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Transport / Mass transit

Lille had Europe’s first fully automated Metro system. It opened in 1983

Thameslink recently unveiled its automated rail technology through London. New trains will drive themselves through the central London route between St Pancras and Blackfriars, allowing for 24 trains an hour and up to 30 an hour if necessary.

It sounds all shiny and futuristic – but the reality is that the technology isn’t that modern. In fact, Thameslink trains aren’t even entirely automated: the human driver still operates the doors, and is there to take over in case things don’t run smoothly. It’s the same system run by the Glasgow subway system, and several lines on the London Underground.

If you want to see real automation in action don’t bother with Thameslink at St Pancras. Hop on the Eurostar for 90 minutes to Lille, where the Metro has been operating at the highest level of automation since 1983. Yep: Lille had automated trains in the year David Bowie released Let’s Dance.

If you want to ride a comparable system in the UK, you’ll have to go to an airport. Gatwick and Stansted’s terminal shuttles use the same level of automation, capable of operating without human intervention. Even London’s Docklands Light Railway, which shares an aesthetic with the Lille Metro, needs a human being on board to close the doors and deal with emergencies. We’re so behind.

A plan of the Lille metro network. Image: Wikipedia Commons.

Lille’s two-line rapid transit system, VAL (Véhicule Automatique Léger), was based on a concept by French physicist Robert Gabillard, using a guideway with embedded sensors. Trains and stations are unstaffed, though monitored by a network of CCTV cameras. And glass partition doors along the platforms makes it very hard to get a decent photo. Damn you, health and safety.

Despite the system being 35 years old, it’s running smoothly. Sure, the design is very 1980s (plasticky trains with terrible moulded seats) and some of the station exteriors have that similar 80s vibe of bold colours and wacky shapes. But a station like Les Pres, with its high arches and wood finish, has a faint cathedral-like air – even if the view is of a car park.

What’s seriously impressive is the frequency. Even on a midweek afternoon in December, trains were running every 3-4 minutes and run every 66 seconds during peak times. Apparently the system’s capable of running a train every 60 seconds, but adds those extra six seconds for everyone to board properly. If everything’s running smoothly, the longest you should ever wait for a train at the quietest times is 8 minutes.

An underground station in Lille. Image: author provided.

Still, those trains on a December weekday were still standing room only. Even though Lille has an urban population of just over 1m, the metro trains only have two cars each. Even with trains shuttling along every minute that’s not enough, so an upgrade to double capacity is in progress.

Alstom won the contract for Line 1 in 2012, which was meant to bring new trains that were double the length of the existing sets by the end of 2017. Sadly, that upgrade has been delayed and nobody at Alstom seems to want to tell me when the new deadline is; one rumour is 2020. On completion, the plan is to boost capacity on Line 2 by transferring Line 1’s existing trains across.


That’s a shame, because these new trains will be the walk-through type, and have better electronic signage and bigger windows: on the old trains you’re kind of peering out a small gap at the front, which doesn’t have the ‘driving the train’ feel of the Docklands Light Railway. Lille’s current trains are sweet and dinky, but the city’s commuters deserve a transit experience to match how regularly they get whisked in and out.

Another part of the upgrade work is lengthening platforms. All Line 2’s platforms are 52m long, which can fit in two trains – or, one double-length upgraded train. Line 1’s platforms were built 26m long, which is obviously a problem if you want to double the length of the trains. That work has been completed, at least in the centre of Lille, leading to stickers on half the platform doors urging passengers to move along because trains don’t stop at that point (yet).

One day, Lille’s metro system will look as futuristic as its technology. If you want to see Europe’s first fully automated Metro system as it was (kind of) conceived, you should head to Lille soon.
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