London's Tube Is Dangerously Hot, and the City Can't Do Much About It

Temperatures inside trains have climbed above government guidelines for safely transporting livestock. But narrow tunnels leave few options for modern climate control. 

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Flickr/JD

It’s not fair to compare London’s cramped commuters to cattle; right now, livestock actually get the better deal. As temperatures in the U.K.’s capital push towards 90 degrees for the second week running, heat levels in London’s Tube and bus system have now risen above the EU limit at which it is legal to transport cows, sheep, and pigs. The highest recorded temperature on the network so far this year is 96 degrees Fahrenheit, 10 degrees above the permissible 86 degrees Fahrenheit for livestock.

If that sounds bad (and it does), London is actually doing OK compared to previous heat waves. In 2006, temperatures in one Tube train reached an unprecedented high of 116 degrees Fahrenheit thanks to a system that has no real air conditioning installed. At temperatures like these, so many people risk fainting that a crowded Tube carriage can look like the witness box at the Salem Witch Trials. So, how can London, city of fog, tolerate such steamy hell?

In small part, it’s due to a Keep Calm And Carry On attitude here that allows officialdom to depend on a public that will grumble (and somewhat enjoy doing so) rather than revolt. There have been a few rumbles of protest, such as this summer’s Naked Commuter, but London’s occasional impressions of the horrendous Black Hole of Calcutta are usually short-lived. By the time there’s consensus that overheating is acute, the worst has usually passed. It’s not like living on the United States’ Eastern seaboard where, if my memory serves me correctly, leaving the house throughout the summer makes you feel like you’re wearing a wet sock over your head. This is also why London finds itself annually immobilized and dumbfounded by its yearly three to five days of snow. It doesn’t necessarily seem worth a major investment in either snow plows or air conditioning for a few days’ disruption.

The real problem, however, is that London’s subway network just doesn’t have the room to solve the problem. The network was started back in 1863, before people even had flush toilets let alone artificially cooled air. But the oldest lines aren’t actually the worst offenders: London’s mid-Victorian lines were standard cut-and-cover tracks following the lines of streets, and they’re broad enough to accommodate new fully air conditioned trains. It may be long overdue, but London’s suit-wearers will be relieved to hear that these four lines will have standard air conditioning by 2016. Likewise, the wonderful Overground network—aka the Ginger Line—is fully air conditioned and blissfully cool.

Deeper down, on the rest of the network, it’s a different story. Tunnels on lines like the Central Line were excavated to be extremely snug. You see the cable covered walls screeching past directly outside the window. There just isn’t enough room within the tunnels to safely disperse the hot air expelled by air conditioning units. Trains on these lines do have some air blown in from vents (and windows at the ends of carriages that open to provide a breeze), but the gusts they provide is more Barbie hair dryer than Wuthering Heights.

A possible way around this would be to use heat pumps to cool stations and tunnels, rather than the trains themselves, but this solution still seems a long way off from being implemented. In the meantime, London’s transit users will just have to sit and stew.

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