Ever thought about the tech behind your daily commute?

When you’re on the train or Tube in the morning, bleary eyed and waiting for your morning caffeine fix to kick in, chances are you’re thinking about your busy day ahead or what to have for lunch – not picking apart the technology behind the different aspects of your commute.

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But the clever technology that goes on behind the scenes is what allows you to get to work quickly and conveniently – and it’s a lot more fascinating than you might think.

Phil Young, Head of Online at Transport for London (TfL), spoke exclusively to Dice regarding their innovative and ever-evolving technology: “We always look to put our customers and users at the centre of everything we do”.

Young also explained to us the importance of free open data, stating: “Getting the latest travel information direct to customers when and where they want it is key to enabling them to make the best possible journeys, avoiding delays or closures. 

“Millions of Londoners use apps powered by our free open data, alongside our website, to check the Tube, find a bus or see how the roads are running. In an age of digital innovation, the opportunities that providing free open data can present are incredibly exciting and seemingly endless.”

The tech wizards at TfL are ultimately the backbone of our daily commute – so, here we look at three of their most fascinating technologies and the science behind them…

What happens when you scan your Oyster card?

oyster-cardMillions of Londoners rely on their trusty blue Oyster card to get around the city each day; but it’s just a regular card with a microchip in it, right? Well, not exactly…

The first Oyster cards were launched in July 2003, and operated with a basic MIFARE microchip. However, these had limited computing power and security concerns were soon raised when, in 2008, a team of Danish researchers were able to clone other people’s ‘smartcards’ and essentially travel on the underground for free. Security experts also highlighted the fact that the same microchips were being used in ID cards that allowed access to thousands of secure buildings and locations, meaning that public safety was being put at risk.

So, what changed?

The original microchips were replaced with the more advanced radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology – the same used by near field communication (NFC) in our smartphones. Basically, the card acts like a tiny computer inside your wallet; when the card is placed near the RFID reader, it creates an electromagnetic field between the two, allowing data to be transferred to the card identifying the start or end of your journey, and writing data back to the reader.

The latest Oyster cards have their own operating system, file structure for storing data, and encryption capabilities. But the really clever bit is that these computers don’t need a power source – the reader transmits energy to the card in the form of radio waves, generating power produced by electromagnetic induction. This gives the microchip just enough energy to allow access to the data inside.

Did you know…?

Many commuters are unaware that each Oyster card has its own unique number, and that TfL holds journey and transaction data about every Oyster card for up to eight weeks (although full registration details are held centrally, not on individual cards). Over the last ten years or so, Oyster card data has been increasingly used as an investigative tool by the police, who first have to request access from TfL. It also means you can check their website to see what journeys you have made with your card over the past eight weeks, and whether you’ve been overcharged by faulty readers. And if you’ve been undercharged? Well, we’ll leave that one to you…

How do escalators really work?escalator

Funny things, escalators – we don’t really appreciate them until they stop working and we have to take the stairs, but they’re a vital part of our daily commute. In fact, since the first escalator was installed at Earl’s Court in 1911, there now are 430 throughout the Tube network, compared to just 167 lifts; so, ensuring that these heavy-duty machines operate smoothly and stay in top condition is a major priority for the TfL team.

Like all escalators, Tube escalators have a pair of chains at their core, looped around two pairs of gears. A 100-horsepower electric motor drives the top gears, which in turn rotates the chain loops; as the chains move, the steps always remain level. As well as this, the motor also moves the handrail – a rubber conveyor belt configured to move at the same speed as the steps.

But what’s special about tube escalators?

Tube escalators aren’t like your typical escalators in stores and shopping centres. They operate 20 hours per day, 7 days a week, carrying millions of travellers each year at speeds of up to 180ft per minute – which means they’re under a lot of pressure!

These impressive machines also have full suppression, communication and fire detection systems built into them, which have to be tested and approved before they can be made available for public use. With approximately 15,000 moving parts in a typical escalator, maintaining them is an ongoing task and work can take months to complete.

Here are some (genuinely) interesting facts about Tube escalators:

  • Escalators in tube stations carry on average 10,000 people per hour, or around 1.3 billion each year.
  • All escalators have to be refurbished after 20 years and replaced after 40 years.
  • Over the course of its lifetime, a typical escalator will travel the equivalent distance of going to the moon and back.
  • The longest escalator is at Angel, measuring 60m long with a vertical rise of 27.5m, while the shortest is at Stratford, coming in at just 4.1m (meaning you should probably take the stairs!)

How does Wi-Fi on the Tube work?wifi

Just a few years ago, we never would have dreamed that we’d be able to send messages while travelling on the Tube – let alone access the internet! But in an age where people are used to constant connectivity, and with the 2012 London Olympics having prompted the need to help large volumes of travellers get around, Virgin Media’s Tube Wi-Fi network has now become a standard part of people’s daily commute.

Thanks to this high-speed internet connection, commuters can now use Wi-Fi enabled devices to catch up on emails, find helpful information or check social media on their way to work.

Wi-Fi hotspots are designed to provide access in ticket halls and on platforms, so don’t expect to connect when you’re going through tunnels or between stations; but as soon as you reach the next Wi-Fi enabled station, your device will automatically re-connect. This means it’s advisable not to try activities that require continuous connection, such as downloading large files or conference calls – some things are best left for the office!

Did you know…?

Those who have contracts with EE (Orange and T-Mobile), Three, Vodafone, O2 and Virgin, can access the Wi-Fi for free at 253 stations – that’s an impressive 95% of the Tube network. Tourists (or those on other contracts) can still access it, but they’ll have to pay for the privilege – perhaps that Tweet can wait, after all.

According to the Travel in London report, provided to us by TfL…

A total of 26.6 million trips were made on an average day in 2014, some 2% higher than the previous year and 8.2% more than in 2008. By 2041, it’s predicted that there will be a staggering 5.5 million more trips made each day.

This strong year-on-year growth has been a consistent feature of the last decade or so and is expected to continue in future years.

With more and more people using the Tube, developing plans to accommodate this growth and maintain and support London’s economic success will continue to be a major preoccupation for TfL. There’s bound to be continuing technological advances as the years go by… watch this space to find out how they work!

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2 Responses to “Ever thought about the tech behind your daily commute?”

July 30, 2016 at 7:58 pm, george said:

These RFID chips are in product packages as well. So when you leave a store the company know what you have bought (or stole!)


July 30, 2016 at 7:58 pm, george said:

These RFID chips are in product packages as well. So when you leave a store the company know what you have bought (or stole!)


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