Boris driverless nonsense


The idea of driverless trains any time in the near future is a ridiculous fantasy and Boris’s musings about them are mere political braggadacio. Sure, as Boris said,the Central and the Victoria lines, and part of the Jubilee are operated automatically, but that’s because the signalling equipment is completely different from those on the other lines.To fit the rest of the Tube network with automatic train control systems would take at least a decade, and cost billions, money which the mayor knows is not available.

 Moreover, the idea of completely unstaffed trains is equally fanciful. When the Victoria Line was completed over 40 years ago, London Transport discussed whether the trains would need to have a person in the front cab, even though all they do is operate the doors. It was decided, understandably, that the notion of a train with an empty drivers cab would be unsettling for many travellers and indeed few users of the line know, even today, that the main function of the ‘driver’ is merely to open and shut the doors. Even the DLR has a ‘train captain’ who can drive the train if there is a technical problem and ensure passengers can be evacuated in an emergency. Trains travelling through London’s Underground Victorian tunnels will always be staffed, and those people will always be able to exercise their right to strike. Driverless trains, therefore, would not solve the Tube’s strike problems and Boris’s speech must be viewed in the context of the terrible industrial relations endured by London Underground.

  • R. Goodacre

    This is blinkered nonsense. Driverless trains have been operating on the Paris metro network for years now, without incident and with absolutely no resistance from passengers.

  • Fred

    Has anyone told Barcelona, Copenhagen, Paris, Nuremberg or Singapore that the “idea of driverless trains any time in the near future is a ridiculous fantasy”? Maybe someoene needs to stop Brescia, Munich, Amsterdam, Helsinki and São Paulo before they make provision for future automation?

  • To be honest, I think it need also be viewed in a context of the Mayor’s political ambitions.

    I find it hard to believe that he really thinks ATO can accomplish what he desires, and as you mention the very nature of the Underground’s infrastructure means that TOs will always be required, if only for safety reasons. Short of an infinite money rebuild, that means the Underground is always going to have limitations when it comes to automation.

    He must also have known that anyone with a working knowledge of Britain’s railways (let alone the set up in London) would see this as an empty comment – an intellectual slight of hand that relies on the listener taking the word “driverless” at face value.

    Given all that, I can only think that the comment was intended not for the ears of the industry, the unions or indeed arguably London in general. Instead, it was a comment intended for those who WOULD take it at face value (or at least would have it presented to them in a way that would mean they would do so) – the rank and file of the Conservative Party.

    The Mayor has made no bones about his long term political ambitions, and on a night where Cameron’s coalition faced (and lost) its first test at the polls, Boris’ speech served as a handy reminder to a watching party that, should they need it, there is a true blue, successful politician in London who is not afraid to be tough on unions – especially those that (real or imagined) threaten things like Royal Weddings.

    Viewed in that light, the comments look slightly less foolish, as we weren’t the audience – The Daily Mail and the Telegraph were. Looking at their coverage this morning the Mayor has certainly succeeded there.

    Mind you, I could be reading too much into it. Maybe the Mayor has just taken the old railway joke to heart:

    “Under a Labour government blame the suppliers, under a Tory one blame the drivers.”

  • john

    While most staffless trains are on new lines – the 100 year old Paris line 1 is being converted to staffless operation and that handles some 750,000 people a day!

  • Christian Wolmar

    Are these trains entirely staffless? I presume they have a ‘train captain’ as on the DLR or some sort of guard. In any case, I doubt that ‘elf and safety would allow London Underground to send trains into long tunnels without a staff member to deal with emergencies. And those people would need training, therefore would be impossible to call up strike breakers instantly,which is presumably the Mayor’s intent.

  • RapidAssistant

    Agreed that Boris is doing this more for personal political gain …. after all, being seen to play hardball will appeal to both hard right leaning Tory voters
    and those within his own party that cling on to Thatcherite ideology.

    Equally though, you have to question the logic of the ever more militant rail unions picking on a Tory mayor… guess is that this would never have happened, or would have been smoothed over a lot sooner had Ken still been in office. That’s no defence though….running unions as a political project will do more harm than good to themselves in the process.

  • @Al__S

    Whilst Paris, Copenhagen etc do have truly staff-less trains (no, really) Boris did seem to be indicating that the Jubilee, Central and Victoria could go driver-less tomorrow- when that’s not what any of those signalling systems are designed for, even the system that will takeover once the last 67 stock is removed from the Victoria. Yes, with the right technology driver-less trains are perfectly possible; but the systems required would require massive investment.

    Plus, the strikes before Christmas were by station staff. I know he’s increasingly doing away with these at surface stations, but unless you come up with some way of safely running a very busy transit system without any human intervention (maintainence?) you’ll always have a human element that does require some training and that is able to withdraw its labour- maintaining a dialogue with the unions is important to the smooth running, and Boris has openly failed to do this- he’s proud of the fact that he does not negotiate with unions.

