The myth of driverless trains

The NewsSimon FellComment

As we all know, the recent ballot of DLR staff produced a majority in favour of strike action. In fact, it did so with numbers that met the criteria for strike action as proposed by the government in the upcoming Trade Union Bill.

So, as the recent strike has proven beyond a doubt, the driverless DLR can be hit by strikes in the just as the Tube is. And this is the myth to which the title refers - that driverless Tube trains will lead to a de-facto reduction in Tube strikes.

Here's Jack Brown with the history behind the DLR:

"Designed and built entirely by the private sector in order to keep it out of the hands of Ken Livingstone’s left-wing Greater London Council, engineers and planners who worked on the DLR recall being told that making the trains driverless, and thus invulnerable to union disruption, was an essential requirement. One consultant who worked on the project recalls that powering the DLR via overhead cables was ruled out by the Thatcher government, who told him with some disgust that: "This must not look like a bloody tram! Trams come from socialist countries. We are not a socialist country!"

"Local groups and activists had grave concerns about the safety of driverless trains and unstaffed stations. However, the only major accidents on the DLR seem to have occurred when the trains are driven manually."

The DLR proves the case the driverless trains can and do work safely and efficiently. But the fact remains that some 300 passenger service agents (PSAs) work on the DLR, assisting passengers, driving the trains if necessary and ensuring that the doors open correctly.

If those PSAs choose to strike then it has a clear detrimental effect on service levels, as we have just seen.

The Mayor has made clear his aspiration to move towards driverless trains on the Tube. But that is only half the battle. If we want a truly strike-proof Tube then there are only two real options on the table. Dave Hill summarises them:

"One is by removing all human beings from trains, be they called “drivers”, “train captains” or anything else... Unlike unstaffed metro systems in other countries - often cited by purveyors of “driverless” mythology - much of ours is in deep, old “single bore” tunnels with no walkways beside the tracks. Would the London public accept having nobody on board who could, if necessary, take charge of an Underground train if [it] got stuck between two stations far below the surface and look after the people in its often packed carriages? 

"[The second]... would be to ban union membership, ban strikes or both - measures far more drastic than those proposed by the government and, unlike unstaffed trains, they might command substantial public support. But would it really be worth the grief? Would it improve the overall standard of service on London’s rail networks, which heavily depends on a workforce whose morale and commitment to their tasks is directly and very evidently related to the pay and working conditions that union membership helps secure? Does the British capital really want to lead the way in purging its mass transit public services of organised labour?"

While the mythology around driverless trains is easy to support, the detail of how a truly strike-proof system might be brought about is a more difficult pill to swallow. But that said, we can't allow a tricky problem to halt progress on other fronts.

The Underground works because of a covenant between its staff and the public. TfL is right to explore - and use - new technology (including driverless trains) where it will bring improved services and customer experiences, but it has to bring its staff, and the unions, with it on that journey.

It would seem that this approach is the only way to bring about a truly strike-free transport network.