the Madrid metro or anywhere else for that matter be migrated into the SSR? Overlay the issues of industrial relations, safety philosophies, political involvement, along with public expectations and media interest and there will be answers that may not be straightforward.

And with such huge projects, what are the chances of contractually embedded high level aspirations matching the deeply engrained ground level experience of professional engineers and operators? Perhaps this is a self-answering question.

But tenderers will not be starting from scratch this time. The circle of senior signalling engineers and operators is small. Everyone will be not only older, of course, but also much, much wiser.

Challenges remain.

‘Challenges’ is a favourite of positive press releases.