New Tube train concept raises hopes for UK manufacturing

Senior reporter

Siemens’ proposal for the next generation of London Underground trains is a shiny vision of the near-future and comes complete with a cheeky hint about the firm’s manufacturing plans.

One of the incredible things about the London Underground is that it is 150 years old. It’s also one of the worst things. The narrow tunnels mean people are forced into small carriages. The poor ventilation means stations can be sweltering even in the winter and the carriages are even worse because it’s impossible to install air conditioning as there’s nowhere for the heat to go.

And the entire Tube must be closed overnight despite the strong demand for 24-hour public transport in London because, unlike some other metro systems, it only has one set of tracks and so there’s nowhere else for the trains to go while essential daily maintenance is carried out.

Not that I wish to knock the Tube. It does an incredible job of transporting an average of over 3 million people a day, especially given that much of it was built in the Victorian era. But anything that makes the experience of riding it everyday more pleasant would be very much welcomed.

New exhibition at the Crystal - "Going underground: Our journey to the future"
The Inspiro metro train, redesigned for the London Underground.

So it was with some excitement that I went to see Siemens latest concept for how the next generation of carriages for the deep central tunnels of the Tube might look, as and when London Underground decide to buy new trains (which could be in the next few years) and if Siemens were to be awarded a contract.

The Inspiro is certainly a futuristic looking thing, less like a train and more like a literal tube. Its white plastic interior and LED light panels give it a bright and open feel (when no one’s in it) but also make it reminiscent of a slightly eerie science-fiction film.

Stephen tube
The Inspiro’s design is still not big enough for lanky Engineer reporters.

The layout of open walkways between the carriages follows the design already seen on more modern metro systems, which do feel bigger than the current London Underground trains, although the doorway and ceiling handles are still too low to stop me hitting my head on them (I’m 6’2).

The engineering of the carriage builds on the previous Inspiro that Siemens launched two years ago for the Warsaw Metro, using a lightweight aluminium structure and a single bogie instead of two to reduce the weight by around 10 to 20 per cent compared to similar trains. Siemens’ senior principal engineer for urban transport, Lutz Uebel, explained that this had been achieved using new simulation tools to more exactly determine the forces acting at the interfaces of the structure.

Combined with regenerative braking, new electronic control systems and a new generation of converters, this helps would help to make the train up to 30 per cent more energy efficient, the company claims. It also says the choice of materials means around 95 per cent of the train would be recyclable.

Neue Ausstellung im Crystal in London - "Going underground: Our journey to the future" / New exhibition at the Crystal - "Going underground: Our journey to the future"

The efficient layout of the propulsion and control systems underneath the carriage floor has also created room for air conditioning units, which solves the problem previous deep tube trains have had of where to place air con equipment.

But even more impressively, Siemens claims the train would produce less heat than existing air-conditioning-free trains, helping to reduce temperatures in the wider Tube network. To do this the firm is examining the use of phase-change materials that would capture the heat in the tunnels and then release it when the train moved onto the overground portion of the line. The Inspiro could literally be the coolest train ever made for the Underground.

New exhibition at the Crystal - "Going underground: Our journey to the future"

Another big change would be if the trains (should Siemens win any tender that came up) were made in the UK, and staff at the Inspiro preview event hinted this could be a possibility.

Siemens doesn’t have any UK train factories, although it does manufacture some components such as automation systems here, and its securing of the contract to provide rolling stock for the Thameslink line through London caused controversy because it threatened the existence of Britain’s last train manufacturing facility, owned by Bombardier.

Neue Ausstellung im Crystal in London - "Going underground: Our journey to the future" / New exhibition at the Crystal - "Going underground: Our journey to the future"

Steve Scrimshaw, managing director of Siemens’ UK rail systems division, said the company was acutely aware of the importance of localising manufacturing where possible, particularly following the Thameslink decision. ‘It has to make sense. It’s a balance between deliverability and localisation,’ he said.

This was a heavily caveat laden recognition of the public pressure on government and on multinational firms to support UK manufacturing that has increased in recent years. It could all be spin to generate publicity and support for the firm, and staff said the Thameslink model should be taken as a benchmark.

Neue Ausstellung im Crystal in London - "Going underground: Our journey to the future" / New exhibition at the Crystal - "Going underground: Our journey to the future"

But it’s worth remembering that earlier this year Hitachi agreed to build a new factory in County Durham as part of its contract to supply new Intercity Express trains, so it’s certainly a possibility Siemens, with its 13 existing UK manufacturing sites, might be willing to do the same.

The full-scale model of the Inspiro concept Tube train will be on display for three months from 8 Oct at Siemens’ Smart Cities exhibition at The Crystal in London’s docklands.