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UK government ends strike-breaking dream of unmanned subway trains

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It’s strike season on the London Underground, and that means one thing to Britain’s endless Tory governments: time to reinvigorate the self-driving hype train.

Conservative politicians have long advocated a fully autonomous metro.

In 2012, then-London Mayor Boris Johnson said the British capital would have unmanned trains within 10 years. A decade later, he claimed the switch… liberating people from being “prisoners of the unions.”

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The government reiterated the matter during recent financing talks with Transport for London (TfL), which operates the local underground network.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps made working on driverless trains a state of the rescue operation.

Shapps reiterated the call ahead of further strikes on August 19.

“We can’t stop the tide of time,” he says told ITV News last week. “It seems to me that in Paris they manage to get ahead of us with automated trains that can run smoother, safer and less subject to so many strikes.”

However, his proposal will have to overcome enormous obstacles.

go underground

Driverless trains present a unique challenge to the world’s oldest metro system.

The age and complexity of the Tube allow for post-automation incredibly expensive and disruptive.

A TfL report leaked in 2020 estimated it would be driverless cost over £7 billion. (By contrast, the body’s drivers cost a total of about £209 million a year.)

The document said any staff cuts would be offset by additional costs, and that an operator would still be needed on each train.

“Its implementation across the network will present a significant affordability challenge, which will further exacerbate TfL’s current financial and financing position in the long term,” the study concluded.

Aslef, the train drivers’ union, said the report shows driverless trains are a “politically driven fantasy”.

In response, critics said the costs and concerns were exaggerated.

Delays forward

Another point of attention concerns the financing model.

Unlike cities with more automated subways, TfL is expected to be financially self-sufficient.

According to the agency’s statistics, the Paris system cited by Shapps gets 62% of its funding from the government, while that of London gets just 28%. The rest is covered by passenger fares. TfL, meanwhile, receives only 28% of its funding through government support.

While there are already examples of automation in the London Underground, they are all still have human operators on board.

They are also not immune to industrial action. Even the more modern and self-driving Docklands Light Railway has come to a standstill by strikes.

The pursuit of further automation can be politically profitable, but it can provoke rather than prevent future strikes.


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