The RMT union has warned that it may take action if the government presses ahead with plans for driverless trains on the London Underground.

One of the many conditions of the government bailout earlier this year was that TfL investigates the possibility of how the London Underground could be converted to higher levels of automatic control, and now adverts have been posted for seeking consultancy services to do just that.

The RMT’s General Secretary Mick Lynch said “The news that the Government is pressing ahead with wasting money on a consultancy project on driverless trains on London Underground when there are massive challenges facing the transport network shows their twisted set of priorities.

“This is all part of the Government driven cuts assault on transport in London and RMT is pledged to fight it with every tool at our disposal including the use of industrial action.”

While it’s not unsurprising that unions will be concerned about anything that could potentially affect their members, threatening strike action just for hiring a consultancy to investigate the matter could backfire. It’s not just that a lot of the public will instinctively blame the unions if strikes take place but mainly because pretty much every report that’s ever looked at the issue of driverless trains on the Underground has concluded that it’s simply not viable without such a massively expensive upgrade that any potential cost savings could never cover the cost of implementing the system.

That’s assuming the technical difficulties of retrofitting it to the old tube could be overcome anyway.

For example, under modern safety standards, driverless trains of the speed achieved by the tube would need platform edge doors. However, those can’t be fitted to much of the legacy tube network, especially in areas where several lines share the same station, such as the Piccadilly and District line stations.

The cost of rebuilding so many stations to enable them to support driverless trains would be astronomical and take decades to achieve, not to mention the cost of signalling upgrades and new trains.

Ultimately, TfL is required by the terms of its funding agreement to spend some money on a consultancy to report on the issue, and that report is pretty much guaranteed to find that it’s simply not worth the effort or investment to go driverless, and hence killing off any talk of driverless trains for the next few years.

In light of that, it makes sense to support the consultancy process.

After all, it’s difficult to think of anything more likely to kill off any government’s plans for driverless tube trains than an independently commissioned government report that concludes that it’s a total fantasy to try and introduce them.

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17 comments
  1. Brian Butterworth says:

    Someone’s easy to wind up aren’t they? I suspect that the line between public heroes and public enemy number one is about 24 hours of tube strike.

    Have you seen how popular the XR on the M25 lot are on Twitter? The RMT will find themselves in that space.

  2. Bob says:

    Never underestimate the stupidity of the RMT. I am a paid up union member and believe there are a genuine force for good. But my god, the RMT is a militant bunch of thickos.

  3. Melvyn says:

    Instead of threatening strikes which plays into Boris Johnson hand the RMT should be laughing this off and reminding him that they control the signals !

    While many stations have bendy platforms just think of the Central Line at Bank Station and thus just this example prevents driverless trains on the Central Line unless a multi billion rebuilding is undertaken!

    Let’s concentrate on what’s really needed and that’s a more accessible network with removal of dangerous Island platforms as found at a couple of stations at Clapham at tge southern end of the Northern Line .

    Anyway Boris Johnson will be long gone before any real progress on this vanity project

  4. Tom Sutcliffe (James Sutcliffe) says:

    We used to have lift operators who were of course paid. There is really no need any longer for trains to be “driven”. But of course train drivers who are no longer needed must be paid generous pensions and, if young enough, be helped to find alternative occupations.

    • Bob says:

      Of course trains need to be driven. Re-read the article for even the most basic reasons why on the LU.

  5. Mr.G says:

    The station gap is a red herring. Although expensive, though not as expensive as modifying stations carriages could be built that could close or cover the gaps.

    Driverless could be so much more efficient, safer and cheaper in the long run. Robots don’t go on strike as they are too busy planning world domination.

    • Christopher Benjamin says:

      Current fire safety standards would require walkways in underground sections if the trains were driverless. Also the DLR doesn’t have drivers but still has strikes..you do realise that trains don’t just run with drivers don’t you?

    • ASLEF shrugged says:

      There is no space under existing rolling stock for “gap closers” and there are no specifications for the new 2024 stock to have them.

      Robots might not go on strike but the technicians who maintain them the control room staff who supervise them an the onboard staff who allow the service to operate them can all go on strike

  6. damian king says:

    To get rid of the gap on the central line stations like those found at bank would require straightening the platforms,
    this would require retunneling a new platform tunnel that was straight. All the older curvy tunnels have cast iron ring construction.
    I work on the system so I know what I’m talking about.

    So good luck with your business case for that.

  7. Moza says:

    Non news of the 1st degree. These drivers are simply luddites holding TfL to ransom.

  8. ASLEF shrugged says:

    The contract has been awarded to Initiate Consultancy Ltd, the proposal is for GoA3 similar to the DLR with a member of staff on board but this is initially only for the Piccadilly and Waterloo & City Lines.

    The Piccadilly will be getting new trains from 2024 which theoretically could operate driverless but only if there was a signalling upgrade to go with them and the last I heard that had been “paused” as TfL didn’t have the funding.

    As you mentioned the Piccadilly shares track with the Metropolitan from Uxbridge to Rayners Lane, and with the District Line from Ealing Common to North Acton so platform edge doors wouldn’t be possible.

    Waterloo & City is more plausible, two stations with straight platforms, the only sticking point is that the trains get very crowded during the peaks so where exactly would a on-board member of staff be able to stand?

  9. Charles says:

    As long as tube drivers get exorbitant salaries, there will be pressure to get rid of them and rightly so. That’s what happened to the dockers and the printers.

  10. geoffrey says:

    Driverless trains work well on Docklands Light Railway because it is almost completely on viaduct or tunnel so that trespassers are not a problem. There are an enormous number of trespass incidents a day and driverless trains in the open with generally poor fencing would be a disaster

  11. Ronnie says:

    I have seen some drivers reading a paper as the train pulls in, time for them to go I am afraid. Put a guard on the train by all means so there is no job loss. If safety regs prevent them at the moment, I am sure they will be adjusted. I can’t see a significant difference as those that trespass would likely be hit by the train anyway. Indeed the recent case at Waterloo where an unfortunate gentleman fell down the side of the train and became crushed against the platform edge. The driver did not notice this, and even the second drive to pull into the platform did not notice this person.

  12. Leo says:

    What do you expect from the RMT. They worry that they will loose their power to hold the public to ransom. The yhave no interest to help for the general public. How can they possibly strike because of progress. They need to wake up and smell the coffee and stop living in the past. The cosy time they have had is coming to an end….Karma!

  13. Lizebeth says:

    The bottom line is always COST. The cost to replace train drivers safely and efficiently with robots (or whatever system) will massively outpace the cost of keeping human beings at the controls. Here in California they have been testing driverless cars for years, and they still aren’t safe. What I don’t understand is why the Government keeps trying to cut back on funding for TFL, which is, after all, the lifeblood of London. And say what they may, London is still the largest source of income for the entire country, and it needs to work.

    One comment here spoke of drivers reading the paper while they drive the train? They should be reported —and fired. This is serious business.

  14. Victor says:

    Driverless cars from Waymo and others are on the roads in the USA right now. If it’s possible to go driverless on an open road system then it’s very possible to do so on a closed rail system.

    Paris lines 1, 4 and 14 are automated, and run more frequently after automation than before. If Paris can do it, whose metropolitan is so old it is the root of the word “metro”, then London can too.

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