Boris driverless trains are no such thing

This week has seen the Mayor once again pushing one of his big ideas for re-election: driverless Tubes, bringing with them not just a more high-tech underground but an almighty confrontation with the Tube unions. In the midst of endless wrangles with the unions over Olympic bonuses, Boris Johnson might imagine that’s a popular gesture with voters. Yet he is both dead right and completely wrong about “driverless” trains.

Driverless is a misnomer. Such trains would be operated by a central computer, overseen by human controllers.  There are already dozens of metro systems around the world which use such trains. In Copenhagen, for example, the computer controls everything centrally from the running of the trains to the opening of the doors, with just a handful of operators in the control centre – but nevertheless, with stewards on every train.

In London we already have two versions of “driverless” trains. On the Victoria, Jubilee and Central Lines, under the Automatic Train Operation system (ATO), the driver operates only the doors at stations – and can also drive the train or stop it in an emergency.

Meanwhile on the Docklands Light Railway, there is no “driver” but a “train captain” able to take over the operation if there is a problem. The DLR can work like that because it operates at lower speed than the Underground, and its one major tunnel section has a walkway alongside for easy evacuation.

Such centrally controlled trains have several advantages. Computers are normally better in terms of fuel efficiency. And the gap between trains can be shorter, using a more sophisticated system of signalling.

That’s why Johnson is right to want to have modern trains, controlled centrally.

Yet he has also strenuously sought to portray driverless trains as a solution to the Underground’s perennial industrial relations problems. And that’s where he’s got it quite wrong.

For a start, given risks ranging from terrorism to derailments, many Londoners would baulk at the idea of completely unstaffed trains. It might be acceptable in, say, Hong Kong, where the tunnels have walkways and there is far easier access to the surface, but not in London’s century-old, deep-level Tube tunnels, where stations are often a mile apart.

Mike Brown, the managing director of London Underground, has said that new trains for the Piccadilly and Bakerloo, due to be ordered during the next mayoral term, might not have conventional cabs at the front. But that does not mean they could be run without any staff on board.

In any case, changing the technology will take a long time and cost a lot: we will be seeing “drivers” at the front of Tubes for at least the next 30 years. The rolling stock on the sub surface lines – the Metropolitan, District and Circle – is currently being replaced with fabulous new air-conditioned trains and the signalling is being upgraded. However, ATO will not be fitted on these lines 2018, and even afer that there will still be a person in the cab at the front able to take over control if need be.  If these people go on strike, clearly the trains would not run.

Driverless trains work – but they won’t work as a solution to Tube strikes. No end of Boris bluster will blow away London’s Tube drivers just yet.

  • Sam12

    On the Glasgow Subway, new driverless rolling stock has been funded by the Scottish Government. SPT hope to achieve a reduction in staffing levels. Interesting…

  • “The DLR can work like that because it operates at lower speed than the Underground”

    Nope, not true… The speed is irrelevant. DLR operates at up to 80kph but the stop spacing means it rarely reached that.

    And the tunnel walkway, whilst a good feature, doesn’t have anything to do with the train captain (PSA) either. Whether the member of staff sits at the front or walks through the train, doesn’t have a bearing on how to evacuate the train.

    There are other good reasons to have staff on board and it’s true to say that driverless operation doesn’t get rid of dependency on unionised staff, but that doesn’t mean that Underground can’t use attended driverless operation.

  • Driver-less trains? This is good in a number of respects eg. fuel efficiency and general safety, however human resources need to be moved to passenger assistance for a number of simple reasons. Firstly we need to stop this policy forever cutting jobs. For a healthy society, people need to be and feel valued in their community. Another reason is the demographic changes: Europe’s growing elderly population which we as a society are very ill prepared for. Furthermore, on improved passenger safety a CCTV camera can certainly film you being robbed or murdered, only another person on the platform can actually prevent the event happening if they see the incident.

    I think (within the next 10 or 20 years) our roads will see the introduction of driver-less cars. It will certainly improve safety, all the motorists will need to do is to type in the password and the destination. After these systems have proven themselves, the good news is we will be able to completely relax the drink driving laws. 

  • Greg Tingey

    And how would Boris cope with a case like the narrowly-averted tragedy at Finchley Road recently, when a small child fell “dahn the ‘ole, where the platforms are curved and there is a cant on the track?

  • When I suggested there would be driver-less cars, I hadn’t realised that there would be an article on this subject in this weeks New Scientist (Issue no. 2858) ‘ Hands off the wheel’ by Paul Marks- p.19.  It seems that the technology is more advanced than I thought of and there are being currently used on the streets of Nevada. 

    This technology could save the lives of 1.2 million people every year world-wide who are sacrificed by the motor car.

  • Driverless cars make a huge amount of sense.  However it seems unlikely that people will take their hands off the wheel without a fight!

  • It’s only a month ago that Boris was saying we’d have driverless trains in two years.  Still, why let facts get in the way of some good old fashioned union bashing.  It’s likely to be more successful a tactic than his previous promise to  urgently get a “no strike pledge”.

  • Anon

    Platform edge doors

  • Pingback: Great Boris Lies #5 – Driverless Tube Trains | Boris Watch()

  • Politicians, amongst others, baffle me. On one hand they complain about people living on benefits, some of whom make no effort to find work. On the other hand, they do all they can to put people out of work.

    I do wish they would make their minds up.

  • Farci_Glasgow

    Is Paris Metro Line 1 not driverless, ie. sans capitaine de choo-choo?

  • Fandroid

    Paris Metro Line 1 has certainly been converted recently to central control. I have no idea whether the trains are completely unstaffed or have les capitaines de choo-choo comme le DLR. Also, the transition to total central control was due to happen over a fairly long period. It’s interesting that this 100 year old line has been converted, and that suggests that age is no barrier! Having said that, the line has been fitted with platform edge doors. Anyone know if it has curved platforms comme les gares souterrain de Londres?

  • RapidAssistant

    True, but the Subway has been “driverless” since 1980 as it has ATO also, but because it serves a relatively small portion of the city, the strikes are far less damaging as say ScotRail drivers staging a walkout which brings the city’s much bigger suburban overground network on which a lot more people rely to a standstill, which is largely why I don’t think SPT aren’t that worried about it.

  • Fandroid

    I see that Boris is still being regularly reported on how he is going to save money by having driverless trains, and has even promised that all future Underground train orders will not have cabs !  (And when, O Boris is the next LU train order expected (this decade?)). I can only assume that the train captains, hiding away in the middle of the train, are either not going to be paid, or are much cheaper than drivers (RMT and Aslef please note). If Boris is going to phase out train staff altogether, surely he’d experiment on the DLR first, where central control already exists and there are no cabs.

    It’s a bit surreal standing on the platforms in Nuremberg (staffless centrally controlled U-bahn trains) and seeing approaching trains apparently being driven by 6-year-old kids with their mothers in support!

  • Peter Van Der Mark

    Driverless trains: It is the future, whether you like it or not. I think you better prepare for it and be able to sell technology than to be the last one converting again and have to buy in technology (with the trains attached). Remember how we were outsmarted on virtually every front with rail technology in the past thirty years except where the savings outstripped the investment? Try to avoid that situation for a change, and the present developments with rail traffic control and signalling in the UK make me very hopeful.

    Centrally controlled cars: 

  • I hope they do, it would save a hell of a lot of lives.