In the midst of all the chaos and uncertainty on the railways caused by the pandemic, it is surprising that considerable sums of money and much time and energy are being devoted to the concept of driverlessness. The idea that you can get rid of drivers is a regular theme of speeches at fringe meetings at Conservative party conference and in the output of like-minded think tanks. Ministers tend to pop up on media interviews suggesting drivers are as old fashioned as horses and carts.
It is, of course, not just about trains. There are frequent references in the press to the notion of driverless cars and even pilotless planes. Getting rid of pesky drivers and pilots is seen as a great way to save money and, among the more fanatical, a way of weakening trade unions. I don’t want to get too Marxist about this but we have been here before. There is always the notion among Tory politicians that driving down the costs of labour will ensure that there is a better rate of return for capital.
I have written much about driverless cars – including a short book, Driverless Cars: on a road to nowhere? – over the past five years and I have yet to find out what the whole project is really about. Several hundred billion – yes you read that right, billion – dollars have been spent over the past dozen years on trying to develop these wretched vehicles that no one is particularly asking for and so far we have a few robotaxis operating on the streets of Phoenix in very restricted conditions. There are now serious doubts, some expressed within the industry, that the idea of a fully driverless world where we are all being taken around in shared use vehicles can ever be feasible. The focus recently has moved towards driverless trucks and undoubtedly one of the driving (ooops, sorry) forces behind this aspect is the notion that there is a shortage of truckers. Uber has just admitted that the $2.5bn it spent on trying to develop this technology was wasted. Yet, only last month, we had junior transport minister Rachel Maclean predicting the ‘UK [was] on the cusp of a transport revolution, as self-driving vehicles set to be worth nearly £42 billion by 2035’. That figure was in fact up from £27bn in a similar announcement two years ago and has as much basis in fact as the notion that steam engines will run on HS2. This was to justify another tranche of government funding for this fantasy, bringing the total to over £200m.
As for pilotless planes, the idea of a commercial airplane being flown without anyone in the cockpit is pretty much a non-starter from the start because of public scepticism. Passengers want not one but two pilots there just in case, as does happen very occasionally, one of them has a heart attack, even though the planes do pretty much fly themselves in normal conditions. However, watch out for more government-funded initiatives on flying taxis, much as this is a completely insane idea. Last month, for example, a small start up, Air-One announced it was opening the ‘world’s first airport for flying cars, air taxis and delivery drones’ in Coventry with the help of a £1.2m government grant. And another £2.5m of taxpayers’ money has been given to a group of companies led by Vertical Aerospace and Atkins to develop passenger carrying drones. The local online paper, BristolLive reported this as ‘flying taxis that are effectively giant people-carrying drones could be taking to the skies over Bristol as soon as 2023, after the project to develop them got Government backing’. I personally offer to eat the whole drone if this happens in 2023 but I quote this to reflect the whole optimistic and overblown tone of the coverage of the whole driverless debate.
The railway industry has not escaped this mad rush towards automation. Last November, when Transport for London was bailed out by the government, it had to promise to ‘work with a government led expert review on the possible implementation of driverless trains’. In fact, TfL had just commissioned a study which suggested that it would cost £7bn for the new trains and signalling equipment required to turn the network into a fully automatic network. Of course, several Tube lines are already computer-driven with the ‘driver’ merely opening the doors and intervening in an emergency. However, retrofitting the network was reckoned not to offer value for money and would in any case take decades.
What about the national rail network? Every time there is an industrial dispute, the notion of driverless trains is mentioned by ministers or press reports. In fact, the government has commissioned the Railways Safety & Standards Board to look into the feasibility of the concept. Its findings are due to be published soon but as with any serious research into the concept will demonstrate the difficulties of creating a genuine driverless railway.
The RSSB looked at automation in terms of four levels, ranging from Level one, which is pretty much where we are at now on most of the railway, through Level Two where there would still be a driver and Level Three where the train would largely drive itself with an attendant on board – such as the Docklands Light Railway – to Level Four which is fully automatic for everything from the train setting off and stopping to the opening and shutting of doors with no one on board.
The report reckons it would take between seven to nine years to introduce a trial system onto the network given the problems of developing the technology, procuring it, creating the regulatory framework and training staff. And that is just for a trial. One would have thought, therefore, that there would be better ways of trying to improve the efficiency of the railways.
However, the explanation for this interest in driverlessness is that it is a political project, and neither a technical one, nor one rooted in a desire to improve the lot of passengers. Interestingly, the latest copy of the ASLEF Journal, always a good read, reveals the fascinating background behind the ministerial obsession of getting rid of drivers. The RSSB report was apparently commissioned by the Department for Transport by Andrew Gilligan, who was cycling commissioner during Boris Johnson’s time as London mayor which ended in 2012 and now works as his transport adviser in No 10. According to the ASLEF Journal: ‘The idea, though, came not from the DfT, in Horseferry Road, which has been working hard to keep trade unions on board during the coronavirus crisis, but from Gilligan in Downing Street. Driverless trains is something of
an obsession of Gilligan’s, who told Dominic Cummings it was ‘a great wheeze’ when he set things in motion in July’.
Sadly, the driverless issue is like a game of Whack-a-mole and will keep on popping up on slow news days or when there is the threat of industrial action. Vast amounts of money will consequently be wasted on R & D but nothing will come of it because of the cost, sunk technology and the difficulties of retrofitting equipment. This is not, I stress to be Luddite, but rather to be realistic and to be aware of the ideological basis behind this type of development.
Thumbs up to flip up
Toilets are one of the main sources of complaint about railway travel and one of the most common issues is, to put it delicately, a failure by men to lift the seat and their inability to aim properly. An engineer, Darren Wright, has come up with a simple solution. It is not only men that are the problem: apparently women, not wishing to sit on dirty seats, hover and therefore often end up missing as well.
He noted that even in new trains, complaints about toilets outnumber those about wifi and other aspects of the service. The issue, he says, is simple. Dirty seats. So being a self declared ‘nerd’, he set about inventing a device that would solve the issue: a seat that flips up automatically, making its default position up rather than down. There are three possible solutions: getting men to lift the seat – which clearly does not happen; creating some sort of complex cleaning device, which is technically difficult; or, better creating a pop up seat which he has done, which uses a simple spring mechanism to ensure it lifts up automatically.
Unfortunately although he attracted the attention of Porterbrook, the train leasing company, which was ready to trial the idea, the train operators were uninterested and then Covid intervened, which means that the seats are still down. However, Wright is not giving up and he hopes to convince the industry that this is a simple, safe, innovation that meets industry standards. He remains optimistic: ‘Once the first ones are installed Flip Up Seats will become the norm, but finding the first TOC to take Flip Up Seats, for all the industry talk about innovation, has been really hard because the reality is that there are few real decision makers in rail that can or will authorise change outside of a very limited orthodoxy’. As someone who has used a Japanese type toilet which uses a jet of water for cleaning purposes for more than a decade, I can say that we are way behind toilet technology. This could get us ahead of the curve.
So now that the franchising process is dead and the Department for Transport is in charge, it is time that this type of seat is specified for all new and refurbished trains. And incidentally, that would mean the rail industry was leading the way as there is a huge market out there for such a simple device that would ensure cleaner toilets in pubs, restaurants and stores. It is an opportunity for the rail industry to show the way, but so far Wright has come up against brick walls. Let’s knock them down.