Transport for London is considering plans to roll out driverless tube trains across the Underground network by 2020. This week we ask: are trains without drivers a good thing for London’s commuters?
‘If you want to know why RMT and the other tube unions are so opposed to the idea of driverless operation on London Underground, take a look at press cuttings from the incident on the Washington DC Metro in June 2009, where nine people died after a crash involving automated trains. The inquest into the deaths was damning and found that it was a combination of cuts to inspections and maintenance, alongside a dash for automation, that led to the tragedy. Train operators were soon returned to the DC Metro and have remained there ever since. ‘That same lethal cocktail of cuts and demands for driverless operation is now topping the agenda here. RMT has exposed savage cuts to maintenance and inspection schedules for failsafe equipment, trackways and escalators. We are not in the business of scaremongering; we are in the business of exposing the facts and making sure Londoners are fully aware of what TfL’s £5 billion of planned cuts really mean. ‘Hardly a day goes by without some major signal, fleet or infrastructure failure on the system. As I write this, the District Line has flooded at Victoria. Do you really want to be stuck on a packed commuter train hundreds of feet below London in a deep tunnel without a driver to manually operate a train when, as happens daily now, something goes wrong? ‘This nonsense of driverless operation is being championed by Tory politicians. It’s all about Boris and the mayoral election. You can’t play political games with a complex deep rail system that shifts millions of people around this city. Trust your tube workers on this one and ignore the lethal and ill conceived rhetoric of the old-guard Tory right.’
‘The tube is carrying record numbers – more than a billion passengers each year – and demand continues to rise. However, parts of the network are very old – some date back to the 1860s, and we have the oldest trains running anywhere in the UK. Without upgrading, the tube would eventually grind to a halt. That’s why we are rebuilding the network. ‘We must consider how new technologies can help us meet that demand and provide safe, more frequent and reliable services. London Underground has always been an innovator. Now is the time – as we plan the purchase of our next fleets – to consider the next generation of automatic signalling systems, in which trains are ‘driven’ from a control centre rather than a traditional driver. This allows trains to be run closer together – increasing frequency and capacity. ‘Metros across the world already use this technology with no impact on safety, as does the Docklands Light Railway. Last week, Line 1 of the Paris Métro was converted. This is not science fiction; it is already tried and tested technology. Indeed the tube – one of the safest railways in the world –already has automatic signalling systems on three out of the 11 lines. By 2018 some 70 per cent of the network will be automatic. ‘This means that from the 2020s new trains could be operated without the need for traditional drivers. This does not mean de-staffing the tube. Maintaining fully staffed stations at all times is sacrosanct. This commitment to safety and to bringing improvements through new technology is what our customers rightly expect. It is what happens in every aspect of life for Londoners and is, of course, the way railways have evolved over the years.’
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