As walk-through S Stock trains roll out across the Hammersmith & City line (with Circle and District lines to follow), this small red sign will become a more familiar sight to Londoners underground. The H&C's new S7 trains are seven carriages long whereas their predecessors had only six. These used to stop embarrassingly short at the rear of platforms, whereas the new trains sometimes stop embarrassingly long. Several of the stations along the Hammersmith & City line weren't built with 117m-long trains in mind, so the new trains have to stop with one end poking off the end of the platform, and some doors don't open. It's not ideal.
Before you write in and tell me, yes, I know that selective door opening is nothing new on London transport. Northern line trains don't open every door at every station, and there are five DLR stations where a third of the doors don't open on 3-carriage trains. More to the point, S Stock trains already run a full service on the Metropolitan line, and these all have eight carriages to the H&C's seven. S8 trains are a whopping 134 metres long, and they really don't fit into a number of older stations (such as Farringdon). But today, if you'll forgive me, I'm going to concentrate on the foibles of the shorter S7.
The way it works is this. Before the S7s were allowed into public service, TfL ran test trains along the Hammersmith & City line to determine the best position to stop at each station. They've marked this at the front of the platform, if you look, with a long arrowed board labelled >>>>>S7<<<<< which shows the driver exactly where to pull up. There are similar boards on the Metropolitan line labelled >>>>>S8<<<<<, and some where both lines run simultaneously labelled >>>>>SS<<<<<. The upshot of this level of precision is that TfL know at which stations all the doors can open and at which they can't, and then they've programmed the train's computer systems appropriately.
Take Baker Street for example. The Hammersmith & City line platform is one of the oldest on the underground and therefore a little on the short side. TfL can't just swan along and knock an extra hole at the end of a grade II listed building, so the platform lengths are fixed and trains are unable to open all their doors. Baker Street is a particularly bad case, with doors at both the front and the back staying closed, and passengers are left staring out at the tunnel wall instead. TfL have thought of this, so have pinned special notices to walls advising passengers what to do. "Move along train to exit", they say, with a helpful arrow pointing left if you're at the front of the train and right at the back. If you're planning to travel to Baker Street, be careful not to sit at the very end of the train.
But there's a more blatant alert system than this. Above each door in the front and rear carriages is a small rectangular sign which lights up when a door is not in use. It says "Door not in use", as you might expect, along with a big red cross to make this clear to passengers who can't necessarily read. Added alongside are two permanent stickers which warn passengers that "These doors will not open at some stations". This is to encourage passengers to approach the doors with an air of healthy scepticism, to be aware that they might not open so that it won't be a surprise when they don't.
There's also a written hint to listen out for announcements, because these will tip you off in advance regarding non-opening doors. "The front two doors will not open at the next station. Please use other doors." The announcements only occur at the end of the train where the disruption will occur - nobody else is inconvenienced by having to listen. But cleverest of all, the volume of these announcements is slightly higher than the usual generic "the next station is...". The idea is that you're bound to notice this special message, and then you'll shuffle your way up the train to an opening door to alight. Alas, reality is not so smooth.
What often happens is that people don't listen to the announcements. After a few hours, days or months underground we tend to blot these out, because they don't tell us anything new, and continue in our travelling bubble without engaging. For those who don't speak English, or those plugged into headphones, no early warning signal via the spoken word is going to get the message across. Miss this announcement, as many passengers seem to do, and you'll never know how many doors won't open. Do you need to walk back one set, two sets, perhaps even three? Guess wrong and you'll be standing at a wall when the train stops, not an exit.
But there's a bigger problem, which I'd like to suggest is a major design flaw, should anyone responsible be listening. The red sign above the door only lights up at the precise moment that the door doesn't open. It doesn't light up beforehand to warn you the door won't open, which would actually be useful. The message is "Door not in use", not "Door will not open" - present tense rather than future. Annoyingly the red warning is flashed up only when it's too late, which is bugger all use except to confirm that the door is staying shut. In any rational system the red sign would light up well in advance, ideally as soon as the train left the preceding station, which would give departing passengers ample time to wander up the train to a non-red exit. Instead, instant frustration, even mild panic, in a suddenly desperate attempt to escape.
I had the misfortune recently to be riding an eastbound S7 train being driven by a driver in training. I first got a hint that something was up when we rolled into Farringdon station and the front doors didn't open. They should have, we were alongside a platform, but instead the red "Door not in use" sign flashed up for no good reason and passengers were duly inconvenienced. The front doors did open at Liverpool Street and Whitechapel, where the front of the platform is incredibly narrow, but then stayed shut at Stepney Green whose platform is whopping. Entirely unpredictable and atypical behaviour, as if the driver was pressing the wrong buttons or the onboard computer was playing up.
And then, in a packed rush hour train, we reached Bow Road. Normally every door opens, but on this occasion the front three didn't. We departing passengers stared at each other in disbelief, because we wanted to go home but for some reason we couldn't. We looked down to the next set of doors, also shut, and the next set, hard to see but looking shut too. It seemed likely that the doors beyond that had opened, as other passengers were spilling out onto the platform, but there was no chance we could push through those standing and reach that on time.
And so we were trapped on board, thanks to malfunctioning modern technology or driver error, and the train duly carted us off unwillingly to Bromley-by-Bow. Would we be trapped here too? There were no clues because, as you'll remember, the red sign doesn't light up in advance. Thankfully everything opened here, and we faced no more than an additional ten minutes walk home. It had been a completely one-off incident, entirely atypical, but symptomatic of the chaos which ensues when folk get no warning in a crowded train that the door in front of them is temporarily out of action.
Instead of this laissez faire attitude to selective door opening, where doors "may not open" at some stations, something a little more concrete would be useful. A red sign that lights up in advance, rather than too late. A list of stations where the doors won't open, rather than leaving passengers to find out through experience. Something to help avoid embarrassment and awkwardness on discovering too late that you're standing somewhere you shouldn't. In particular, something to make the system more appropriate for those with accessibility issues who can't dash down the carriage and escape without due warning.
So here's my attempt to list the doors that don't open on the new S7 Hammersmith & City trains. I've only ridden in the front carriage from one end of the line to the other, and it'd take another journey at the rear to get the full list. Maybe you can help me to complete the list, and to check it, but only if you can find one of these rare S7 trains in the first place. And only if the doors open to allow you on board.
Do not open eastbound: Hammersmith (front door), Goldhawk Road (front door), Baker Street (front door, last 3 doors) Do not open westbound: Baker Street (front 2 doors, last 3 doors)
What's on this weekend? Spring Into Summer Saturday 30 & Sunday 31 May
40 free guided London walks. Purley Festival Friday 29 - Sunday 5 June
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