Outside a closed North Dulwich station on Tuesday morning, Victor Rumak, a local resident, expressed himself “appalled” at the latest strike by train drivers on Southern Rail, which serves the station in his London suburb. But, as he prepared to walk off, he voiced a comforting thought. Would the drivers not, anyway, soon be supplanted by driverless technology?
It is a thought that surfaces regularly whenever industrial action is taken by drivers on the UK’s mainline railways and, especially, on the London Underground, where station staff went on strike on Monday. When Boris Johnson was mayor of London he threatened to launch a push towards the technology to muzzle the underground’s trade unions. Online stories about strikes often attract comments gloating over the likelihood that automation will supplant drivers.
Yet the substantial challenges of producing signalling and control systems that can cope with the complexities of driving trains on the UK’s crowded rail network mean that no existing rail systems have been converted to driverless operation. The purpose-built, low-speed Docklands Light Railway in east London remains so far the exception to the UK’s driver-controlled rule.
The question is whether the advances being made in devising new systems to allow trains to operate faster and closer together might eventually lead to the widespread abolition of not just conductors — whose role is the focus of the Southern dispute — but drivers too.
Rupert Brennan Brown, a veteran railway industry observer, says some of the railway industry’s best minds are working on the challenge of transferring traditional, lineside signalling systems into trains in order to regulate their speed and distance apart. Such a shift could make it easier eventually to hand responsibility for driving over to a computer.
But Mr Brennan Brown said: “We’re at a very early stage of this technology.”
At the heart of the challenges facing any effort to abolish drivers’ role is the huge variety of types of train, signalling and operating patterns on the mainline railway. Drivers need, for example, to learn how to respond when trains start slipping on wet leaves in autumn or how to ensure they can stop in time for a downed tree in high winds.
Those challenges mean that few heavy rail services anywhere have adopted even the limited automation common on many metros — including many lines on the London Underground — where trains largely drive themselves under human supervision. A short section of the north-south Thameslink route through central London will be one of the first European heavy rail services to use such technology when work on expanding the route’s capacity is finished early next year.
Even on the London Underground, meanwhile, a majority of the network is above ground and so subject to weather conditions. The system also features some complex track layouts whose navigation could be hard to hand over entirely to machines.
Transport for London, LU’s parent, has said it has “no current plans” for driverless services, even though new trains for the Bakerloo and Piccadilly lines will, in theory, be capable of driverless operation when they are delivered next decade.
“We would only consider implementing full automation following extensive engagement with our customers, stakeholders, staff and trade unions,” TfL said.
However, the ultimate concerns are over whether driverless systems are anywhere close to reliable enough to risk allowing trains packed with hundreds of passengers to operate with no staff on board, as happens on two lines of the Paris Metro. Even the driverless DLR carries a train captain on every train who can take over in an emergency.
LU’s often cramped, narrow tunnels are far harder to navigate in an emergency than the purpose-built tunnels of Paris’s driverless Line 14. These have walkways at platform height that allow passengers to be evacuated from stranded trains.
The Office of Rail and Road, the regulator that would have the ultimate say on any extension of driverless operation, praises the potential contribution of new signalling systems — known as the “digital railway” — to making trains safer and more frequent.
However, it plays down the idea that such advances are close to bringing about widespread introduction of trains without drivers.
“At this stage, we are not considering the introduction of driverless or computer controlled trains on Britain’s complex rail network,” the office said.
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