At a visit to a tube train factory, the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson has called for future tube trains to be driverless to beat the unions.

The new Siemens factory that will build future Piccadilly line trains is being built in Goole, East Riding of Yorkshire and while the new tube train will have a theoretical capability to be a DLR style service, the trains will come into service as conventional tube trains, with a driver.

Boris Johnson told reporters covering the visit that “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.”

With the signalling upgrade planned for the Piccadilly line, plus the new trains, it would be possible to match the Prime Minister’s words as stated and run the trains in a DLR style configuration, with an attendant in the passenger area.

However, declaring this to be a way of bashing the unions is to fail to realise that the train attendant can still go on strike — as DLR passengers will confirm.

The benefits of having an attendant in the carriage with passengers instead of in a drivers cab is more obvious on the DLR, with its unstaffed stations, so the attendant is often the sole employee that passengers see, as opposed to the fully staffed London Underground stations.

TfL has already agreed with the RMT that when the new trains are delivered for the Picadilly line they will come with a drivers cab, and that the cabs will remain for the lifespan of the trains, so a government-mandated change would anger the RMT.

There is a risk therefore that tying a future funding agreement for TfL to an expensive change to the train function puts TfL in a fight with the unions that it didn’t ask for.

Such an additional upgrade would also cost more than the current deferred upgrade plans, so the Prime Minister would need to be willing to supply the additional funding on top of any planned funding settlement to keep TfL running.

It’s unlikely that the Treasury will be keen on spending so much money for so little practical gain.

For more about why the driverless train is less than it seems, go here.

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18 comments
  1. J Andrews says:

    These trains have been specified and are already being designed to operate without any staff at all on the train – not like the DLR where the train captain closes the doors.

    The driver’s cab is being designed to be removable to allow extra passenger seats to be installed once driverless operation commences.

    If anyone wants to confirm, a FOI request for a copy of the train technical spec may be in order.

    • ianvisits says:

      The spec has been published already so no need for an FOI request — and you are totally wrong in your claim that they are designed to work without any member of staff on board.

  2. Arjit says:

    The Driverless DLR runs over anyone unfortunate enough to fall into the tracks, unlike trains with a Driver who can go straight into emergency brake.

    Driverless trains cost billions to Signal and control

  3. Melvyn says:

    The irony of this is from photos I have seen trains on the DLR have had end sections closed off due to covid19 for safety of train controllers and while covid19 will be overcome who knows what lies ahead in the 40 year lives of new trains !

    As for driverless metros well they tend to be brand new lines designed to be driverless and often just short shuttles compared to the line
    London Underground operates which are more like tube sized main line railways.

    It’s also worth pointing out that given normal crowded trains where does train Captain sit if they are to reach controls when manual driving is necessary something the DLR has on at least sections from time to time .

    Yet again simply demonstrates how useless Boris Johnson is given his 8 years as Mayor and failure to negotiate with unions compared to his predecessor Ken Livingstone.

    To make Underground driverless one would need to transfer outer London sections to main lines and concentrate tube lines on central tunnel sections of route ,while sub surface lines will never be suitable for driverless operation.

    • David Winter says:

      The length of Sydney’s driverless Metro is certainly extreme …. it’s no Airport Terminal shuttle. So far, no major catastrophes …. but PEDs are standard throughout. Certainly early teething troubles. Not sure they’ve achieved their target frequency, yet.

  4. Chris Wood says:

    This from the man who wanted to do the exact opposite on the buses by reintroducing conductors. I’d wager that he will be as successful bringing in unmanned tube trains as he was at making buses two-manned. And for much the same reasons; no attention to detail; no understanding of the real issues.

  5. Chris Wood says:

    Incidentally I don’t think the Train Captain approach makes much sense on a long crowded tube train. Even if (s)he tried to get through the train, most passengers would probably never see a TC.

    Train Captains made a lot of sense on the original DLR, with its single car trains, but are clearly less useful on the DLR as it is now. Which is presumably why most of them spend most of their either sitting up front, or standing by their favourite door.

    • ianvisits says:

      “Which is presumably why most of them spend most of their either sitting up front, or standing by their favourite door.”

