The Tube Train That Never Needs To Stop

Imagine a Tube where there is no gap to mind. A train that could whisk passengers direct from point of boarding to final destination without making calls at all the stations in between. Imagine a Tube where those getting off need never jostle with those getting on. Imagine a Tube that never stops.

William Aitken of Windermere Road, Muswell Hill imagined and patented such a system 90 years ago. His concept envisages a continuously moving train, which jettisons and accumulates carriages, and thereby passengers, as it moves along the track. Londonist contributor Chris Coltrane stumbled across the zany concept a few months ago in a yellowing science magazine found in his attic. We’ve now tracked down (well, Googled) the patent and present here an alternative concept for ‘Improvements in Railway Train Systems, and the Like’.

To illustrate Aitken’s idea, let’s catch the southbound Piccadilly line from Kings Cross to Leicester Square. We head downstairs and join other newcomers in a single, stationary car on a ‘feeder’ track. The car is marked ‘Piccadilly Circus’, the station five stops down the line and where this carriage is destined to end up.

At each station, a new carriage joins the front of the train, while the rear carriage uncouples and comes to rest in the feeder track of the station, where passengers alight. The situation shown here is the Southbound Piccadilly at Kings Cross.

At each station, a new carriage joins the front of the train, while the rear carriage uncouples and comes to rest in the feeder track of the station, where passengers alight. The situation shown here is the Southbound Piccadilly at Kings Cross.

At each station, a new carriage joins the front of the train, while the rear carriage uncouples and comes to rest in the feeder track of the station, where passengers alight. The situation shown here is the Southbound Piccadilly at Kings Cross.

After a short wait, the doors close and our car accelerates out of the feeder track and onto the main Piccadilly Line just ahead of a southbound train. Our carriage, now going at a similar speed to this train, couples to it. We find ourselves in the frontmost carriage of a five-car train.

In short order, we reach the next station, Russell Square. Our train does not stop here. Instead, those wishing to get off have made their way to the rear carriage, which is clearly labelled ‘Russell Square’. As we pass through, that car is decoupled and diverted onto the Russell Square feeder track, where it stops for passengers to alight. Meanwhile, a new car labelled ‘Green Park’ overtakes us from the Russell Square feeder track and becomes the lead carriage. Thanks to this coupling, we now find ourselves in the second carriage.

Leicester Square, where we wish to alight, is getting closer so we need to make sure we’re in the correct car for disembarkation when the time comes. We pass through the doors at the end of the carriage into the adjacent car, which is marked ‘Leicester Square’, and wait here.

After carriages are jettisoned at Holborn and Covent Garden, our carriage is at the rear of the train. As we approach Leicester Square, the carriage decouples and feeds into the sidings at that station, where we alight. The empty carriage then moves forward (empty) to the loading area, where new passengers embark and await a through-train.

Got all that? Adopting such a system would require epic changes to infrastructure and passenger behaviour but might prove more efficient if certain obstacles could be overcome. The carriages would have to be driverless, and passengers must be prepared to move along the train to reach the correct carriage. There is also no allowance for popularity of station—we all know that the carriage for Piccadilly Circus would be more cramped than that for Russell Square.

So, transport buffs, what do you reckon? Is such a system feasible? What are the major drawbacks and advantages? Have any transport companies ever tried the idea? Let us know in the comments.

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  • http://undefined JMH

    More so than passenger comfort, a system where the “main” train didn’t stop but rather had cars added and removed while in motion would be advantageous because of energy efficiency: most of the energy a train (or any vehicle, I suppose) uses is in acceleration and braking. I’m pretty sure I’ve read about this sort of system being tested in Japan but I don’t have a link handy; have to see if I can find it.

  • http://undefined paulcox

    It wouldn’t be much fun for passengers only going a stop or two, who would have to very quickly get from the front to the back end of the train. Nor would it be much fun for those going long distances, who would have to be constantly moving forward to avoid being dropped off. All in all there would be an awful lot of people running back and forth, and the only ones who would have a chance to relax and read a book would be those going exactly five stops.

    I do however enjoy the name of the patent.

  • http://undefined Tom Williams

    The other obvious problem would be the much higher usage of some stations compared to others: just trying getting into the ‘Bank’ car at 8:45am…

  • http://undefined Mr Thant

    Half of this plan has existed in real life in daily use. They were called “slip carriages” and were not unusual in the days of steam expresses. The majority of the train would run non-stop from e.g. London to Plymouth. Passengers for e.g. Taunton would be in a carriage on the back that was uncoupled while the train was moving. It would be brought to a stop in the station by a guard operating the brake lever.

    I actually think this system could work. A computerised signalling system like the DLR has would certainly be able to make it happen and I don’t see any particularly fatal flaws, assuming you could get coupling at speed to work. I don’t expect it to pass any capacity analysis or cost analysis and certainly rebuilding the existing tube network is out of the question.

    Actually if you drop the need to couple carriages up into trains (which isn’t really a requirement), the system looks a lot like Personal Rapid Transit, where personal pods run non-stop in close formation under computer control, steering off the main line at stations. Such a system is currently under construction at Heathrow Terminal 5, and due to open in April.

  • http://undefined MickGJ

    The problem for passengers would be timing your run to the back correctly. At peak times it might not even be possible to make it through the most crowded carriages, which could lead to a nightmare of overshooting.
    Long-distance passengers could have an easier, if longer ride by calculating the future destinations of the carriages on their train (number the carriages 1-5 starting at the back, divide by five and sit in the one indicated by the remainder). So if you’re going six stops you sit in the rear car, stopping once, if your going fourteen you sit in car number four but have to stop twice.
    The nightmare journey is one stop, so maybe people should walk those short distances.

  • Gavin

    This isn’t practical. I don’t buy the energy line either. Any saving is easily offset by the energy needed at every single station to move and rotate the carriages? The best system is one with ‘express’ service / multiple lines – like NYC.