Central Line meltdown: Commuters face years of chaos as whistleblowers give inside track on clapped-out trains

Tube insiders on Wednesday raised alarming new concerns about the state of the Central line — and warned that passengers faced years of chaos due to “inexcusable” delays in upgrading the clapped-out trains.

Whistle-blowers contacted the Evening Standard to reveal a multitude of “foreseeable” problems on the line caused by years of under-investment.

On Wednesday afternoon, after reading the Standard’s revelations, Mayor Sadiq Khan thanked the employees for coming forward and said he had spoken with Transport for London commissioner Andy Lord.

Mr Khan said: “It’s not right that they need to go to a journalist to report concerns. We have got to create an environment where nobody needs to do that.

“I have spoken to the commissioner today. He has reassured me that that environment does exist.”

Mr Khan blamed the state of the Central line trains on “decades of neglect” and a “lack of investment from central Government”.

He said: “It’s because of the concerns with safety that these trains they’re concerned about have been taken out of service, which means the frequency of trains is less than it should be.”

TfL does not deny that ongoing funding problems mean that it is having to patch-up the 30-year-old Central line trains in a bid to keep them running for another 10 to 15 years as it cannot afford to replace the fleet.

But it insists that safety is paramount and it would never allow an unsafe train to enter service.

The line carries 200 million passengers a year but has suffered chronic train shortages since November, largely due to motors failing. The whistle-blowers, who spoke on condition of anonymity, claimed:

  • When an emergency timetable is introduced next month to “remove uneven gaps” between trains, stations in central London are at risk of being closed at short notice to prevent platforms becoming dangerously overcrowded at peak times.

  • The new timetable will be “closer to the Night Tube” in terms of its frequency, especially at the eastern end of the line, where passengers will also have to rely on replacement buses.

  • Not a single train restored under the delayed, six-year £500 million Central Line Improvement Programme is likely to re-enter full service this year.

  • Some trains are being sent back into service with only three-quarters of their motors working and the others immobilised. This places extra demand on the working motors and may result in less efficient braking.

A warn down wheel on a Central line train
A warn down wheel on a Central line train

They said the state of disrepair of the trains was “an accident waiting to happen” and that they were embarrassed to admit that they worked on the line. One said: “The Central line has imploded.”

London transport commissioner Andy Lord told the TfL board last week that problems would ease “within the next four weeks” when the new timetable was introduced.

The Central line needs 71 trains to run a full peak-hours service but only about 50 trains have been available. Passengers faced further delays on Wednesday.

It is understood the new timetable will aim to provide a train every three minutes in central London during peak hours and every five to 10 minutes further east. Night Tube trains run every 10 to 12 minutes.

But one RMT union source warned: “This timetable change is not going to be just for a few months. It’s going to take two to three years to solve this problem.”

The RMT sources said that staff cuts meant there were not enough engineers to fit new motors to the trains or to fast-track the Central Line Improvement Programme (Clip), which should have started pre-pandemic.

They said that some posts at the Hainault, Ruislip and Acton depots were deliberately being left unfilled to hit cost-savings targets, while a roving squad of engineers, located across the network to fix trains at short notice, was at risk of being disbanded.

Mr Lord admitted that TfL was pursuing “innovative” measures to keep trains “safely and reliably in service” while awaiting the replacement of defective motors. “This is something that has not previously been possible,” he said.

Commuters board an extremely delayed Central Line train (AFP via Getty Images)
Commuters board an extremely delayed Central Line train (AFP via Getty Images)

The Evening Standard was shown photographs of a badly worn train wheel caused when a train was driven — at speeds of up to 60mph — between Liverpool Street and Hainault, without the driver being aware that an axle had seized.

Some train carriages are “held together with tape”, with temporary patches covering holes in the floor.

“The trains have got holes in them,” one said. “The doors are no good. The trains are literally falling apart. It’s like Blue Peter — they’re stuck together with adhesive tape. Clip was going to save the fleet. But then Covid happened. The same trains are still running — but they have been run into the ground.”

Another said: “Sadiq Khan mentioned some months ago, when he was haggling with the Government over funding, the phrase ‘managed decline’. Well, this is exactly what we have got here. It’s inexcusable.”

Routine maintenance was “wound back” in the knowledge that the Clip programme was about to start — but when it was delayed by the pandemic this left the trains in an even worse state of disrepair.

Under the Clip programme, five or six trains are taken out of service at a time to be fully refurbished at a depot in Acton. This should take 10 weeks.

But only one train has re-entered real-life testing – and continues to suffer “teething troubles”, meaning it has yet to carry passengers through central London. TfL insists Clip trains will re-enter service this year.

They said that trains with worn-down wheels – known as “flats” – were at increased risk of derailing.

Many trains are said to be running with “concessions” – having only been passed safe because of short-term adjustments that will require further repairs.

“What is going on at the moment is a precursor to something bigger, such as a derailment,” one source said.

“Passengers need to demand a better service. They’re certainly paying for one. They’re not getting the safety or the regularity of trains they deserve. Ultimately they’re being short-changed.”

Mr Lord said that TfL was “working to minimise the number of trains out of service for other age-related reasons, such as damaged wheel sets”.

He has admitted the problems on the Central line could be replicated on other lines with ageing fleets, such as the Bakerloo, Northern and Piccadilly.

Keith Prince, the Tory transport spokesman on the London Assembly, has accused Mayor Sadiq Khan of preferring pre-election “gimmicks”, such as freezing fares, rather than providing funding to maintain the Tube.

Mr Prince said: "I’m very concerned about reports from whistleblowers that Central Line trains are potentially unsafe. Sadiq Khan and TfL need to come clean urgently about the state of the Central line.”

Richard Jones, director of asset performance delivery for TfL, said: “Safety is our absolute priority and we would never provide anything other than a safe service for our customers.

“Clearly, the reliability of the service our customers have experienced on the Central line in the past few months has not been good enough, and we are fully focused on doing all we can to improve it as quickly as possible while ensuring the safety of our colleagues and customers at all times.

“No train ever enters service if it is not safe to do so. We are strengthening our engineering teams and adding more resource to allow us to carry out repairs on the abnormally high number of motor failures more quickly, and we continue to work on the Central Line Improvement Programme to improve the service in the longer term.

“The new timetable will improve the service. It will give our customers greater certainty on when the next train will arrive.”