      You’ll find they spend very little time doing either, as most of it is spent moving through the train regularly.

    • Melvyn says:

      Train captains on the DLR regularly check tickets and in normal times give much advice to tourists who are drawn to the DLR especially if travelling to Greenwich .

      The problem is DLR trains started as single carriage trains and became two carriages and now three carriages making it difficult for a single Captain to patrol the full train and will only charge when the new trains on order which are walk through bendy trains allowing full movement throughout full length of train possible but will the create problem of train captains being unable to reach the front if manual driving is required?

  6. Yudishtra says:

    Is this disingenuous drivel for the Daily Mail union bashing brigade ? Always in campaign mode, never governing. Sigh.

  7. Yudishtra says:

    Also fantastic website, great insightful articles Ian. Great stuff.

  8. Geoffrey Algernon Brabant Demprunt says:

    The Campaign to dismiss the excellent Tfl Booking Hall Staff on London Overground failed.

    Passengers are reassured by familiar faces and that someone is there to take charge as necessary.

    Let’s hope the next London Overground Franchise isn’t a Race to the Bottom and that before we close Lines and Stations ( eg Primrose Hill) only to Reopen them 15 years later, we do the Math.

    The 2025 and 2050 TfL Plans were normal Investment Models.

    Hand the Map to Councils and the Private Sector. Let’s have Consortia bid to Build for TfL to operate.

  9. Christopher Benjamin says:

    Good luck with trying to overcome modern fire regulations by having no staff on a metro. Useful diversion from his catastrophic mayoral tenure and even worse prime ministerial tenure

  10. David Winter says:

    The anti-union gov’t in NSW thought that about their driverless Metro. Someone forgot to tell the hapless Minister that the whole electrical side, and maintenance is unionised …. and the union movement can close it down without difficulty.

  11. Liam says:

    I’d be frightened to travel on a tube train with nobody on the front. Whether they’re driver, operator, captain or call them what you will. They need to be on the front, not packed in the the rest of the passengers somewhere along the length of the train.

    Then they can reach the controls, without a 30 minute assault course from the rear end of the train when it’s densely packed in. They will become packed again during the lifetime of these trains.

    I won’t worry about watching the news and having a head of the Government, prone to sudden directional changes, bizarre project commissioning and arguably doesn’t have the wellbeing of workers and passengers in their mind when they spout pompous news-bite nonsense to gain column inches. Dismissing the views of respected scientists, experts and practitioners in their wide and various fields.

    It’s a clear choice. ‘Boris-waffle’, or a qualified person on the train, in a cabin with all the controls to hand. Aircraft always seem to have the cockpit at the front end? Does Boris have a view on that?

    Now I shall go and have my lie down… I’ll plan my walk across The Garden Bridge in London. Another Boris ‘launch’.

  12. Ken Little says:

    Boris is right, but for the wrong reasons. Within the next decade all Metro’s will be driverless. Driver train technology will be outdated and only available at a much higher cost.

    Driverless trains have been in service on many Metros for some 25 years and most common in Asia. There is a lot of experience by the railway engineers and operators in mitigating areas of concern.
    There are many benifits to the public and operating companies. Increase in system reliability being one of the main benifits to passengers. The Union concerns over a reduction in members, is a “red herring”, the maintenance of the Systems equipment to ensure the greater Reliability and Safety requires an increase in engineering staff.
    Train Attendants may give a degree of comfort to some passengers, during peak periods but when “most required”, they are unable to move through the train. Metros introducing driverless system generally start the service with Attendants, but when the passengers have confidence without someone in the cab, they are withdrawn.

  13. Nicholas Bennett says:

    Those who think that union power is too strong should consider what has happened to the National Union of Minewokers as a result of their 1984-5 contest with Mrs Thatcher or the Air Traffic Controllers who tried to dictate to Ronald Reagan.

  14. Stephan Riediker says:

    It’s an unnecessary investment. A train system which transports hundreds of thousands of passengers daily within such a big city easily can afford some regular staff. It’s safer because I case of any emergency in the train, on the platforms or anywhere in the station there are members of underground staff around.

    Honestly, I like the old trains which had been manufactured in England in 1973. If they need to be replaced, they should be of the same design.

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