Posted 7th July 2020 | 4 Comments

Driverless Underground trains row flares after Prime Minister’s visit

THE Prime Minister Boris Johnson has suggested that introducing driverless trains on London Underground should be part of the autumn cash settlement for Transport for London. One senior union figure has condemned his remarks as ‘outrageous’.

The government had not been funding TfL for some years, but the finances of London’s transport systems have been stretched to the breaking point by the loss of revenue from fares since the pandemic broke out in March. Emergency measures agreed by the Department for Transport have given TfL up to £1.9 billion until October, when renewed support appears to be almost inevitable.

Mr Johnson, who advocated driverless trains while he was Mayor of London, was speaking during a visit to the new Siemens Mobility works at Goole in Yorkshire, where replacement rolling stock for the Piccadilly Line is to be built.

He said: ‘You can run these trains without the need for somebody to be sitting in the driver's cab the whole time.

‘So what I will be saying to the London transport authority is let's take advantage of this technological leap forward, let's not be the prisoners of the unions any more, let’s go to driverless trains and let's make that a condition of the funding settlement for Transport for London this autumn.

‘That's the way forward for this country and we want to make use of the fantastic technology we've got and provide a better service for people in the capital and take the whole economy forward.’

The Underground has automatically-driven trains on several lines, having pioneered the technology when the first sections of the Victoria Line opened in 1968 and 1969. Even so, there is always a driver in the cab who controls the doors, starts the train at each station and is qualified to take full control if necessary. The Docklands Light Railway has been driverless since its first lines opened in 1987, but again there is always a member of staff on board each train who operates the doors and can take over in emergencies by unlocking a control panel.

Rail unions have always opposed any extension of driverless working to the main Underground system, and successfully prevented the introduction of driverless trains on the Piccadilly Line when the next-generation fleet is built.

The RMT’s senior assistant general secretary Mick Lynch said: ‘It is outrageous for Boris Johnson to wheel out the dangerous nonsense of driverless trains as a condition of the emergency Covid-19 funding of Transport for London. This is the sort of cheap political stunt that was a hallmark of his time as Mayor and we would have hoped he would have grown up by now.

‘Transport services don't need this kind of political grandstanding to the Tory right - they need security of funding, services and jobs. ‎The Prime Minister needs to cut out this sort of garbage and get a grip of the serious challenges facing the transport sector as the lockdown eases.’

Commentators are unimpressed as well. Writing in the Independent today, columnist Jon Stone also dismissed the idea as ‘a political stunt’. He added: ‘Driverless train have always been a hobby horse for London’s Conservatives, who see them as a way of bypassing unionised Tube workers.’

Meanwhile, a spokeswoman for the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan said the established funding model for TfL ‘simply does not work in this new reality’.

She added: ‘Ministers urgently need to agree a new funding model with either permanent funding from central Government or giving London more control over key taxes so we can pay for it ourselves, or a combination of both.’

Reader Comments:

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  • jak jay, surrey

    Another stupid statement from a the clueless PM ,when was the last time he travelled on a tube(or any( train? and no doubt the workers at Derby will 'take the knee' over his statement that a Japanese firm only has to smile and the get all new tube stock orders priceless!!
    [Japan? We can't find that he mentioned Japan while he was in Goole.--Ed.]

  • Neil Palmer, Waterloo

    Maybe if radicals like Mick Cash at the RMT didn't threaten a strike every time someone in management looks at him the wrong way there wouldn't be such a push for this.

  • Matthew Ellis, Woking

    Given that driverless delivery vehicles (moving at slow speed but in 'unregulated' space) already exist, the underground part of Thameslink is now driverless (albeit with a driver for the rest of the line) and (IIUC) the Victoria line had this ability from the start, seems like a good time to take this step forward.

    Only problem with automation - what do you do with all the people who will be left unemployed as a result? They cannot become barista's because Costa and the rest are already installing coffee machines which they advertise as making coffee that is just as good (and McDonalds etc. will not be far behind), and you can bet that Amazon will automate as soon as they can so we end up with a large social problem

  • Melvyn, Canvey Island , Essex

    We always hear the nonsense about driverless trains and unions but who does Boris Johnson think controls the signalling!

    In his 8 years as Mayor of London Boris Johnson failed to meet unions preferring to see them as the enemy despite their efforts on days like 7/7 and more recently in keeping service operations going during current pandemic.

    The DLR was a brand new network built for driverless operation but even so train captains can often be found manually driving trains at least for short sections and Iíve noticed photos recently showing how driving sections at end carriages have been sealed off from passengers due to current pandemic and given 40:year life of new Piccadilly Line trains who knows what they will face given lessons we are now learning!

    Anyway look at the Piccadilly Line and while driverless operation might be possible at its eastern end what happens at its more complex western end where it runs alongside the District Line above ground and splits into separate routes to Heathrow and Rayners Lane / Uxbridge with trains between Rayners Lane and Uxbridge sharing tracks with totally different Metropolitan Line S stock trains .While plans exist to divert some Piccadilly Line trains to Ealing Broadway allowing District Line trains to provide more services on its other branches.

    And if a train captain is required where will they be located if not at the front given need for emergency driving a Captain stuck in crowded train wonít be easily able to reach front to drive !