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A Small Word About Our Current ATO Offering

One of the most frequently discussed subjects around London Underground routes for BVE is that of Automatic Train Operation (ATO).

First, a history lesson

Until the Victoria Line first opened to passengers in 1968, it was nothing more than a concept that was being trialled out on a small section of the Central Line. It wasn’t until some years later with the massive modernisation program of the entire Central Line in the late 1990s that it became more commonplace. Until then the Victoria Line remained the sole tube line to be equipped with ATO. Yes, there was the occasional talk of adding it to the Jubilee Line when it first opened in the 70s, but it was just that, talk.

Of course the latter half of the Noughties told a very different story. Now London Underground wanted to expand the use of ATO wholesale. The Jubilee and Northern Lines were completely resignalled progressively. We’re lead to believe that this is just the start of it. Gone was the charming hiss of train stops as classic 1920s signals went back to danger. Don’t think this is a lecture about automation, far from it. We just wanted to give a brief outline of the history of ATO. Now we can move onto how it affects us at BVE Western Region.

Where do you stand with it?

To us, our very ethos is about preserving the recent past. Showcasing the way our railways were in late 90s – mid 00’s. With this in mind, we want to be as authentic as possible. When it comes to London Underground routes, if it had ATO at the time, then it’ll have ATO in our version of it. The Central Line did indeed have it at this point. This is why we included it. As we’d said earlier, the Jubilee Line wasn’t fitted with ATO until the resignalling program of the late Noughties. Our route predates this by nearly a decade!

If [a route] had ATO at the time, then it'll have ATO in our version of it

You are probably asking us how we feel about ATO. Given that our interest is in preserving the authenticity of the route, it should come as no surprise that we like to preserve the art of driving the train too. However, we understand that ATO is an integral part of the modern London Underground network. This is no different to people who dedicate time and effort to learning how to drive steam trains. This allows people to ride them on heritage railways. Now let’s get into some details about our current offerings.

The Central Line

We have recently been made aware that there are issues surrounding the plug-in which controls ATO and several other functions of the train. Until recently we weren’t seeing these issues. We can only assume this is down to the programming language this was written in and how it performs with modern operating systems.

When we wrote this route we could only use one programming language. So that is the language we used. This language recently fell out of favour for coding as it did not work well with newer operating systems. Currently, we are upgrading the 1992 stock. Working with the developer of BVE, we made the decision to switch from C++ to C#. This is inherently more robust and copes better with modern operating systems. Both the North London and Jubilee Lines make use of this language and to date we have not had any reports of issues with the plug-in “firing up”.

Central Line Screen shot

Are you going to fix the ATO?

For those who are fans of ATO, rest assured we are working to rectify the current reliability issues. We gather that it does not affect everybody. Only certain computer setups seem to be affected and therefore it’s very hard to know if it will affect you or not. As this appears to be an issue with compatibility with newer machines, we have undertaken the massive task of rewriting the plug-in from scratch. The results so far are very exciting and the ATO actually behaves more like the real thing than its predecessor.

What about the ATP?

The ATP system used on the Central Line is of particular interest to us. We believe it was devised by Westinghouse and was based on a similar style system in use in Japan at the time. It is packed full of character. It does so much whilst seemingly displaying so little.

ATO is almost like an overlay that sits above the signalling system itself. For many years while the re-signalling took place, drivers continued to drive the train manually. The difference now was that their speeds were governed by the then new ATP signalling system. This was referred to as ‘Coded Manual Mode’ and is something that is still used today. Indeed, drivers (or ‘Train Operators’ as they like to call them now) are sometimes encouraged to switch to Coded Manual and take control of their train. To the layman, the difference is negligible. Though it has to be said, the ATO is often a bit keener on the accelerator than some humans are!

How long until we see the fix?

An upgrade to our Central Line is well underway. We are hoping to release shortly. This will vastly improve the reliability of the 1992 stock plug-in. We hope this will allow new generations of BVE fans to enjoy this train for years to come. Both ATO and Coded Manual Mode will be much easier to select in our new drivers cab.

