“Sack Them All” and Other Misinformed Naivety

The Night Tube finally arrived last weekend. In true British railway fashion it rocked up nearly a year late – it’s original proposed start being September 2015. It was well documented in the media that the delay was down to rota and pay arrangements for Tube staff. (And note I say staff and not just drivers). If you think about it, who would blame them for kicking up a fuss. If you already worked weekends (plus some nights) and then got told to do more, surely you would kick up a fuss or want some form of financial recompense? I’d find it hard to believe if you said you wouldn’t.

Anyway, as we can see it was, and still is, a highly controversial and divisive subject. Many Londoners faced days of network shutdown and became frustrated with the unions and the argument. This played into the hands of then mayor Boris Johnson who wanted nothing more than to push through grand infrastructure changes in his name with the public on his side. TfL, who became the pawn in his master plan, and who probably given the circumstances would rather not have to open up the Tube overnight anyway, had to enforce working changes over their staff. Naturally they made a bit of hash of it and relations went sour in the process.

“We’ve got the technology for driverless trains – so sack them all.”

With the tired and disrupted public firmly on Boris’ side, I’ve found myself – as an enthusiast of such things – defending (or sometimes turning a blind eye to) highly negative comments regarding TfL’s front line staff – normally the drivers. In fact I still have to read these comments to this day, just have a look at last week’s Night Tube ride on my YouTube channel and you might see what I mean. I shall refer to these know-it-alls as “The Commentators” during this article. 

This is not the first time I’ve had to become opinionated and write about this matter… It’s not even the first time bloggers have written about the subject – London Reconnections have most probably done a much more technical and well researched piece than I’m about to do, but unfortunatly the message still hasn’t gotten through – so sadly needs must. I suppose we should probably break this down…

Note: This is not an article for or against unions, this is about disputing the above misconception regarding driverless trains.

The Technology

It could be argued that Boris’ media spin deliberately put the drivers  (or we should say Train Operators to be properly technical) in the firing line of the public’s frustration. They of course are some of the most noticeable and recognisable of the front line staff and who’s jobs are no doubt going to have to adapt and change in the coming years. Along with this came the misconception that they could all be replaced by a computer tomorrow. Ergo their unionist days were numbered and they should just be thankful of any kind of job in the first place. So what of this technology, are the commentators right, does it exist?


1967 Stock Train with Automatic Train Operation

Driverless Automated Trains (and we’ll come back to that word “DRIVER” shortly) have existed for a long time. A very very long time. Some even already exist on London’s transport network today. However, our commentators often get fixated on the automated, or computer driven, element of the argument. So to fully understand why they are misinformed we should further break down the varieties of automated train operation.

There are 5 Grades of Automation (GoA) set out by the International Association of Public Transport. We shall concern ourselves with the top 4 tiers.

GoA Type What Is The Operator Doing? What Is The Computer Doing? London Example
1 Manual Train Operation
  • Starting and stopping
  • Door operation (from cab)
  • Dealing with emergency situations and adversities.
  • Differs from system to system but will allow closer operation of trains.
  • Bakerloo
  • Circle
  • District
  • Hammersith & City
  • Metropolitan
  • Piccadilly
  • London Overground
2 Semi-Automatic Train Operation
  • Door operation (from cab)
  • Drives the train in adverse conditions
  • Dealing with emergency situations.
  • Starting and stopping in normal conditions*
    *The driver may still “start” the automation process at each station
  • Central
  • Jubilee
  • Northern
  • Victoria
  • Crossrail
3 Driverless Train Operation
  • Main door operation (from train)
  • Customer Service
  • Dealing with emergency situations.
  • Starting and stopping
  • Some door operation functionality
  • Docklands Light Railway
4 Unattended Train Operation
  • No staff member on board
  • Starting and stopping
  • Door operation
  • Emergencies dealt with remotely
  • None

Already it’s clear to see the “automatic” element of train operation is not as black and white as commentators may think. Most people don’t even realise the Victoria Line trains have been happily “driving themselves” since the late 1960’s and pre-date modern computing and automation quite considerably.

Docklands Light Railway at Westferry

When people refer to “automatic train operation” or “driverless trains” they are often referring to Grade 3. They know that the Docklands Light Railway is a thing and very much exists therefore the conversion to this technology is surely simple.

Not so.

The Docklands Light Railway was a purpose built Driverless system. Stations are fully accessible between train and street meaning those with mobility issues can still board safely and without need for assistance. The system is also designed with emergency evacuation in mind. Take a trip between Shadwell and Bank or between Island Gardens and Greenwich and you will note that a narrow platform runs the length of these tubes enabling safe and convenient evacuation in the event of a systems failure. Such considerations are also accounted for on the open sections of the DLR as well. Also the nature of the DLR means that stations are close together and evacuation to one would not be a long process.

Cutty Sark Station on the DLR. Note the platform running the length of the tunnel.

Compare this to much of the tube network, some of which is now over 150 years old: Tunnels do not have evacuation platforms built in and stations in open sections could be miles apart in exposed areas meaning safe evacuation is much harder. Although accessibility is improving, most stations aren’t accessible between train and platform let alone train and street.

