back to article Union enraged by secret driverless Tube plan

Unionists are up in arms today after a report showed Transport for London (TfL) investigated new technologies that would have led to job cuts. The report, leaked by the Rail and Maritime Transport Union (RMT), is a strategy discussion of driverless Tube trains and a 'wave and pay' ticketing system that would let commuters use …


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  1. Annihilator


    "It would leave passengers stranded in tunnels with no means of evacuation and would turn the platforms and stations into a muggers' and vandals' paradise"

    The DLR has been an example for almost 25 years of how this system could work. I'm amazed it hasn't been considered or leaked before. If it's anything like that, the trains wouldn't be staff-less.

    Though not sure how they'd reduce operating costs if the trains were still staffed...

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      and tbh when is the last time anyone saw a tfl staff member actually on a tube train whilst it's moving (don't know about dlr, whenever I want to use it it's a weekend where they've decided to turn the trains off.) Every now and again I see them at the end of the line picking up litter. Also on the platforms at peak times to try and maintain a semblance of order.

      The being stranded in a tunnel may be a thought, but what's one tube driver going to do at the moment? I'm pretty sure the standard mo is to be stranded in the tunnel anyway and occasinoally some bloke saying "sorry about the signal failure / corpse on the line / etc" and that can easily be done remotely.

      The drivers are just a waste of space, hire some more engineers and do the engineering work like Japan, thousands appearing from nowhere at 1am to fix things and then all vanishing at 5am (hell they even lift up entire segments of the road on the surface.)

      1. Drew V.
        Thumb Up

        The irony of the Japanese example here....

        You are right, the Japanese employ enormous numbers of engineers and cleaning crew to make the whole system run like clockwork, usually working at night. And at the same time, the systems themselves contain many automated, advanced components that require little human input.

        BUT, and this is where the irony comes in, neither have they stopped manning the trains and stations with surprisingly numerous employees:

        - There isn't just a driver, often (in Osaka, for example) there is a guy at the back of the last wagon, checking whether the crowds have got in okay and the doors can close.

        - Even though the ticketing systems are mostly automated, long-distance trains still have people going down the length of the train to check, anyway.

        - In the big stations you actually have guys standing around waiting for every train to arrive, apparently doing little more than keeping an eye on things and calling around information.

        - Finally, in Tokyo occasionallly you still have those silk-gloved attendants who literally push the crowds into the trains during rush hour.

        In short, to the Japanese, highly advanced public transport still needs numerous human employees in order to provide the best possible experience to the travellers. They value both the engineering AND the human presence. This is by far the best philosophy, IMO, but it's not the cheapest approach obviously.

        1. Craig 12

          I never saw the people being pushed on in the rush hour (the people managed it by themselves!), but I did see people employed to scrape chewing gum up, wipe down handrails etc. The Japanese way seems to be employ someone for every menial task possible, I guess to keep employment up (and increase sales of white gloves).

          My rambling point is however, I encountered several late or cancelled JR trains in Tokyo this month. It's a brilliant myth that their trains are so good :)

          I'm all for automatic/driverless systems if it means running costs are cheaper/better service. Couldn't a driverless tube system be 24/7 ?

          1. Annihilator


            "Couldn't a driverless tube system be 24/7 ?"

            I driver-tube system could be 24/7, much like the bus network. The reason it's not is due to required maintenance windows each night. The tube is constantly being serviced.

          2. Drew V.

            @Craig 12

            They have indeed made it a society-wide rule that it is always better to have too many employees than to have too few. All those low-paid menial jobs are indeed to keep unemployment down. Also because there is much more social and psychological pressure to make yourself useful to society...even if it is just scraping gum off the handrails for a living.

            I lived and commuted in Tokyo for a year and no train was ever late by more than a minute, except on those few occasions when someone killed themselves jumping in front of one. Maybe it was a particularly bad month for suicides when you were there.

            Still the finest public transport in the world, IMO. No offense meant to the folks employed by British rail companies, but BR is more like the very opposite.

        2. Hatless Pemberty

          Seppuku anyone?

          "In short, to the Japanese, highly advanced public transport still needs numerous human employees in order to provide the best possible experience to the travellers."

