August 3, 2017

Driverless Trains - A Solution to the Crowded London Rush Hour Tube Service?

People Tube

New ideas are proposed all the time for the Underground, and we often dismiss each concept as another thing that's just not going to happen. However, an idea that's gained serious momentum is ‘driverless trains'.

You may be thinking, "I just want a tube service that isn't riddled with signal failures" or "Can we just get clean seats on the Bakerloo line?" and one many of us can relate to - "My only tube wish is to not suffocate on the central line at rush hour, air conditioning, please!". We went and explored the questions that are on the minds of many commuters like myself: "Is there any point?", and "Will it really happen?".

So, is there any point?

One of the biggest benefits of having a driverless tube system is that the system will become faster and more efficient. All those precious minutes add up and we'd be able to spend more time doing what we want rather than being in our burrowed commuter state, heads down, earphones in, avoiding all eye contact and examining the shoes of our fellow commuters in our carriage.

Automation would pave the way for a broader night tube service, which itself has already been a remarkable success. The automated service would mean more lines can run for longer, without the need to find more drivers to work whilst being tired and in unsociable hours. Human errors and frailties would both removed from the equation, we can expect fewer delays, fewer reduced services and overall a smooth, seamless service.

Conversely, there are some issues that don't paint the driverless Underground in such a good light. Firstly, any move will inevitably cost a lot of money, the advanced technology state of the art trains cost a pretty penny. However, although the initial cost will be very high, savings will be made over a longer period with the absence of paying driver salaries and other associated costs. And of course, we would get those coveted new seats and efficient air conditioning(!).

There are also safety concerns about a mid-journey emergency. Currently there are not sufficient escape routes in our underground tunnels to cope with the procedures required for driverless trains. Creating these escape routes would incur a larger overhaul of the underground system and would subsequently, cost more money and time.

We should also take into consideration the effect on the drivers. It is obvious that they would not be able to continue their current jobs and this would mean that that they would either be made redundant or would have to be placed for work in other departments of the TFL company. It is always important to take a step back and consider the human impact of automation, as one day your own profession could well be automated. The question is: do we need to catch up with the rest of the advanced world and improve a tube system that is falling behind after being one of the pioneers? We must adapt or risk losing out on the benefits of technological advancements. We are facing increasing pressure on the Underground due to increasing levels of tourism and an increasing population and we should start embracing change rather than shying away from it.

Will it really happen?

The direction in which technology is moving and advancing makes it auspicious. Several companies are moving into the automated transport sphere, including Google and Tesla. Even our own TFL currently has the DLR service, which is essentially unmanned in terms of driving and has minimal staffing. From this we can extrapolate and realistically envision an automated reality.

Ex-Mayor of London, Boris Johnson strongly supported the idea of driverless trains and the support for this project has been reciprocated and continued by his successor: Sadiq Khan. As recently as December 2016, when asked whether the new Piccadilly line trains set for, 2023, will be driverless, Sadiq Khan refused to rule it out and said it "would be unwise" to invest in trains which weren't "future-proof". From this statement, we can certainly read between the lines and it really does fill us with hope that driverless trains are indeed just a short stop away.