Subway for the suburbs

It sounds like a good idea, but Hugh Pearman finds out why it doesn’t work when he takes the Tube to Amersham. It’s less vision of the future, more journey into the past

I’m in the depths of the countryside in Spring. I am also on a London Underground train. These things are not mutually exclusive because I happen to be on the Metropolitan Line, and I am on my way to Amersham in Buckinghamshire, the furthest-flung, highest and most verdant outpost of the Tube system. I’ve got a meeting in the area, which gives me an excuse to inspect the phenomenon that Sir John Betjeman called Metroland. It’s time the city and the country came to terms: is this the ideal model?

It is all slightly bizarre. The trains, for a start, though recently refurbished and repainted, are 40 years old. That makes them the oldest on the system. Unlike any other London Underground train type, they have aluminium umbrella racks and coat hooks. Their carriages and seats are so wide and high that five people can sit comfortably abreast. Well, not so comfortably. Once released on to the open rails beyond Baker Street, the trains’ ancient underpinnings become all too apparent. Any speed greater than 20mph initiates a sickening swaying and lurching motion. Your newspaper becomes a blur before your eyes. You find yourself constantly jolted from your seat. But that’s OK: I’ve come to stare out of the window at suburbia.

Metroland is a tentacle of city reaching 27 miles into the Chilterns with its own once exemplary public transport spine. The whole fantastic idea of getting on a train in bosky, hilly Amersham, and alighting in the heart of the bustling City at Aldgate, is immensely appealing. On that simple premise, the whole of Metroland was built from Victorian times onwards. Property prices were predicated on season ticket prices and journey times. It worked both ways – the smoke and danger of the city had a direct escape route to healthy country living: the English dream.

But what happens when such a service starts to run down? The further you get out of London, the dodgier the infrastructure becomes. Beyond Wembley Park, computerised signalling ceases and you are back in the era of signal boxes. The electric cabling alongside the track is 1950s vintage. The Sheffield-built trains break down with increasing frequency. The less characterful, but newer, smoother Chiltern Line trains whizz past on their way to Marylebone, a station that is fine for north west London but nowhere else. Gradually the Metropolitan Line is being sidelined. To upgrade it fully would be hugely expensive. It doesn’t look as if it has much of a future.

I’m one of just three people to alight at Amersham, which tells you all you need to know. True, it’s a weekday mid-morning, well outside the commuter rush, but I’d expect more people to use the service. Of course, we’re all meant to frown at the idea of commuting these days, and with more people working from their terminals at home it may be on the wane, but there’s commuting and commuting. While the stations have a ghost-town feel, Amersham and all the other suburbs along the line are busy with cars. The ancient electric railway seems rather irrelevant.

I’m not a railway buff, nor a business brain, but if I was in charge of forward planning at London Underground, I’d consider closing the Metropolitan Line, once the system became too unreliable to sustain – which may be soon. There are no plans to replace the trains, but more extensive refurbishments are being considered. Does it matter, anyway? Hasn’t the public-transport element of Metroland had its day?

No. Everyone agrees better public transport is needed. But good, frequent, dense public transport is generally only possible in big cities – the further out you go, the more infrequent and widely-spaced services are. This is why suburbia is mostly car-dependent. Annoyingly, it is also where most people live. But what if you could solve this – design the perfect, money-no-object public transport system for the farthest flung reaches of suburbia, right out into the country? You would invent a spine system exactly like the Metropolitan Line, then create subsidiary systems feeding into it. Manchester’s new tram service is a cut-price version of this. London, however, cares little for its neglected Rolls-Royce version.

On London Underground’s website you can read about service “improvements” on the Metropolitan Line, which mean ending that magical through service from Amersham to the City, and reducing the outlying service to a minimum. If you can be bothered to wait for a train, you’ll have to change at Baker Street from now on. While politicians bicker over the Tube, the prototype for a 21st century suburban public transport system is being dismantled by stealth.

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