          It helps that they probably feel their entire family's honour, for generations to come, depends on their doing a good job. Not quite sure if that applies here.

        3. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          @Drew V.

          A major reason for the vast number of people employed is that it is something of a part planned system and getting rid of people is both hard and a sign of shame, they don't really need a lot of them. Also being a train driver is a enviable position.

          Also the wages, holiday time and, working hours in Japan make the UK look like a holiday nation that gets everything for free.

          But yes a duplication of their system is impossible, and I was only talking about the engineering side.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Possibly ...

      "Though not sure how they'd reduce operating costs if the trains were still staffed" - 2 options spring to mind:

      1: downskill the driver's role to customer service agent with only sufficient training to be able to bring a train safely to a halt in an emergency - don't have to pay them nearly as much (existing staff on protected salary for a while to smooth the transition);

      2: reduce the number of uniformed and plainclothes ticket inspectors as the customer service agent will also be checking tickets.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward


        FFS, how much skill does it take to press go, stop, and read from the list of excuses when something goes wrong?

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Here you go

    3. handle

      It's considered all the time

      Note to author: The Victoria Line has been semi-automatic since it opened in 1968.

      1. Just a geek
        Thumb Down

        The Victoria line and central line both use ATO - Automatic Train operation, essentially driverless trains but I'd still rather have someone up the front that has the ability to turn these things off and deal with the situations the computers can't handle such as powerloss and bombs.

    4. jonathanb Silver badge

      DLR train captains get paid a lot less than the £50k tube drivers get. They can also check tickets and generally keep order on the train. That's where the savings come from.

    5. Jeremy 2

      You've missed something.

      The DLR was designed from the start to be driverless. It's a lot slower than the tube and still requires a staff member on each train to drive manually from time to time. The tube and the SSR were not designed to be driverless and all the infrastructure needed to make it so isn't there and especially in the case of the deep-level lines, can't be easily added without great expense.

      With today's tech, you just can't have driverless trains that run at 50mph in the open (e.g. basically the entire network outside the city centre) with just a fence between the trains and the outside world. For starters, you need a fleshy thing up front who's able to hit the "Oh shit" button when some yobbo puts a (non-conductive) lump of wood or concrete onto the tracks. Do you trust a computer to see stuff like that quickly enough to stop short? You need staff on a train to be able to safely evacuate passengers if needed in tunnels that are only a few inches wider than the train and the only evacuation route is along the train and out the front/back onto potentially live rails. Either that or you need to re-bore every line with an evacuation/service tunnel, ala the Channel Tunnel. I wonder how much that would cost and who would pay for it. Would you like to sit in a tunnel for 45 minutes in August while somebody walks from the nearest station to reset some safety cut-out when a driver on board could do it in 5? The list goes on and on and on.

      The uneducated think 'Oh yeah, driverless trains, that's easy, DLR, right!?'. Well actually, it's not easy. The basic driving and stopping of the train can be handled automatically, yes and has been in use on part of the tube since the '60s. The problem is the edge cases, there are so many and they're so varied that the cheapest and simplest way to deal with them is to pay somebody to sit at the front.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        @Jeremy 2 - ODFO

        All of your random bleats are assuming there is no staff on the trains whatsoever. Much like the DLR, it's perfectly possible to put someone on the trains, just not actively driving them, so quite why you think you'd need to wait 45 minutes for someone to walk from the nearest station is beyond me. Nobody is saying it's easy, but certainly it's feasible.

        Bizarrely you think there needs to be an "oh-shit" button, as if a human in the dark is able to see obstructions any better than a (say) radar system.

        Ironically you seem to have missed that the DLR travels faster than some lines (the Northern as an example), and has to run slowly when under manual control. Additionally, the only accidents have ever happened while the system was under manual control.

        1. Jeremy 2

          @AC - ODFO :)

          "Bizarrely you think there needs to be an "oh-shit" button, as if a human in the dark is able to see obstructions any better than a (say) radar system."

          Reduce operational costs by implementing track-scanning radar on every train? Seriously? What planet are you on where that kind of tech would be cheaper?

