Could London’s Underground system jeopardise its status as a world centre? A hot and bothered Paddy Conaghan thinks so

The editor’s deadline means I am writing this in July – a month you may have relegated to dim and distant memory by now. Just to remind you, it was a record breaking scorcher – which amid other recent abnormally hot summers must surely persuade even the deepest sceptic that something is odd about the climate.

While I haven’t visited all the contenders for the world’s No 1 city, I have yet to visit anywhere that can hold a candle to London, where I live and work during the week.

But July was not fun. The office was heavenly (since we designed it ourselves). My flat was a bit uncomfortable, but at least it proved the merit of choosing a pad with a quiet street on one side and courtyard on the other – opening the windows wide at night brought no noise nuisance (except from a neighbour’s party – ugh, Tony Christie at volume!). It was also an opportunity to show the value of an engineering education and how – simply by closing some windows and opening others – it is possible to induce airflows that would make the most diligent punkah wallah proud.

But Hell was the Underground in rush hour. Hardened commuters compressed into super-hot carriages know how to suspend motion. Tourists don’t. They expend energy fanning themselves, moaning and generally getting hotter. They are only silenced by the first, unscheduled stop. Then, by observing a carriageful of eyes turned skyward in common supplication that the train will shortly move on, they understand and freeze too.

Given that these temperatures are not going to be unusual in times ahead, London must do something about its Underground – otherwise it cannot survive as a world centre.

Cooling competition

A couple of years ago, Ken Livingstone, our Mayor, held an open competition to ‘cool the tube’. It was intriguing enough for several of my colleagues to submit proposals.

One came from Hoare Lea partner, Graham Dane, whose sudden death in June still leaves us aghast. At the time of his death, we sent out press information with a ‘biog’ on Graham. The most fulsome obit was published by the Financial Times – something that would have tickled Graham pinker than its broadsheet!

A couple more hot, hellish summers on the Underground might finish off London, rather than its inhabitants…

The FT latched onto his plan to cool the tube, barely mentioning his massive project achievements – despite most of them being for the paper’s prime readership. It obviously grasps the Tube’s importance to London’s fortunes as an international business centre and destination.

So what is happening about cooling the Tube? According to the official websites, it’s advancing. The Mayor has secured £10bn and government consent to over-fund Transport for London for the next five years to give London “a 21st century transport system”. While Ken is undoubtedly focused on the needs of this great city, one wonders if the government would be quite so engaged but for the 2012 Olympics!

The websites also explain that a dedicated project team has been set up. This has surveyed 200 station ventilation plant rooms and undertaken groundwater cooling trials at Victoria (see BSJ 08/05), leading to the start of permanent installation works there. New air-cooled trains for the subsurface lines are also planned, with the first due to arrive in 2009.

We need to move faster

It’s all good stuff, but thank goodness 2012 must act as a deadline!

No one understands better than engineers that Rome wasn’t built in a day – but do Londoners have to face up to six more years of roasting underground?

The hot summer of 2003 was described by Sir David King, the government’s chief scientific officer, as Europe’s biggest natural disaster on record. It was responsible for 32,000 deaths. That was only three years ago. July 2006 was actually hotter – so presumably its toll may be higher.

But a couple more hellish summers on the Tube might finish off the city, rather than its inhabitants. I’ve met many people who are prepared to move themselves and their businesses to avoid such misery. Time is not on London’s side. After all, if the Tube was used to transport animals, NGOs would have seen it shut down long ago.