All aboard for automation: the future of London Underground

by Nathan White

 

The cost of strikes

Since the Metropolitan Railway’s inauguration in 1863, the Underground has existed as an iconic and an integral feature in the city’s political, economic and cultural identity. Technological advances, such as the world’s first partially-automated trains operating on the Victoria Line in 1968, have been inseparable from the tube’s illustrious history. So as London was once again held hostage to the demands of trade unions last week, we look to technology and ask: ‘what solutions can be offered by automation?’

On Wednesday 7th November, an all too familiar story emerged with the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union and the tube drivers’ union Aslef holding a 24-hour strike action on the Central and Waterloo & City lines. RMT’s figurehead Mike Cash described the strikes as a response to: “A wholesale abuse of agreed procedures and the victimization of a trade union member…bullying staff and expecting our members to pick up the pieces when the service breaks down.”

In reality, strikes were called in response to TFL’s refusal to reinstate two drivers who were fired after committing serious safety procedural breaches which put passengers’ lives at risk.

As a result of the strike on November 7th an estimated 800,000 people suffered severe disruptions. When the economic consequences of strike action are considered, with each day costing London’s economy approximately £48 million according to the GLA Conservatives; the loss is felt near universally. What is equally concerning is that evidence suggests the rate of Underground strikes per year increased from 2 to 5.05 from 2000 to 2017; the city experiencing 36 strike instances from May 2000 to January 2013. To put it bluntly, strikes all too often cripple London; with innocent taxpayers sacrificed as collateral damage in unions’ haphazard attempts at hurting TfL and Government officials.


Is more automation the solution?

Automation, primarily in the form of driverless trains, is often proposed as the solution to London’s recurrent strike problem. Currently, underground trains are divided into newer models where drivers mostly only control opening/closing doors, and older ones where they use ‘dead man’s handles’ to get trains moving. In either case, the argument for driverless tubes can be made and the benefits of this are seemingly undeniable.

According to the International Association of Public Transport (UITP), driverless trains are safer, faster and more efficient in the 25 countries they currently operate in - compared to previous, human-controlled transport. A stellar example of this comes from Hong Kong’s driverless South Island Line (SIL). Opened on December 28th 2016, the SIL has an on-time passenger journey performance of 99.9%, trains arriving at a frequency of 3 minutes during rush hour and won ‘Project of the Year’ at the British Construction Industry Awards. Being fully-automated, the Line operates with increased flexibility, reliability, reputation and is better able to respond to consumer needs as it does not rely on human factors and errors.

Across Europe, data suggests driverless trains are the predominant choice for new systems and through ‘New Tube for London’, we have a prime opportunity to join the movement. Between 2023 and 2030, TfL plans to introduce 250 new trains to be used on the Piccadilly, Bakerloo, Central and Waterloo & City lines.

Realising the potential of driverless trains could save taxpayers incalculable amounts in the long-run, with recent wage increases which brought tube drivers salaries to £53,791 a year costing taxpayers nearly £33 million extra. Additionally, UITP claim that staff working driverless metro lines are ‘more satisfied with their job and translate into reduced levels of absenteeism’. With TfL facing growing financial pressures after losing its £700 million annual government grant, a greater role of automation could facilitate a necessary realignment of the Underground with consumer’s needs. This could mean London is moving in the right direction - cause for commuter Jubilee.


Not everyone is on-board 

Unfortunately, this opportunity to revolutionise the Underground network and free ourselves from the perpetual nightmare of transport strike action seems unlikely to completely solve driver striking issues. Although new tubes will be capable of operating fully-unmanned, there will still be drivers on-board. London’s Mayor Sadiq Khan said: “The idea of having driverless trains is madness...In the interests of saving some pounds to risk the safety of Londoners, of staff and visitors, is the height of recklessness.

Khan’s distrust in automation for safety concerns, which have been echoed by unions, are based on an ‘idea’ – not evidence. ‘New Tube for London’ cannot be reduced to a political ploy which spends billions to create a more positive impression of the Underground, without addressing the ever-mounting threat of strike action. We cannot Borough our heads in the sand.


Full steam ahead to a bright future

We cannot waste this opportunity to re-structure relations between Underground staff, unions and infrastructure.Tube driving is a prime and well-evidenced example of where technology has and will continue to outperform humans. Let’s take off the training wheels when the time comes.

Automation is not a silver bullet against the significant costs of strike action but it is a powerful weapon in our Arsenal nonetheless. A greater trust in technology can increase the Undergrounds performance, capacity and conditions which in turn increase London’s infrastructural and financial resilience to strike action - benefiting the city as a whole indirectly, beyond those using the lines themselves. With Aslef describing a "network-wide shut down in the run-up to Christmas", we ought to no longer accept strikes as part of London life. The Central argument is that ‘New Tube for London’ could be a chance to be bold and develop a new normal which can simultaneously improve Tube performance for customers and protect unions’ rights to ensure a brighter future for all. A system we can Bank on.