          Heck it's probably not even possible. There's a thousand bits and pieces that should be down there, how do you pick out the one thing that shouldn't be no margin for error? You can't design something like that to fail-safe without causing mass public inconvenience (stopping every time there's a greater than zero chance that the track is obstructed - you'd never move). That makes it inherently unsuited to the railway.

          Tunnels are a non issue (pretty much), as mentioned previously they're inherently more secure. As is the DLR in it's mostly elevated or underground locations, for that matter. Most of the underground is not actually underground and it's those open sections where shit heads with shopping trolleys and lumps of concrete lurk that are the problem.

          1. Tom 13

            I've never ridden a European train,

            only the crappy slow ones that allegedly function as commuter services on this side of the pond. If you think a fleshy at an "oh shit" button can stop the train before the train hits the shit, I don't even want you WASHING my auto, let alone making claims about knowledge of mass transit.

      2. Chris Collins

        Collision detection

        I think you'll find that your chelsea tractor has a perfectly operational collision detection system embedded in the bumpers. Much more attentive than the text messaging operative. Yes, there's a guy on the DLR. The majority of the time he's not driving it. You're on the wrong site for being a Luddite.

  2. Greg J Preece

    Well, you know, perhaps job losses in the public sector aren't always a bad thing. If new technology heralds a major improvement to a system that makes it better for every one of it's millions of customers (and, I would imagine, substantially cheaper), then the layoffs may simply be necessary. It's not pretty, and re-training or reallocation would always be preferable, but the notion that anything that costs jobs is automatically bad has always puzzled me. Technology's *always* done that. There's a reason we don't have hundreds of men staffing car assembly lines any more.

    Plus, as you said, the tube drivers love striking more than they love Gregg's pasties.

    1. JohnMurray

      Substantially cheaper.

      Yes, that'll happen.

      Substantially more profitable.

      A captive market is the phrase that springs to mind.

  3. Steven Jack

    I don't want people to lose their job, however

    The tube should be run for the benefit of Londoners, not TFL staff. I don't want to see people lose their jobs and the invetable social costs that brings, but what is wrong with running down staff numbers over time? The Tube is expensive, Londoners need better value from TFL in these tough times!

    1. Greg J Preece

      The *tube* is expensive?? Phht, in my experience it's cheaper than elsewhere. Up here in sunny Leeds, we seem to pay more and more every 6 months, and get less. Our promised "new rolling stock" turned out to be 20 year old London hand-me-downs, and yet my regular commuter train has recently started turning up a carriage short, which is great fun.

      No prizes for guessing where all our money's gone to.

      1. gribbler

        yes, the tube is expensive

        I recently moved to Barcelona, and a one month pass for the central zones (metro and bus) now costs me the same amount as 3 days on TFL. The tube in London is one of the most expensive public transport systems in any major European city.

      2. KroSha

        @ Greg

        The Tube is hideously expensive. Compare it to Berlin's U-Bahn, where an All-Zone day ticket costs €6.80 (£6.15), and that lasts until 3am the next day. Even the single tickets are 2 hour passes, so if your journey involves a U, a bus and another bus, you only pay once. Plus the trains run pretty much 24 hours. The last time I went out in Berlin we got home at 3am, and the journey took no longer than getting there.

        TFL is still mired in the 20th century, mainly due to the massive resistance of the Unions to any change whatsoever. They're almost as bad as soddin' politicians! At least MPs don't strike if their pay rise is less than 5% in the middle of a depression.

      3. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward


        Nah mate - that's where your money's come from.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Where my money comes from? Really?

          My money comes from the oil industry. It's real money, brought in at least in part from other countries (meaning a real net gain for the UK) for real services (and servicing of real products), from a company whose assets are real and who are net profitable. Should this company become non-net-profitable, the skills of the employees would allow them to secure employment all over the world.

          In the middle of a recession, we got pay-rises. As the less well managed economies in Europe collapse, we're re-investing billions into keeping the UK producing hydrocarbons for the next >30 years.

          (Plus I get to play with big underwater hydraulic robots all day. 8-year-old Anonymous Coward would be proud!)

          London has The City and that's it. A lot of virtual money sloshing about in a computer before being sent off to some other country. A world where buying lots of debt was touted as a fantastic financial system from which there would be no problems, and where nothing is actually built.

