Willy Wonka Elevators May Come to London Underground

June 29, 2016 | Comments

As whimsical as they may have seemed in the 1964 classic Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, sideways elevators are being seriously considered as a viable means of transporting human traffic through the London Underground.

An expert panel held in London featured representatives from Transport for London, London First, Arup, WSP, thyssenkrupp and Weston Williamson. The topic was how to advance the city’s transit system to meet 21st-century needs. Issues included adapting to growing traffic, increasing system efficiency and meeting accessibility demands.

Being the world’s oldest underground transport network, the Tube is a complex system that carries around 1.34 billion people every year. The intricate network of platforms and rail lines is what makes it one of the most iconic civil engineering designs. However, despite its advances, the system badly needs upgrades and more direct routes for passengers to take between stations and platforms.

LONDON - APRIL 15: Inside view of London underground on April. 10 2015 in London UK. London's system is the oldest underground railway in the world dating back to 1863.

The London Underground, or the Tube, is the oldest underground railway, dating back to 1863.

Experts in the recently held panel had a discussion about the possibility of incorporating the new MULTI elevator design into the London Underground. MULTI was developed by the German company thyssenkrupp, and it uses linear motor technology to enable cars to move horizontally as well as vertically.

“Ropeless elevator technology, like the MULTI system designed by thyssenkrupp, has the potential to redefine existing infrastructure and open up unprecedented levels of access both in-between platforms and from the platforms to the world above,” said Chris Williamson, cofounder and partner at architecture firm Weston Williamson.

“This kind of innovation is key for future city design and could provide a game-changing solution to solve the mobility issues that so many underground networks now face.”


Stepping Inside the MULTI Elevator

thyssenkrupp regards itself as the first company to break the 160-year-old tradition of building vertical elevators. Its overall concept is to transport elevator cars in rotating shafts instead of only in up-and-down directions. According to the company, this will decrease elevator wait times to just between 15 and 30 seconds and will increase the transportation of passengers by at least 50 percent.

So how does it work? Not unlike its fictitious counterparts, it turns out. While there doesn’t seem to be much engineering theory behind the sideways elevators in Willy Wonka, it is generally believed that the Turbolift in Star Trek is powered by linear induction motors—the same technology that drives MULTI. Might I suspect a few Trekkies on thyssenkrupp’s engineering design team?


The Engineering Purpose of MULTI

As shown in the promotional animation, the MULTI elevator is guided by electromagnetic shafts that have rotating components, allowing the elevator cars to switch direction on command.

This particular video considers MULTI as a possible replacement for elevators in buildings, but engineers have since entertained the possibility of incorporating MULTI into infrastructural transit networks.

“MULTI was initially developed for tall buildings to double elevator shaft capacity, reduce elevator footprint and offer vertical and horizontal movement to enable architects to construct taller, more creative and more user-friendly structures, but its concept makes it a prime solution to the challenges of metro stations as well,” said Andreas Schierenbeck, CEO of thyssenkrupp.


New Heights in Efficiency and Building Dimensions

thyssenkrupp claims that MULTI elevators take up half the space of conventional elevators since it can incorporate multiple cars into fewer shafts, as opposed to our current one-car-per-shaft elevator design. The compactness of the MULTI elevator system allows for more flexibility in terms of building and infrastructure design.

Another advantage of the MULTI elevator is that it is much lighter. This is a result of both the material choice, which is made of carbon composites, and the elimination of steel cables and counterweights that are needed by conventional elevators.

This is beneficial in that it can make the elevator more energy efficient, and it pushes height limits of new buildings.

Aside from funding, the most significant factor that limits a skyscraper’s height is the complications it causes the elevator system. After reaching hundreds of meters in height, the weight of the steel cables creates too much strain. It can be so significant that a small physical stress like a windy day can put an elevator out of service. Not very practical to take the stairs in a 100-story building.

With the MULTI elevator system, architects are no longer limited by elevator shaft height or vertical alignment. In fact, buildings can not only be built higher but can be made in unique shapes, while still enjoying a reliable transportation service.

weird building

Engineers are no longer limited by the complexities of incorporating a vertical elevator system. (Image courtesy of tyssenkrupp.)


Performance of MULTI to Be Determined in Rottweil

thyssenkrupp is taking elevator testing to new heights by constructing a building specifically designed so that engineers can see how new elevator technologies perform in real life. The 807-ft Test Tower in Rottweil, Germany, is to be completed this year, and it will demonstrate the new MULTI elevator technology.

Curious engineers can see the Test Tower’s progress, as the company has been documenting almost every step of its construction. In fact, an image is updated every 15 minutes on thyssenkrupp’s website, where there are also numerous clips showing its construction progress.

For those who are brave enough, the tower will also host Germany’s highest observation point at 232 . The main purpose of the building, however, is to test new elevators for buildings that may be over twice its own height.

Trial operations are to be conducted in December 2016 and the official inauguration ceremony, May 2017. Of the 12 elevator shafts being installed in the Test Tower, three of them are reserved for the MULTI elevator system.

If successful, it is entirely possible that this innovative elevator design may be implemented for everyday passengers in metro stations. Instead of navigating through confusing networks of escalators, stairs and walkways, passengers can simply walk inside the MULTI, press a button, and be taken directly to the desired train platform. The odd Star Trek fan may even say, “Beam me sideways, Scotty!”


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