/ Travel & Leisure

The driverless Tube is now approaching – all aboard?

Driverless trains could soon zip their way through London Underground tunnels, according to a leaked Transport for London (TfL) report. Critics say the Tube would be worse off, but I think they’re over-reacting.

Yes, 1,500 jobs could be lost if TfL’s report is implemented, but there are also plans for staff to change seats from the driver car to the train carriages. This is where human interaction could actually be improved. But, I’m speeding ahead of myself…

TfL’s trying to cut costs (£2 billion by 2018 to be precise) and it’s got some radical ideas on how to do it. There’s talk of scrapping Oyster Cards and replacing them with contactless bank cards, but it was the idea of making the Tube fully-automated that pricked up my ears. The plan is to get rid of train drivers, instead using signal operators to control them.

Bring on the driverless Tube

Much of my journey to work is already done on driverless, or partially-driverless, trains. The first leg of my trip is on the Docklands Light Railway, which has never had any drivers. Instead, there’s an attendant who makes their way through the carriages (dependent on how packed they are) checking tickets and making mini-announcements. Usually everything runs smoothly… if not painfully slow.

The second leg of my daily trip to my Which? Convo desk is on the Jubilee line, which is semi-automatic (incidentally, so are the Central and Victoria lines) where drivers generally don’t need to do too much. It’s still not perfect, because when the Jubes’ automated system goes wrong, we’re often left stuck in a sweaty train under London town.

Still, take out the drivers and there’ll be no one to strike over their already hefty pay packets. Then again, making the Underground driverless would be a huge undertaking, involving a complete restructuring of how the Tube works. We’d therefore see years of weekend Tube upgrade closures, which might make the strikes pale in comparison.

If I was to be completely pessimistic, I could see these upgrade closures and strikes combining into one big (forgive the pun) train wreck as Tube staff walkout over the prospect of imminently losing their jobs.

Anyway, let’s get back on track – personally I think the benefits of driverless Tubes are too good to pass up. It could speed up trains, the service could become more efficient, it would save a lot of money in the long term, and others have even argued that it could make the Tube safer. But maybe you wouldn’t trust driverless Tube trains?

Phil says:
28 October 2011

Driverless trains, no problem, we could run driverless trains the length of the country. The time a driver is worth his or her weight in gold is when something goes wrong. That’s when they earn their money. This will seem a good idea until there’s another bombing or a derailment or a fire and there’s nobody onboard who knows how to turn off the power and lead the passengers to safety.

Phil says:
31 October 2011

But unless suitable legislation is put in place the temptation will be there to run trains with no staff. But then if they are required to have at least one person on every train they may as well keep the drivers.

LOL! : “Anyway, let’s get back on track – personally I think the benefits of driverless Tubes are too good to pass up. It could speed up trains, the service could become more efficient, it would save a lot of money in the long term, and others have even argued that it could make the Tube safer. But maybe you wouldn’t trust driverless Tube trains?“
Patrick Steen… who showed you the figures for the “savings / cheaper”… based on what? Just the “disgruntled” tube drivers salaries cut off? As Phil pointed out, a “driven” tube is only that good and safe when there is a problem, not even on the lines of terror or vandalism, these are machines travelling under and through the deepest tibe shafts on the world, temperatures soaring at most times especially in summer months, yeah a “driverless” train would be a good idea when the train stalls and it’s flanked on either side by other “driverless” trains up very close under the latest automatic signaling and clear distance controls…
If driven trains were so outdated and customer unfriendly, why do tourists flock to London just to get a chance of getting “the ride” ?
Safer…? The mere sight of a driver puts off would be miscreants, anti socials and “suicidals”, tube drivers assisted immensely during the terror attacks on London and continue to do so till tomorrow,
You mentioned the dlr, for even the slightest defects, the system is utterly disrupted and passengers left stranded without any contact with “civilization, yes not all dlr trains/carriages have assigned staff in them! And these are run on the surface or really close to the surface…try leaving a train carrying just 100 passengers trapped motionless and sweltering in a deep tube section….
Where does the increase in effectivity come in? The speed you have mentioned relies on some “automatic” spacing between trains using radar interference between sender and receiver units on preceding and trailing trains, these have to be monitored from a control room anyway, by humans, besides it cost, the radar / codes translation/ magnetic interference is not infallible, these fail more than a few times…
There’s always a note of derision/ envy and angst when the topic includes a tube drivers wages, what about the people who go to Brussells or Germany just to sign their attendance for outrageous salaries and “inconvenience” allowances, even the press staff who can’t even be bothered to check their stories before publishing paid their “worth” wages? tv presenters? footballers? etc. Leave the tube drivers alone, YOU’LL ONLY KNOW THEIR WORTH WHEN YOU REALLY NEED THEM!

Driverless anything…nah, not for my money or where human life or safety is concerned.

This would need to go hand in hand with a commitment about where the savings will be spent otherwise, like all the benefits of technological innovation, the costs increase and any financial benefits vaporize.

Phil says:
29 October 2011

Wherever the savings are spent you can be sure it won’t be on reducing fares.

In my view the Management must be so fed up with being held to ransom by Tube drivers, who threaten strikes and go on about Health and Safety all the time. I want driverless trains just to get rid of their irrational comments when ever there is some perceived problem, which might affect their PAY. The RMT need to be made to act responsibly. Tube drivers are overpaid.

There already are driverless trains on the tube, some people really aren’t paying attention 🙂

I do agree that tube drivers are overpaid and for me and this “review” is merely a response to being held to ransom by the unions at a time when everyone else is having cuts/redundancies etc. This is always what happens when a union wields too much power, short terms gains are always good for the members, but in the long term, people lose their jobs.

This always happens with unions in every employment sector where they are active and history shows us this also.

Hi Patrick, yeah, I didn’t mean you and I do agree with you that drivers should be retained, even if to just deal with emergencies and give information on the lines that are in tunnels.

Probably the most pertinent example of ATO (Automatic Train Operation) is the Docklands Light Railway, one of the highest performing networks in the UK, yet this is mostly all above ground and operates on a modern infrastructure meaning that passengers can easily be evacuated. In tunnels its a different matter entirely.

My absolute opinion is that railways need their staff, in stations and on trains (driving and conducting) yet their reliance on their unions to get them inflation busting pay rises to the detriment of other public sector workers is short-sighted and counter-productive.