          And then it has the cheek to demand (with menaces) a rather sizeable percentage of my salary to help prop up these failed faux-businesses. And then adds on extra tax to my employers (and their employers) when they find more sources of profit, squeezing yet more money out of one of the few massively profitable areas (and direct/indirect providers of jobs across the UK) we've still got in this country.

          So nah, mate- London? That's where my money goes.

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Yes, I'm sure the oil industry of all things has absolutely no use for the facilities offered by investment banks.

            And fancy paying income tax, whatever next?

    2. Marvin the Martian

      But is it losing *quality* jobs?

      Yes, driving is a skilled job but no, it's not inspiring; it's driving circles under the ground with the occasional banter over the tannoy to relieve boredom. I'm sure the off-duty cameraderie is rewarding, but that can't be the aim of a job. You're mostly looking out for simple binary info (stop/go signals) that a machine can more reliably react to (push 'go'); the "human" task at hand is [1] gauging if too overcrowded, refusing to let on new passengers, and [2] seeing if all doors are clear, to drive off (or stop if the passengers suddenly shout), so within reach of computers by now, with a verify from central control if necessary.

      That, and the unsociable hours --- with automatic trains there's essentially no reason not to run 24/7 if profitable, possibly over a reduced net like night buses. Yes, carrying out work on the track I suppose.

      I'm guessing risk of strikes goes up: instead of balloting 1500 drivers, you have to just organise the 20 or so PFYs in the control room.

      1. L.B.

        Under no circumstances can a tube driver be called a skilled worker.

        It may require some knowledge that you or I don't have, but that is true of almost every occupation be it a street cleaner or security guard all the way up to lawyers, accountants and surgeons.

        It takes a course of just few weeks to take a pleb off the street and fully train them as a tube driver. For people with a little intelligence that course could probably be done in as many days.

        Skilled work takes many weeks to get just the basics, and months and more often years to master. In some jobs you never stop learning.

  4. nichobe


    What is so bad about improving a system or process and letting natural job shed reduce staffing levels.

    p.s The only thing worse than unions is the patent war.

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Frankly, the sooner they implement this the better.

    And that from a life-long Labour voter.

    1. Thomas 4

      Any chance we could replace Bob Crow...

      ....with someone that isn't psychotically insane and willing to, oooh, I dunno, *NEGOTIATE* instead of getting on his mountain-high horse every time someone says something bad about the Tube?

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    about f---ing time.

  7. Ian Yates

    Shock: World moves on, some jobs redundant

    I've personally wondered at why this has taken so long and have always assumed it was a Union thing.

    While I have sympathy for anyone who loses their job, especially when the job has effectively become unnecessary, it seems worse to me to follow a "job creation" agenda of purposefully not implementing changes in order to preserve otherwise pointless jobs...

    That aside, the idea of most stations being completely unmanned might be taking it too far if it means that emergency response is impacted.

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Can't they just bolt on one of the avoidance systems from a volvo that'll stop the train if it spots something ahead? (which can see further than a driver's eyes!)

    Can turn all "drivers" into PSA to acutally help people then rather than being an army of crow's evil automatrons stuck in the box at the front voyeuristically watching the cctv

    1. Silverburn

      Volvo avoidance systems

      ...are fatally flawed.

      Fatal for the bikers and cyclists they usually fail at avoiding, at least.

      When I rule the world by dictatorship, all volvo's will come equipped with a loudspeaker and will play the jaws theme tune on a loop; and the music's tempo matched to the vehicle speed.

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Not a religious issue?

    Unionists conveys - to me at least - an image of bowler-hatted man marching through Catholic areas in an invented 'tradition'.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward


      *All* traditions were invented, at some time.

      1. Marvin the Martian

        Anything done on three consecutive years is a tradition from then onwards.

    2. AdamWill

      Me too

      Yeah, the first line had me scratching my head and wondering if they'd awarded the rolling stock contract to the IRA or something.

  10. Loyal Commenter Silver badge

    Ah Yes, Bob Crow.

    One of the old-school Trotskyites. A friend of mine who works for a large bus company has a few choice words to say about him.