So does this mean all the tube lines can’t reach Grade 3 status? Will they always have a driver in the cab?

Well, no. They probably won’t. And as LR states you can be certain that the next new Tube trains, which might not be operation for another 10 years by the way, will have Grade 3 operation in mind. Until then, you’re stuck with a lump of human flesh at the front of the Central Line trains…

The Human Component

*OPINION ALERT* The thing that really bothers me most about the “sack them all” statement, and ignoring the fact you can’t legally sack someone for being in a union anyway, is the argument that if you don’t have a driver then you won’t have strikes.


The Operators on the DLR (and remember although they’re driverless they still have a member of staff on board) could still be in a union and could still have the potential to go on strike if their relationship with management breaks down. (In fact they did last year). It therefore doesn’t matter whether the train is automated or not. Driverless yes, Staffless no.

OK. So let’s go one step further and go where we haven’t touched on yet. What if the DLR, or even one of the tube lines, had Grade 4 automation (Unattended Train Operation)?

Again, the technology is entirely real. There are no examples in London, but if you’ve ever been to Gatwick or Stanstead Airports you’ll know there is a little automated train that takes you between terminals and departure gates. A similar system operates at JFK Airport in New York, as well as on the Paris, Barcelona and Copenhagen Metro systems. Countless other examples exist throughout the world where there is no member of staff present on the train itself. (If you’re really desperate here’s a list).

Unattended Train next to Platform Edge Doors on Paris Line 1

So what’s different? It all goes back to safety, and once again an upgraded level of security is provided to make sure the public is protected and doesn’t go wandering about where they shouldn’t when nobody is around to stop them. This amongst other things manifests itself in the form of Platform Edge Doors. Platform Edge Doors (PEDs) stop people from getting onto the track, be it deliberately or accidentally. In a way they isolate the actual infrastructure from the outside world and enable you to consider removing the human staffing factor from your train.

If you do look at the global list of Grade 4 Automation Systems you’ll perhaps note that the vast majority of these were built from scratch. You’ll also see that most of the ones operating as part of major city transport networks were also designed and built within the last 10 years.

Although it’s less common, retrofitting an existing metro system with Unattended Train Operation is still very much possible using Paris Metro’s Line 1 as an example. It does however come at a cost. The estimated figure to convert Paris’ 7 mile long Line 4 to UTO automation comes in at €256m (£218m. Figure from Railway Gazette). TfL doesn’t have that sort of cash lying around behind the ticket machines at Roding Valley. Though more costly overall, our government is much more interested in funding more Crossrails and schemes that have larger reaches than investing heavily in conversions of existing lines.

That’s not to say that the London Underground will never have Unattended Train Operation. In fact it most probably will one day. (One very long day in the future). Look at the Jubilee Line Extension if you perhaps want a glance at the future. Platform Edge Doors – check. Safer tunnel evacuation – check. Already has Grade 2 Automation – check. As I’ve said, the only thing blocking this becoming reality is serious financial investment from the government.


So once we get Grade 4 automation on all the lines, then will strikes be a thing of the past and then we’ll have Night Tube everywhere?

NO! Of course not you blithering idiots.

I don’t know what version of utopia these commentators think we live in where we don’t need to have any transit staff whatsoever because even with UTO we’d still need a vast plethora of humans to keep the show running day to day. We’d still have to employ station staff, signallers (or controllers), engineers, cleaners, police, etc… etc… etc… Human beings who have emotions, and who could still go on strike.

I suppose they think it will all be operated by HAL. But then just look how he turned out…

Images: HAL 9000 By Cryteria (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons.
1967 Stock Train By Tom Page from London, UK (IMG_5232.jpg) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Paris Line 1 By Maurits90 (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
Cutty Sark & DLR at Westferry By mattbuck (category) (Own work by mattbuck.) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0), CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons.

2 thoughts on ““Sack Them All” and Other Misinformed Naivety

  1. Excellent article and very accurately written. There is a governing body that would get in the way of UTO anyway, and they are the Railway Inspectorate. I honestly believe they would never allow it to happen. Even if the technology is there, it fails anyway, and its fallible,I certainly experience that virtually every shift that I do which then requires human intervention to correct it] Train Captains would be needed to man a train [Docklands style] it would be an absolute requirement. Can you imagine the cost of platform edge doors and walkways [as you correctly say] [wheres the space in the tunnel] on the Central line alone. And the challenge of fitting P.E.D. on to a curved platform like Bank. How about going up to Epping with nobody on the front—-frightening! The times the train cant even operate properly in the wet in ATO is a joke, you have to take over. I’m told lasers would scan out ahead of the train and sensors would be on the track. The cost of it all and the technology required= phenomenal. Better still when these new generation of trains arrive in years to come, keep them manned, so when they break down [and they will] and when the signaling system fails [and it will] and when you get all kinds of operating problems [which will happen] you have a qualified member of staff aboard to assist with the technology. Apparently if one of these No person operated trains were to break down in the tunnel the Manufacture can remotely reboot the thing even from the factory to get it moving again. OH PLEASE——————-
    Anyway great article and thanks.


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s