Tube train shortage blighting Central line could spread across network, TfL chief warns

Transport for London has been unable to set a date for the return of normal service on the Central line despite engineers working overtime to replace worn-out motors on the ageing fleet of trains.

Problems began in November when the shortage of trains resulted in long gaps between services, causing delays and severe overcrowding, especially at central London stations.

TfL chiefs plan to introduce an emergency timetable over the next four weeks to even out the gaps in service but were unable to say when enough trains would be repaired to restore peak-hour frequencies.

There are 85 trains in the Central line fleet and 71 are needed during the morning and evening peaks. But on Wednesday morning only 54 trains were available – 17 fewer than required.

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Andy Lord is the TfL commissioner (Transport for London)
Andy Lord is the TfL commissioner (Transport for London)

The Standard was given a behind-the-scenes tour of the Central line’s Hainault depot to understand the scale of the problem.

It came as TfL commissioner Andy Lord admitted the shortage of trains could spread to other lines - such as the Bakerloo, Northern and Piccadilly, prior to its new trains arriving from 2025 – due to a lack of funding to carry out regular “heavy overhauls” over the last few years.

Each eight-carriage Central line train has 32 electric motors – one driving each axle. But it only takes one motor to fail, or suffer a “flashover” - meaning traction is lost - for the train to have to be withdrawn from service.

The broken motor is removed and sent to a depot in Acton for repair. The “DC” motors are obsolete – meaning they have to be patched-up and reused rather than being replaced with entirely new, more reliable motors.

Up to 30 motors a week are being repaired – but engineers admit that no sooner is a train returned to service than another breaks down, leaving them struggling to keep up with the repairs backlog, which also includes a number of trains with faulty doors. However the failure rate appears to have slowed in recent days.

Two years ago there would be three or four “flashovers” a week. At one stage recently this increased to 30 a week. The root cause of the motor failures remains a mystery.

Asked by the Standard when normal peak-hours frequencies would be restored, Glynn Barton, TfL’s chief operating officer, was unable to provide a date.

He said: “We are working round the clock to get as many trains out there. What we will be doing is making sure we have a regular service for customers – a service where they know what to expect when they turn up.”

The Central trains are more than 30 years old. TfL cannot afford to replace them but, separate to the emergency motor repairs, is refurbishing five at a time – including with brand new “AC” motors – in a £500m upgrade that will take until 2029 to complete. This will seek to keep the trains in service for another 10 to 15 years. However each train is out of service for about four months during its refurbishment.

“We are facing quite a difficult set of problems,” Mr Barton said. “We have a really ageing fleet here. Unfortunately what happens is one motor fails and we have to take that train out. We can’t take one train out of service and completely refresh all its motors because we wouldn’t be able to sustain a service if we did that.”

Mr Lord said tackling the problems on the Central line was TfL’s “number one operational priority at the moment”.

He said: “We do need to recognise that this is one of the impacts of the funding situation we have incurred over the last few years, because we have not been able to undertake the heavy overhaul of these trains as was originally required.

“We are not operating them unsafely – we will never operate them unsafely, which is why trains are being taken out of service.

“But this is the direct consequence of lack of funding and lack of investment, and it is why it is so important that we get a long-term funding arrangement going forward. Otherwise this [problem] will start to roll out on other fleets across the network.”