    If union members make such great demands of a business that the business becomes uncompetitive as a result, such as preventing the business from adopting new technologies that increase efficiencies, it is ultimately the union members themselves who suffer, when they get laid off when the company folds. The only winners here are the union leaders, in ther comfortable well-paid jobs.

    Don't get me wrong, unions have achieved many good things in the past, but we now have plenty of legislation (as a result) to ensure that workers are treated and paid fairly. The concept of a union is becoming more and more outdated.

    1. Chris Miller


      That'll be the kind of Trot that takes a £250k annual package, but still has a (heavily subsidised) council flat. Clearly learnt a lot from his mate Arthur Scargill, and will no doubt have the same effect on his members.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        I understand that it's actually about £150k - but the point still holds.

        All men are equal, but some are more equal than others.

    2. TheOtherHobbbes

      Uh huh?

      And where were you during the TfL PPP maintenance fiascos of the last few years, when the brave innovative spirit of private enterprise marched in to put TfL's antiquated union-led practices to rights - and promptly fell over, requiring massive cash handouts?

      See e.g.

      This idea that only the public sector can be inefficient and/or moronic needs to be taken out back and shot. Anyone who has experience of private sector management can give you countless examples otherwise.

      Also, in case you haven't noticed, TfL is a public monopoly. It's not 'competitive' with anyone.

      Nor should it be, if the UK's mainlines are anything to go by. The result of privatisation has been massive fare increases, massive public subsidy increases, and - until Hatfield - massive safety and performance decreases.

      Readers should check the numbers for themselves. They really are quite shocking.

      Of course if by 'competitive' you mean 'making shitloads of cash for banks and corporate investors' then you're entirely correct. Because that's been the only positive outcome of the UK's rail privatisation policy.

      And as for the RMT - firing 1500 workers will barely add up to a rounding error in TfLs £9bn annual budget.

      Anyone who really believes this scheme is going to do anything to keep fares down needs a sharp dose of reality.

      1. JohnMurray

        Well.....I wasn't going to post this...but

    3. JohnMurray


      Most employers either do not know about the legislation, or pretend they do not.

      I suppose mentioning the recent illegal database case, where employers paid for information from an illegally-operated database, knowingly, is a no ?

      And that was the construction industry....nothing about the engineering industry yet...

      Health and safety legislation, existing since 1974, is routinely ignored in practically all works premises...

      Work at height regulations (most serious injuries on sites are from falls) are also routinely ignored (i watched a guy standing on a waste bucket on the end of a telehandlers forks, manhandling a steel lintel at about 15 metres fall restraint)

      Employers moan about "red tape", but pay no attention to it anyway !

    4. Colin Millar
      Thumb Down

      Nothing like an easy target

      Those unions eh - whats the latest list?

      Coal mining industry

      Steel industry

      Railway industry

      And lets not forget the "spanish practices" which destroyed our traditional newspaper industry.

      All destroyed by a bunch of working class lads. You would have thought the revolution would have come by now with such an ability concentrated in the hands of a few thousand people.

      Try reading beyond the Daily Mail headlines. Piss-poor political management, a lack of long term strategic thinking and operational practices determined by accountants - that's the enemy.

      But you just keep on taking the easy shots and sleep soundly knowing that you have an enemy that you can put a face on.

      Me - I'd put my trust in pure luck before I'd trust a purely programmatic approach to complex, dangerous operations.

    5. AdamWill


      "Don't get me wrong, unions have achieved many good things in the past, but we now have plenty of legislation (as a result) to ensure that workers are treated and paid fairly. The concept of a union is becoming more and more outdated."

      Indeed - after all, the upper classes now run the world conscientiously in a manner that benefits everyone, poverty in developed countries has been eradicated, and the income gap has been declining for years.

      Wait a god damned second...

      Are there instances when unions do silly things? Sure there are. Do I get pissed off when people extend this to the absurd notion that unions are now utterly obsolete and we can all trust our bosses to treat us fairly out of the kindness of our hearts? Hells, yes.

  11. Confused Vorlon

    Jubilee only needs a driver because of the union

    It's the exact same system that is used in driverless trains in France.

    In the UK, the unions insisted that was dangerous (and presumably threatened to shut down the whole network), so the drivers sit in the front and control the door opening/closing.


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