Stroll into one of the refurbished stations on the Glasgow Subway for the first time and it’ll feel like you’ve entered a brand new underground railway. The striking orange, black and grey colour scheme, new tiling and brighter lighting have transformed gloomy and drab concourses and platforms into a futuristic metro system.
Eye-catching white-on-orange station names are backlit in ticket offices, while natural light is adding to the new lighter feel at stations such as Govan and Kelvinbridge.
This comes on top of the Subway boasting Scotland’s most sophisticated ticket system, with passengers using electronic smartcards on the 15-station circle receiving discounted fares.
But the Subway – no one ever calls it the Clockwork Orange – is also the third oldest in the world (after London and Budapest), only months away from its 120th anniversary.
The current trains may have been repainted to mirror the new colour scheme but staff battle to keep the 36-year-old carriages running. I’m told some parts are of a similar technical vintage as Second World War Wellington bombers.
The stunning revamp that’s visible to passengers is actually only the tip of the iceberg of a near £300 million modernisation project.
Even more dramatic will be driverless trains – with windows at front and back – which are due to arrive for testing in about three years time and introduced in 2020.
However, the major work is taking place behind the scenes, with new signalling and the upgrading of tunnels and track the most significant since the Subway was completed in 1896, including during its closedown in the late 1970s for a three-year overhaul.
Tens of thousands of tonnes of grout have been pumped into the walls to keep water at bay in what is effectively one of Glasgow’s biggest drains. All the pumps have been replaced. Just as well, because if they fail and millions of gallons of water stopped being diverted, the Subway would flood.
In an extraordinary mix of old and new, some of the system’s original maintenance locomotives and wagons are still being used for the work.
Some of that took place during the system’s five-week closure until earlier this month, such as replacing the junction where trains enter and exit from the Broomloan depot in Govan.
The project is all the more remarkable for the confined space in which up to 200 engineers had to work.
Supposedly, in order to stop rival railway companies using the system to their own advantage, its track is 8.5 inches narrower than standard, and the tunnels are just 11ft across.
Photographs on show at the depot of the removal of old concrete during the recent closure look like there’s been an earthquake.
The future is being plotted in the “Station 16” testing area of the depot, and in a nearby room, officials are getting a first, virtual-reality peek at how the new trains will look and operate.
Outside, a test track will be built, running south almost as far as Ibrox stadium so that the new, remotely controlled trains can be put their paces at full speed.
It is an exciting time for a unique part of Scotland’s transport network. I’m told the Subway has already attracted almost all its passengers back, just a week after re-opening.
Completion of its transformation in around five years’ time may well bring in many more.