The Jubilee Line

A favourite among the community, our Jubilee Line currently runs from Stratford to West Hampstead. It is set around 1999 – 2002 shortly after the highly anticipated Jubilee Line extension. At the time of opening, London Underground had planned to signal the line using the experimental ‘moving block’ system devised by Westinghouse.

Without going too much into the history of this, it was apparent that the system would not be ready in time and would delay opening the line. The line was signalled conventionally and humans continued to drive the trains. There were now new challenges for those that did because the window in which trains had to stop within was particularly unforgiving! Indeed, many who have had a go at our version of the route have commented how difficult it can be at times to accurately stop.

Jubilee Line Screen Shot

Hasn’t it always been the plan to add ATO?

In the real world ATO was always on the cards for the Jubilee Line. The 1996 stock was designed with ATO in mind. By the time this plan was realised, over a decade had passed. Now working with a different company, London Underground used Seltrak to resignal the line. The new signalling system is called TBTC. It was radically different from the planned Westinghouse system. This meant that the trains, which were originally designed to use a different system, had to have an entirely new speedometer (known as the TOD) fitted to the cabs. Around 2008 this refit began to happen.

What we are trying to explain is that to fit ATO to our Jubilee Line would be unrealistic. It didn’t have it at the time we are trying to replicate. As we’d said before, if a line had ATO during the era we’re setting a route in, then it gets it. If it didn’t have it at the time, then our route won’t have it either. But our reasons for not doing it don’t stop there.

To fit ATO to our Jubilee Line would be unrealistic

Why can’t you add TBTC to the Jubilee Line?

The TBTC system used on the line in the present day is particularly complicated to replicate. The ATP system the Central Line uses relies on fixed blocks. These use a mixture of colour light signals and the distinctive signs with a red slash on a white background. This is quite similar to conventional signalling and, with a little bit of jiggery pokery, is something BVE is able to replicate very well. TBTC however uses a moving block principle. This is almost impossible to simulate in BVE as it relies on fixed locations in order to simulate signalling.

There is also the small problem of documentation. We have very little access to detailed information about how TBTC actually works. While there may be plenty of footage of it in action on YouTube, there is only so much you can gauge from this. It is also worth mentioning the TOD. There is so much information this screen displays, it would take a huge effort to realistically replicate this in BVE. Time spent trying to make this would mean no new routes and trains for as long as it takes.

What if you could get hold of reference material?

TBTC is a child of an era that doesn’t personally interest us here at BVE Western Region. This is something we do for free in our spare time, we have to like a project enough to want to do it. The London Underground as it is now doesn’t excite us like it did in the early Noughties. We personally feel that a lot of the soul has been taken out of the network by relentless station refurbishment programs and line modernisations. This is why we are so passionate about preserving the London Underground as it was in an era when many members of the team had first ridden on it.

This certainly doesn’t mean we don’t appreciate everything TFL has done to improve the Underground – far from it. What with Crossrail threatening to open at some point and many more exciting plans, things must move on. 

BVE is currently not capable of simulating TBTC

But to us, driving trains in BVE is about having a bit of escapism. Just like those who have a passion for steam trains, we too have a passion for our rail network as it was barely a decade ago.

So you’ll never add it?

To summarise, BVE is currently not capable of simulating TBTC and is unlikely to be able to in the future. This is not something we are planning to fit and it is unlikely that we would be able to either.

Will you ever make any other London Underground routes (apart from the Central Line) that feature ATO?

In short, we don’t know. If any London Underground routes we do in the future had ATO at the time we chose to replicate, then yes it will have ATO. Otherwise, the answer is no. If we decide to do a route that is currently fitted with TBTC, we will be forced by the limitations of BVE to set it in an era before it was installed.

Jubilee Line At Stratford

We hope this answers your questions and that you continue to join us on our journey to add further routes to our line up. As you may be aware, the North London Line was recently released and we hope to bring you more new and exciting content soon.

As always, you can follow the progress of the Central Line upgrades and any new releases on Twitter.