  • R. Goodacre

    @Christian Wolmar:

    No, there are no ‘train captains’ or on-board staff on Paris’s automated metro lines: in this aspect of life at least, people don’t need a state-appointed nanny on permanent call.

    Frankly, given that you write as an expert in this field, I’m a little astonished at your apparent lack of awareness of underground railway developments in other parts of the world. I’d suggest a weekend in Paris to bring yourself up to date.

  • Greg Tingey

    The real problem is almost certainly the bullying attitude of LUL (and now DLR) management.
    Come on, a loopy semi-communist like Crowe should not be able to do what he has done on LUL, unless there were real grievances.
    And it shows, every day, if you are a regular tube user, and have been for more than 10 years (I’ve been using it since I was 9 years old, in 1955).
    It is the constant harrying and shouting and unenecessary “information”, all too loud, and much too often. Yes, we need PA systems on trians and in stations – for emergencies and out-of-course events. The rest of the time, will they please SHUT UP?
    We managed quite well without all this from 1863 until after 1995-2000, so why do we need it now?
    Paris does not have this constant loud negging, and the metro runs quite well ….
    Now, if management threat their employess the same way, then we can see what might be wrong, can we not?
    The other give-away is that the DLR trina captains are striking – with Boris in charge, all three unions (incliding the “No-strike” TSSA!) on the tube, and the DLR crews are all pissed-off.
    This should tell us something ……

  • RapidAssistant

    This is all purely hypothetical – as first of all you’d have to pay for the investment to convert all lines to driverless operation – that is going to take several mayoral terms to get the money and install the kit….on top of all the expense and disruption that’s going on at the moment.

    But more than that – think of all the industrial relations problems you’d create trying to implement it in the first place – the strikes that happen today would be a drop in the ocean.

  • Dan

    It’s well worth a look at Dave Hill’s London blog post on Boris’ maniefsto commitment to a ‘no strike deal’ (google Dave Hill, London, No Strike Deal and see a good entry on Guardian newspaper site) – an extract is below and it is worth a look. Maybe Boris was seeking to divert attention away from this failed committment….

    It starts:

    “You might not believe it was in his transport manifesto, but I wouldn’t fib about a thing like this:

    “I will look to reduce the disruption caused by strikes on the Tube by negotiating a no-strike deal, in good faith, with the Tube unions. In return for agreeing not to strike, the unions will get the security provided by having the pay negotiations conducted by an independent arbiter, whose final decision will be binding on both parties. I believe this is the fairest way to ensure that London is not brought to a stand-still every time there is a pay negotiation, and to ensure union members get a secure deal.”

    Reader Martin Deutsch approached the Mayor’s office last December, asking about progress towards any no-strike deal. He was directed to Transport for London and duly made a freedom of information request, seeking to be provided with any correspondence between TfL’s Employee Relations department and the tube unions and the minutes of any meetings between them.”…

    The post details this saga, but suffice to say Boris has not got very far.

    PS I’m not sure why the Royal Wedding strike threat is such an issue – I know we live in tough times but were the happy couple really going to the church on the tube?

  • Pete

    An overview of the drverless trains used on Line 14, and currently manually driven on Line 1 prior to its conversion can be found here:

    I believe all Paris metro lines feature automatic operation, with on board train operator in the cab, when service frequency is less than say every 2 minutes. When greater than that full manual driving is used.

  • vinceC

    Toulouse also has driverless tube trains (which run in the open in the suburbs). And unlike the DLR they are fast.

    Given that a Boeing 747 or Airbus A380 can be flown thoussnads of miles including take off and touchdown without human intervention with the controls, automating a mere train that runs along rails on the ground is chickenfeed, be it an underground train or an Inter-City Pendelino.

    Of all forms of transport, trains are the easiest to automate. All it takes is the will – the costs would soon be recouped in wage savings and more economic train operation.

  • Bluecaster

    Some years ago while discussing pilotless aircraft an insider said “When you look at all the costs and problems of automation, having a pilot still comes out cheaper even when you include training. What’s more, you can have a steady source of supply for trainee pilots produced by unskilled labour”

  • Cam

    Im a nurse and receive nowhere near the respect or pay that these clowns get. Its shameful.

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  • If we have automated trains, and drivers cannot strike, what is stop rail maintainance staff striking..

    Lets invest in automating trains, but also improving the technology so there is no wear and tear on equipment.  maybe consider magnetic levitation and no mechanical switching.  lighter trains to avoid so much electricity, I am sure we have improved technology and material science to take another look at this,

  • It is worth investing billions to get this right. as so much of londons economy depends on a healthy tube network