A driver’s-eye view of the Tube

What does a Tube driver actually do?

The Tube has been a key transport network for London for more than 150 years. We decided it was high time to explore it – by putting a GoPro on one of the drivers.

As integral to London life as it is iconic, the Tube has been in operation since 1863. In its more than 150 years, it has grown immensely: today, trains travel 47.3 million miles (76.2 million kilometres) and carry 1.265 billion passengers each year. The busiest station, Waterloo, sees 89.4 million passengers a year. That’s more than 10 times the city’s population.

Such a massive network, of course, requires a massive amount of work – not only to build, but to operate and maintain each day. The Tube drivers are on the front lines, responsible for ensuring that those 1.265 billion trips go safely each year.

But what exactly does a Tube driver do? What does their day look like? To find out, we persuaded Transport for London (TFL) to let us do something a little unusual: we attached a GoPro to the middle window of the driver’s cab – and to the driver’s chest – for the length of the Piccadilly Line from Heathrow to Cockfosters. The 44-mile (71km) line, which has 53 stations, takes about 1.5 hours to complete.

The rare view from the front of a Tube train's cab

The rare view from the front of a Tube train’s cab

For those used to hearing that planes have become so computerised they practically fly themselves, a Tube train driver seems relatively hands-on. The main controls on the console include the all-important ‘dead man’s handle’, which must be manually held in order for the train to move. When the handle isn’t depressed for 60 seconds, if for example the driver is incapacitated, an alarm sounds; after two minutes, the system’s control room is alerted.

Drivers control the Tube train’s speed, too. And they have to be careful, as there are speed limits. The maximum speed on the Piccadilly line is 45mph (72km/h). As the train approaches the end of the line, that limit creeps all the way down to 10mph (16km/h). When pulling into a platform, experience and training on their particular line is how drivers know where to start braking – but a sign at the end of every platform, showing the driver exactly where to stop, helps, too. And instead of one, there are two braking systems. One works with friction. The other is rheostatic, meaning that the motors’ electrical energy – which dissipates as heat – is cooled via a ‘braking grid’, a system of resistors on board which are protected with large cooling fans.

What about the passenger doors? Out-of-town tourists accustomed to automatic doors that sense obstruction and don’t shut, like elevators, often are surprised by the how firmly a Tube’s doors snap closed – even if a purse or backpack is trapped inside. But that system isn’t fully automated. Instead, at every stop, the driver uses CCTV or mirrors on the platforms to check that it’s safe to close the doors. Once they close, they do keep closing, although there is a bit of ‘give’ in case something is caught. That’s why there are the multiple announcements to ‘mind the closing doors’ and warning beeps.

If it sounds like the kind of work that could get tiring, it is. That’s why a Tube train driver is only allowed to work up to four hours 15 minutes at a time, and then must take a break.

This story is a part of BBC Britain – a new series focused on exploring this extraordinary island, one story at a time. Readers outside of the UK can see every BBC Britain story by heading to the Britain homepage; you also can see our latest stories by following us on Facebook and Twitter.

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