Richard Tracey is the Conservatives transport spokesman on the London Assembly
I have been pushing for the introduction of driverless trains on the London Underground ever since I wrote my report on the matter in 2010. Since the its publication, the case for driverless trains has become ever more compelling. They are already used in over 40 major cities around the world, including London, where the ever-expanding DLR shows Londoners are already happily and safely travelling in trains without a driver.
As well as the DLR, increasing numbers of Tube lines are set up for driverless operation. When I wrote my report, the Victoria and the Central Line were already automated to the extent that all their drivers actually have to do is open and close the doors. Now the Northern Line and the Jubilee Line have joined them.
I was delighted when the Mayor of London used his 2012 manifesto to promise both to bear down on fares and to introduce driverless trains. He was quite right to do so and Londoners wholeheartedly endorsed both proposals. In reality they are two sides of the same coin. Bearing down on fares means reducing the cost of running London’s public transport. In 2010 the annual wage bill to pay tube drivers had reached £141 million per year. Since then we’ve seen a 4-year pay deal that is set to make a tube driver’s basic pay £52,000 by next year, and the example of the best paid tube driver receiving nearly £62,000 per year. It’s time for a change.
So the news that TfL and the Mayor are ploughing on with the introduction of driverless trains – with the Managing Director of London Underground, Mike Brown, announcing plans for a ‘New Tube for London’ that would not require a driver – is excellent. Driverless trains won’t just save money for fare payers. They will increase capacity by enabling more trains per hour on the Tube and the evidence of driverless systems around the world is that they’re safer than driver-operated models.
Unfortunately certain union bosses are not happy at the prospect of driverless trains, one even stating that he’s “not having it”. Luckily for Londoners, union bosses are not in charge of the Capital, so their disdain for driverless trains – and, indeed, rejection of a vast array of ideas that would improve the Tube and help to hold down fares – is far from the final word. However it’s clear they will do everything in their power to disrupt ordinary Londoners. London needs driverless trains but, in order to make sure a tiny minority doesn’t block progress, the Government needs to revisit the law on industrial action.
Public transport strikes should be replaced with the right to “binding pendulum arbitration” – a simple process where an independent judge chooses between the positions of the union and the employer. This will encourage unions to make reasonable demands and help secure moderate outcomes for both sides, ultimately protecting commuters, workers and businesses.
We are making huge progress. Just like the introduction of the 24-hour tube and flexible ticketing from 2015, driverless trains will hugely benefit Londoners. The last week has seen a big step forward towards their delivery. But without Government action the route forward will be far bumpier than it should be.