Isaac Farnbank is Chairman of the Isle of Wight Young Conservative and a student of King’s College London.
Driverless tube trains can revolutionise London’s Transport Network, break the stranglehold of militant unions, and deliver for taxpayers and passengers alike. A backward, irrational, entrenched vanguard obstructs the Government’s determination to push this through via attaching it to the latest Tfl bailout, announced in the summer.
The Mayor of London, briefly loosed from the Union’s bank account trough for a few moments, has eagerly run to please his party’s paymasters. “It would cost billions of pounds and would be a gross misuse of taxpayers’ money at this critical time for our country,” he enthusiastically told the media late last year.
This is, of course, the same Mayor, who is going to spend thousands and thousands on ensuring that long-standing city Street names don’t – heaven forbid – offend anyone. Yes, at this “critical time”.
ASLEF quickly piped up with an old favourite “Bitter and protracted industrial disputes are an inevitable consequence of the government’s decision to target London Underground workers,” said Finn Brennan, a union spokesman. The RMT joined in too, with their General Secretary claiming driverless trains are “unwanted, unaffordable and unsafe”.
Is it too controversial a thought to offer that Managers manage, workers work?
Transport for London received the same as one-third of the total Rail budget in 2020, which is indefensible, and hardly supports the governments laudable aim to level up and spread opportunity.
The Government has not flinched in its determination to push for Automation Level 3 (essentially what the DLR has, automated trains with a “train captain”), and that is to be saluted. There is a strong argument, however, for aiming higher, to Level 4 (completely automated trains with no member of staff required.)
In the same way that Putin’s Russia blackmails surrounding states with its monopoly over gas supplies, the unions can hold Londoner’s ransom. The heights of inefficiency that have been reached as a result are truly shocking. According to recent newspaper reports, the highest-paid worker enjoyed a package of £81,434 including £58,000 basic pay, £13,000 pension, and £9,000 worth of travel season tickets. In fairness, much of transport work that appears straightforward and easy is actually, in the unseen reality, quite technical work requiring a lot of expertise and skill.
But the most work tube drivers (on all lines apart from the Bakerloo & Piccadilly, where trains are still manually driven) will do in a typical shift is push two buttons at each station, one to open/close doors and another to engage “auto-start”, the activation of the automatic driving system. Apart from the odd shunt to and from depots, and the walk from one end to the other, not much more is involved so long as no issues are encountered. “Driver” is really a misnomer, since the only real control of the trains speed and braking is undertaken during shunts, and when the computerised control fails, which is incredibly rare.
Based on TfL claims, the basic driver’s salary is £25,000. It employs around 3,500 full-time drivers.
If those roles were to become surplus to operational requirements, total savings would exceed £81.75 million. Quite an inroad into TfL’s current debt of £11.6 billion. Compare and contrast that with the cost of strikes, estimated at £100 million. Note also that figure has been arrived at only by assuming TfL is being wholly open and correct in their own figures. It also only includes full-time drivers, neglecting part-time drivers and other financial benefits that drivers receive.
Far from being “unaffordable”, as our obviously economically qualified mayor and noble unions insist, driverless trains will allow for unprecedented, momentous efficiencies to be introduced to London’s tube network, opening the door to more cost-effective fares and future inward investment. That, of course, doesn’t benefit the unions, but does bring innumerable benefits to the taxpayer, the network, and, most importantly, to tube passengers.
There is a legitimate debate to be had over the safety of driverless trains.
Tube lines were not built with incorporated passenger evacuation systems, which necessitates passengers being evacuated by trained staff. If there was nobody on the train, evacuation may take longer, potentially increasing risk and danger to passengers. Whilst this is the thinking behind retaining a member of staff on the train, it seems to me to be overly cautious. That may well be necessary to win public support in the medium term, but is essentially an insurance policy for a very rare occurrence.
Moreover, driverless trains eliminate, as far as possible, the possibility of human error, the leading cause of rail accidents in history.
We only have to look to the fully automated system in Paris, where there have been fewer accidents, a more reliable service, and no major operational issues since grade 4 automation was implemented in 2013. The facts speak for themselves. They speak with greater authority than some of the most obstructionist unions in history.
When such concerns are subject to rigorous analysis and examination, it becomes apparent that such concerns are the distant offspring of the original irrational fear about Railways being the craziest concept yet, sure to be the tool of hell. Evidently, we have become rather more enlightened since such Victorian prophecy… haven’t we?
What’s more, driverless trains eliminate the possibility of crippling strike action and freeing TfL from effective blackmail, allow a greater service frequency (up to 85 seconds in Paris).
Britain had a proud, elite and illustrious pedigree in Railway innovation, gifting, after all, Railways to the world.
In the same spirit, we should not shy away from bold, innovative progress. High time for us to not only drag TfL, probably kicking and screaming, into the 21st Century, but to be at the outmost promethean frontier of inventive development.
If the unions persist with their threats, we must have the courage to emulate Ronald Reagan’s ultimatum to air traffic control strikes. The President essentially told striking worker that unless they were at work by a certain date, their employment would be terminated. In the meantime, the military were bought in to keep traffic control centres operational. We should ensure we have the capacity to operate trains even in the event of a strike, using the capabilities of the Army if necessary.
The Government is on the right track; they must now stay the course and do whatever it takes to win this, not for winning sake, but to ensure a sustainable future for Tfl, an equitable outcome for passengers, and to assert that unions cannot stand in the way of progress.
Let’s get on board for driverless tube trains.