Driverless Trains – Update

Following my last post on this subject (and my article in September Modern Railways) LU went public that it was proposing to begin testing ‘driverless trains’ on the Jubilee Line extension, at night and with no passengers on board. I use the term ‘driverless’ purely for consistency, but test trains would almost certainly have had all manner of staff on board to monitor what was going on. This has already been done (though nearly thirty years ago) and is technically not very difficult. The hard part comes later, which is all about what staff you need, where they are positioned, what happens if something goes wrong, and all the other issues to which I drew attention. Anyway, if you are going to do it (and Boris said LU was) then you have to start somewhere.

On 8th October LU suddenly made it known that the expected tests would not be taking place and that there would be no driverless trains for at least a decade. The implication was that it was now a dead duck. After examining an announcement of this a bit more closely, I was less sure the issue was dead and have concluded it was probably alive and well, though maybe on holiday for a while. The announcement sent to me is a masterpiece of its kind, needing me to go through it line by line.


Statement – trains will continue to have drivers until well into the 2020s

Observation – it doesn’t say ‘all trains’, so that hasn’t changed the position. Even if we take the statement as referring to (say) 2024 it is doubtful if this has changed the reality that it was only expected to happen on the Bakerloo or Piccadilly lines and full driverless operation was probably not realistic much before that date in any case.


Statement – New stock of 191 trains now being delivered for the Metropolitan, District, Circle and Hammersmith & City lines will all have driver’s cabs and be driven in the conventional way.

Observation – That was always the case and many trains have already been delivered. Actually they won’t be driven in the conventional way for very long as they are planned to go automatic (but not driverless) when the new signalling goes in.


Statement – There are no plans for any further purchase of new trains – without driver’s cabs – “at this time,” says London Underground (LU).

Observation – This is no doubt true at 8th October, but it does depend on what is meant by ‘plans’. The idea of having no driver’s cabs might not strictly have reached the status of a firm plan because the Bakerloo Line upgrade is still a little way off. The operating philosophy had been heading in the direction of no driving cabs, though, and I believe drawings may have been produced. This was always going to be a hard line to do because of inter-running with main line trains north of Queens Park. It is also a line that has lots of latent capacity where the advantages of going ‘driverless’ are perhaps less clear-cut. The expression “at this time” is formulaic and while strictly true is usually intended to include (without drawing too much attention to it) that the position could well change. Usually the words “we have no plans to” indicate more permanence.


Statement – Although the Victoria, Jubilee, Central and Northern lines already run in semi-automatic role they will not be converted and continue to be driver operated.

Observation – No change, though the Northern Line does not run automatically at the moment, it is being equipped to do so.


Statement from the MD – “However, let me be clear – there are no plans to test driverless trains on any part of the network.”

Observation – formula words “on the network” and “no plans” do not rule out “elsewhere” and “plans might be drawn up at some future time”.


My take on all this? My Modern Railways article set out some of the practical difficulties in introducing so-called driverless trains, but also set out some of the benefits that could happen if it is done well. If the technology is there to do it safely, and practical and experienced people can address the issues of managing when things go wrong and work up solutions from scratch rather than attempt to copy very different types of railway, then LU would be abrogating its duties if it didn’t go into the matter. Only by detailed analysis will they know whether it is a goer or not.

I rather suspect LU was bounced into doing something a little faster and more publicly than it would have preferred by Boris politicising the issue, immediately inflaming the RMT and allowing them to make a pre-emptive move. Questions were asked to which there are (unsurprisingly) not yet answers, putting LU on the back foot. The short term solution is to withdraw the heat from the arguments and recover control of the situation. If it causes a delay, and maybe giving up the idea on the Bakerloo, if that is what has been done, then so be it. As I say the Bakerloo would always have been awkward. I don’t think all that much has been lost, and neither do some other transport pundits.

As I’ve said before, I’m agnostic on whether it is the way to go or not, though I still think control of doors from platforms (whether automatic or manual) should be investigated. But if LU is to go to fully automatic operation at any time in the future then it needs to start from first principles and do a much better job at selling the advantages and having clear answers to basic questions without those with equally vested interests being given the opportunity to scare people off the idea. That will require a lot of work.

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About machorne

I have always lived in London and taken a great interest in its history and ongoing development. This extended into the history of its transport services, about which I have written a number of books - I have spent most of my working life working in the industry and observing changes from within, mostly to the good, but not always so. I continue to write, and have a website with half finished stuff in it so that it is at least available, if not complete. Several new books are in hand. I have many 'works in progress' and some of these can be found on my website; the we address is http://www.metadyne.co.uk
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