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January 18, 2023

How many types of London Underground trains are there?

You may have only noticed the difference between those with air-con and those without, but there is so much more to know.

By Jack May

For the train lovers of London, April 2017 was an emotional month; not because of a strike, but because the tube said goodbye to one of its most faithful servants – the D stock underground train.

underground trains
Which Underground train stock have you been riding? (Photo by photocritical/Shutterstock)

In layman’s terms, the D stock were the Underground trains that ran on the District line from 1980 to 2017. They carried millions of passengers over 37 years until the final journey from Upminster to Ealing Broadway.

But despite its recent bereavement, the District line trundles on – as do all the lines, with their own distinct trains. So how well do you know those Underground trains? Whether by the colour of the poles you grab onto, the pattern on the seats, or the fact you have to duck your head as the doors close at rush hour, can you tell the different stock apart?

Bakerloo line

Bakerloo line trains are called the London Underground 1972 stock, because they’re on the London Underground, and are from 1972, pretty much.

This is the oldest stock still in use on the tube. The design was based on the 1967 stock, which used to run on the Victoria line until 2011. They’re the last deep-level tube line trains – that is, those the narrow tube-shaped trains as opposed to the big box-shaped ‘sub-surface’ lines – which still have facing seats in little pods, as opposed to just having seating along the sides of the carriage.

There are seven carriages to each train, which adds up to a total of 268 seats for passengers, though realistically everyone knows that the facing seats were built for small people and you definitely can’t fit four people on them.

They were refurbished in a big way from 1991 to 1995. But they’re still pretty horrible, and it’ll be a blessing to see the Bakerloo line as one of the lines set to benefit from the ‘New Tube for London’, a massive batch of new rolling stock coming by 2033.

Central and Waterloo & City lines

We now jump ahead to the 1992 stock. This name is ironic because those Underground trains didn’t actually come into service until 1993.

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The 1992 stock has four carriages on the Waterloo & City line, but does most of its work on the Central, where its trains have eight carriages.

These trains also have two things called ATO and ATP, which more or less means the trains can drive themselves. ATO is Automatic Train Operation, which operates the train, and ATP is Automatic Train Protection, which gets data from the track and sends it to the driver’s cab.

This makes for three modes of operation: automatic, where both are in use and the driver only has to open and close doors and press ‘start’ when the train is ready to go; ‘coded manual’ where ATO is off but ATP still gets data from the track to tell the driver how fast the train is going and how fast it should be going; and ‘restricted manual’ where both ATO and ATP are off and the driver drives by sight and the signals alone.

When driving on ‘restricted manual’, the trains can only run below 11mph. This is only really used in depots and when there’s a signal failure or a problem with the train’s systems.

The 1992 stock had a big refresher in 2011, with new seat patterns and better lights. The refresh is also one of the key differences between the Central and Waterloo & City line trains (the other is the different colour poles) as the Central line trains got new window frames and different panelling on the front of the train that the Waterloo & City line didn’t get. Sad!

New Underground trains are also coming here by 2033.

Circle, District, Hammersmith & City lines

Three birds with one stone, because they all use the nice new shiny ‘S7 stock’.

These came in a big bulk order built between 2009 and 2017 alongside new trains for the Metropolitan line – more on that later.

It was reportedly the biggest single order of trains in Britain (don’t get too hot under the collar there, lads), with an estimated cost of £1.5bn.

But the perk is that they’re beautiful, there’s loads of them – 192 trains, or 1,403 carriages – and they do a lot of good work.

The S7 Underground trains are light, bright, air-conditioned, with seating along both sides of the carriages and fancy bendy bits that mean you can walk from one end of the train to the other.

They have regenerative brakes, which means they can give the energy they use in stopping back to the network – about 20% of it – which obviously is good for efficiency.

The colours on the seats reflect the colours of the lines that the S7 and S8 run on.

Jubilee Line

Back on the deeper lines, and an introduction to the 1996 stock. These trains actually came into service a year after their name, in 1997, and each train is seven carriages long.

They have a pretty similar design to the Northern line trains, which are numbered a year earlier but came into service a year later; but they do have some differences, such as the kind of suspension systems they use.

Most of the differences are because the Jubilee line trains were done more cost-effectively, whereas the Northern line trains were designed to live forever.

The trains were originally operated manually, with a ‘dead man’s handle’ – in other words, if the driver takes their hand off it because they’re dead, the train stops running – but a 2011 upgrade means the trains are now operated automatically.

The driver is responsible for opening and closing doors, and getting it started, and the transition allowed for an increase in peak services – up to 27 Underground trains per hour in 2011 and then to 30 trains per hour in 2014.

In 2017, the Jubilee line trains were refurbished, getting new flooring, repainted handrails – in actual Jubilee line colours – and new open/close buttons.

Metropolitan Line

These are the aforementioned S8. Basically, they’re the same as the S7, except they’re about 15m longer, and they have opposite-facing seats as well as seats down the side of the trains.

‘S’ stands for ‘sub-surface’.

Northern Line

These are the ones that are like the Jubilee line but not. They’re called the 1995 stock, but they didn’t come into service until 1998. I swear I’m not making this up.

They’re the only deep tube trains that can choose to only open some doors, to cope with shorter platforms at Clapham Common, Euston, Camden Town, Charing Cross and Hampstead.

There’s a cool thing that I don’t really understand, but basically: the way the Northern line trains get electricity from the lines is more efficient than the Jubilee line trains, and they can switch very large currents very quickly without damaging the systems of the trains. This is why the Northern line doesn’t make that weird whooping screaming noise when it starts, which the Jubilee line does.

Like the Jubilee, it used to have a dead man’s handle, but now the trains are driven with ‘TBTC’, meaning transmissions-based train control.

Picadilly line

The Piccadilly line trains – the 1973 stock – are old, but less horrible than the Bakerloo line.

Cleverly, the trains were specifically designed with larger door space, to cope with all those people who use the tube to lug three bags back from Heathrow, and each train has six carriages.

The main reason why these trains are less awful than the Bakerloo is that they were totally refurbished between 1996 and 2001.

The facing seats were ripped out and replaced entirely by seats along the sides of the carriage, and the original wooden floor was replaced. Straphangers were replaced with rails, and brighter lighting was put in.

They also added perch seats on the ends of the carriages.

The driver can choose to run the train in ‘commuter’ or ‘tourist’ mode. In ‘tourist’ mode, the train tells you helpful things, like ‘alight here for the museums and Royal Albert Hall’.

New trains are coming here in 2025, with TfL stating: “New walk-through and air-conditioned trains will make Piccadilly line journeys faster, more frequent and more reliable.”

Victoria line

The 2009 stock is the most beautiful of all the tube’s offerings. Light, bright, spacious, fast, and with surprisingly competent air-conditioning, the new trains came with an 8% reduction in journey times between stations, leading to a 16% overall drop in journey times.

The 2009 stock has a higher top speed than the 1967 trains it replaced, a faster maximum acceleration, and is just generally amazing and good in every way.

Part of the reason the Victoria line trains feel more spacious than other deep lines is they have a thinner casing, and the handrails are laid out in such a way that they subconsciously lead you further into the carriage as soon as you step on board.

The Victoria line also has commuter and tourist modes, and its trains mostly operated automatically.

[Read more: Is TfL proof that public transport should be run by government?]

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