Boris Johnson’s driverless Tube dream is doomed to fail (again)

Peter Summers / Stringer / Getty Images

Boris Johnson has been pushing for driverless trains on the Underground ever since his term as London mayor. In 2012, he pledged we’d have them in two years. Now, as prime minister, he’s trying again: last week, he threatened to withhold future funding from Transport for London (TfL) if it refuses to invest in the technology.
The latest skirmish happened at the site of a new Siemens factory in Yorkshire, which is building new tube trains. “You can run these trains without the need for somebody to be sitting in the driver’s cab the whole time,” he said. “So what I will be saying to the London transport authority is let’s take advantage of this technological leap forward, let’s not be the prisoners of the unions any more, let’s go to driverless trains, and let’s make that a condition of the funding settlement for Transport for London this autumn.”


TfL needs the money, because it’s broke. Its finances were problematic before the pandemic, but with ticket fares collapsing during lockdown, the transport authority required a £1.6 billion bailout from central government in May. But Johnson is going to have to cough up much more cash than expected in the next bailout to further automation – and even then, he’s unlikely to get his long-dreamed for wish of defeating unions through self-driving trains.
Truly driverless trains do exist – Kobe’s opened in 1981, Copenhagen’s started operation in 2002, Sydney’s in 2019— but the Underground has unique challenges, stemming from its age and complicated network, says Nicole Badstuber, a researcher in transport policy at UCL.
“One example of these legacy complications is shared track between different lines and level crossings,” she says. “This is the case on the oldest parts of the London Underground, where Victorian thrift led to the District, Metropolitan and Circle Line sharing track and running different routes. Another added complication is winding tunnels. Retrofitting any new system – take the example or new signalling to increase train frequency – is complicated and expensive.”
Those challenges mean that an entirely driverless Tube may be impossible if not just prohibitively expensive; no wonder then, that TfL says it hasn’t even looked into the idea. However, trains have been increasingly automated since 1968 when the Victoria Line opened, thanks to a system called automatic train control or automatic train operation. This isn’t like a driverless car, which uses sensors and machine learning to make decisions; instead, the infrastructure tells the train when to brake and when to accelerate.


That automatic train control is now used across the Northern, Central, and Jubilee lines with signalling computers handling the driving – setting the speed, braking and so on – while the driver manages the stations, including opening and closing the doors, which signals to the train that it’s safe to depart. That may sound as though TfL only needs to automate a few doors to switch to full driverless, but TfL says drivers also take over the controls if there’s a problem on the track.
Compare it to airplanes, says Keith Richmond, spokesperson for the ASLEF drivers union. “All the pilot does is take-off and landing, the rest of the time it’s on automatic pilot,” he says. “But passengers always like the idea that there’s a man or woman up in that cockpit who can fly the plane if and when the technology fails – in the end, the technology always fails.”
The existing level of automation hasn’t come cheap. Those four lines are newer and don’t share much track with other parts of the network, and even then, updating signalling took longer and cost more than expected; at £721 million, the Jubilee line upgrade was double its initial budget. There are current efforts to upgrade four more lines – Circle, District, Hammersmith & City, and Metropolitan Lines – that will cost £5.4bn.
That work doesn’t include the Piccadilly Line, which is ironic because Johnson’s Yorkshire visit was to a factory building new trains for that very line. While the new Siemens-made trains could be used in a driverless system, the Piccadilly Line needs signalling upgrades before automation is possible. A few days after Johnson’s trip to Yorkshire, London mayor Sadiq Khan confirmed that a long list of works projects on the Underground would be cancelled because of the financial hit from the coronavirus outbreak, including those planned upgrades to the signalling on the Piccadilly Line.


Signalling upgrades to the Piccadilly Line alone were predicted to cost £2.45bn. The 94 new trains will cost £1.5bn. Those will offer automation, but not be fully driverless. To take any line fully driverless, there would be further infrastructure works, notably installing costly and complex platform-edge doors, such as those in place on the Jubilee Line, alongside other safety changes necessary for passengers to exit a train unguided by staff if stuck in a tunnel. Such an expensive project doesn’t seem financially feasible to an organisation that’s already going cap in hand to Johnson’s government just to keep running.
So why upgrade to near-automation if you can’t go fully driverless? It’s about capacity. On the Piccadilly line, TfL expects the new rolling stock will increase the number of trains per hour from 24 to 27. Signalling upgrades would increase that to 33 trains per hour.
While automation boosts capacity, taking the extra step to remove the driver from the cab doesn’t change the service. So why is Johnson so keen on the idea? As he makes clear in his statement from the Siemens factory, he’s tired of fighting unions. During Johnson’s tenure as mayor, there were 33 strike days; during Khan’s term, there’s been 25.
Drivers aren’t cheap, but it would take many decades to get a return on investment on those costs versus driver salaries. TfL said in 2019 that the base pay for a driver was £55,011. While reports in 2018 suggested a handful of drivers made over £100,000, by the next year that figure had fallen to zero, with the highest pay now £65,101 including bonuses, allowances and overtime payments. The average pay is now £52,329, as that includes trainees who are paid £33,375 until they qualify. Across the 3,996 drivers employed by TfL, that costs about £209m annually.
Plus, Johnson is assuming that no drivers would mean no staff at all on trains, and that’s not necessarily true. Look at the Docklands Light Rail (DLR), which was built in 1987 and specifically designed to be driverless. It still has a staff member on board who takes control of the train if necessary. A driverless tube train may need a staff member who is capable of taking the controls in case of emergency on the track. And even if that worker isn’t driving the train all the time, that means they’re still a driver, says Richmond. “It doesn’t matter what you call them, if it’s somebody that will drive the train back into the station, that’s a safety feature”
And there’s no question that there are times it’s useful to have a professional on board. Drivers spot track issues, call in passenger disturbances, and help in case of emergencies. “The anniversary of the 7/7 bombings in London is a reminder the heroic role Transport for London staff played in saving the lives of many Londoners. It highlights staff’s contribution and value in times of crisis,” says Badstuber. “In the event of systems falling – such as a blackout, crash or terrorist attack – the presence of a staff member allows for a degree of creative and agile crisis management. The presence of humans is the failsafe – the system to rely on when all else fails.”
Richmond says Johnson’s driverless push hasn’t helped morale among drivers, many of whom have continued to work throughout the pandemic. “They’re pretty angry and disappointed, as you’d expect,” he says. “They’re treated with contempt, like we don’t need them.”
Right now, we still do. Funding would be better spent on automation to boost capacity and drivers to be there when it all goes wrong – but that’s one heck of a lot less likely to get headlines. While a driverless Tube isn’t impossible, it has much more to do with politics than passengers.
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