Tube noise ‘as loud as a plane take-off’, prompting warnings of hearing damage

Northern Line is the noisiest on the London Underground system

Simon Calder
Travel Correspondent
Monday 07 October 2019 19:43
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London's tube drivers go slow over noise: We test the loudest

Screech, rattle and grind: as Tube drivers on four London Underground lines prepare to go-slow on key stretches of the network, The Independent has recorded sound levels for passengers of up to 107.7 decibels.

Drivers who belong to the RMT union have voted overwhelmingly for industrial action on the Central, Jubilee, Northern and Victoria lines of western Europe’s busiest transport network.

These lines correspond to the most-complained about by passengers. Drivers will begin an indefinite go-slow on the loudest stretches on Thursday 10 October.

To assess the scale of the noise problem, The Independent conducted a sound survey on key sections of the Underground network using a sound pressure meter.

Between Euston and Camden Town on the City branch of the Northern line, the sound peaked at 107.7 decibels – roughly corresponding to being within 1,000 feet of a jet aircraft at take-off.

Tube drivers are provided with ear defenders if required. Passengers are not.

The next worst stretch in The Independent survey was on the Central line between Liverpool Street and Bethnal Green, which hit 102 decibels.

There are no legal limits on the amount of noise or vibration that can be emitted from trains operating on existing railways.

Like the Northern, the Central is one of the older deep Tube lines. For reasons of economy while building, the tunnels were dug directly beneath streets on the surface.

Quiet please: the loudest stretch recorded on the London Underground was between Euston and Camden Town

Between Bank and Liverpool Street, for example, the Central turns by 90 degrees to change course from Cheapside to Old Broad Street.

The Victoria and Jubilee lines are more modern with fewer curves.

The maximum readings on both these lines were in the high 90s – well above the level at which Health and Safety Executive (HSE) rules come into effect for workers in factories.

Distorted public-address announcements added to the din.

But passengers waiting on the platform could experience even higher levels of noise for departing trains, especially at the end of the platform where trains are accelerating away.

On the northbound Jubilee line platform at Green Park, a peak reading of 98 decibels was taken.

The RMT union says the problem is particularly acute on stretches when a particular kind of rail fastening, known as Pandrol Vanguard, is fitted. The go-slow applies only to those sections.

Mick Cash, the union’s general secretary, said: “My members will be instructed to drive trains in manual mode at an appropriate reduced speed to mitigate the creation of excessive noise and to alleviate the distraction, discomfort and anxiety caused in the affected areas.”

The drivers’ industrial action is likely to disrupt the affected lines severely, particularly in rush hours. The Tube system is tuned to operate at maximum efficiency with trains running at the shortest intervals possible.

Trains running at reduced speed on some sections will sharply reduce the number of services that can run, increasing waiting times and crowding on trains and platforms.

In terms of passenger complaints, the Northern line is regarded as by far the noisiest. In the year to June 2019, Transport for London received a total of 331 complaints for the Northern line. In second place with 46 was the Jubilee; third, with 31, the Victoria line; and fourth, with 27, the Central line.

A TfL spokesperson said: “We have met with the RMT on a number of occasions on the plans we have to tackle Tube noise and look forward to continuing to work with them to find a resolution.

“We have already agreed to provide a broader range of ear protection to drivers who wish to use it alongside plans for longer-term solutions.”

The HSE says: “Noise at work can cause irreversible hearing damage. It is one of the commonest health problems and can be difficult to detect as the effects build up gradually over time.

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“Wherever there is noise exposure at work, employers should be looking for ways of working that would reduce the noise or mean that people are exposed for shorter times.”

Noise on the Tube has increased since a programme of replacing old wooden sleepers with the current industry standard of concrete sleepers began early in the 2000s.

But Ian Robins, a former civil engineer on the London Underground, said: “Noise has been a problem ever since the system opened in 1863, with steam locomotives.

“Even with electric trains, it’s always been a problem with steel wheels running on steel rails in a confined space, particularly going around tight bends.”

More modern lines on the Paris Metro run on rubber tyres, though these are neither as efficient nor as long-lasting as steel wheels.

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