A striking argument for autonomous train drivers?

News editor

Yesterday’s strike on the London Underground led Jason to muse on whether it’s time for a fully-automated service

It’s Friday with many looking forward to the weekend break and I’m sitting here with a pain in the derriere brought about by the fence I’m sitting on.

This discomfort has been caused by the overwhelming inconvenience witnessed in London yesterday when the entire underground rail network was brought to a halt by 24-hour strike action.

Roughly 66 per cent of people travelling in London choose to do so by walking, cycling, or using public transport. London itself has a population of around 8.6 million and Transport for London estimate that 1.27 billion people use the underground per annum.

As you can imagine, there were grumbles aplenty yesterday morning as employees at Centaur Towers traipsed in a little later than usual, and stories were being told this morning of brawls breaking out between cyclists and the many people trying to squeeze onto too few buses.

Undignified scenes are one thing, but the industrial action is estimated to have cost the London economy as much as £300m.

Here’s the rub of the fence I’m on: union members have the right to strike and stand up to employers who seem hell bent on heaping more responsibility on staff for little or no reward. On the face it, however, its looking increasingly difficult to see what train drivers on London Underground have to complain about given their generous T&Cs of employment.

This type of industrial action brings out the usual call for removing humans from the loop. After all, Docklands Light Railway is automated, and trains on the Victoria, Jubilee and Central Tube lines have certain semi-automatic systems, although they still have drivers on board. Line 1 of the Paris Metro has an automatic control system with driverless trains introduced at the rate of two trains per month from 2012.

Plans are in place to introduce the driverless train onto the London Underground network, although the exact timeline of this roll out on the Piccadilly, Central, Waterloo & City and Bakerloo lines is open to interpretation. The new trains will be operational by 2022 but they won’t be fully autonomous at first and will likely always carry a so-called Train Captain to oversee safe operations.

Speaking to the Evening Standard in September 2014, Finn Brennan, ASLEF, said: “Even under the most optimistic proposals, it would be at least another 14 years before new trains on the Piccadilly line could be operated automatically.”

Furthermore, the simple fact remains that industrial action won’t be prevented with the introduction of driverless trains. Stations will always need staff for a range of jobs and strikes can be called for a myriad of reasons, such as the closure of ticket offices.

Full – or close to full – autonomy is moving ahead, as witnessed on the road, in the air and on the rails. We can’t, however, guarantee that such technological advances will help to deliver you to your destination every time because that would require removing humans from the process. Now we wouldn’t want that, would we? Let us know your opinions below.