One Way Track

An artist

An artist’s impression of a driverless train on the London Underground. Personally, I’m not too sure about the idea of the doors being open as it comes through the tunnel… image copyright Lucy Young

Like most major capitals, London has a complex public transport system that is key to facilitating its citizens’ need to get to work, to socialise, and to get home safely after. Most of the time, this works quite well, but in 2015, the Underground Railway (tube) workers have taken industrial action in a bid to negotiate better terms for themselves. Thursday, 6th August 2015 was one of the days they took to the picket line and rendered the tube offline for 24 hours.

I have access to an alternate form of transport in the form of a moped (scooter) and after checking my meetings were still on (some had the foresight to reschedule) I made my way into the City that day. Sitting in the foyer waiting for the arrival of my first meeting (who turned up 45 minutes late owing to bus delays) I turned to Facebook to kill time and saw a friend’s post with the headline “London Tube Strike: Why do we even need drivers?”.

Neil and I were at school together, and because of our mutual love of technology we bonded – especially growing up in South Devon (a part of the UK known more for its agriculture and fishing than computers and technology). Musing as to the implications of his post, I decided to ask my friend to tell me more about his thoughts were on the subject.  “It’s ridiculous” said Neil, “I mean, they automated the DLR30 years ago. There is no technical reason why they can’t be done with drivers once and for all”. Neil’s point seems valid to me. We’re all aware of the advances that companies like Google are making with their self-driving cars, but for a simpler challenge like driving a train along tracks, stopping in designated stations and the odd announcement or two – what exactly is it about a driver’s job that can’t be easily automated?

I figured the most natural place to look for answers would be the Unions who called the strikes. After all, the unions are wholly comprised of members who are the very workers they collectively represent. Some of the union leaders themselves are former drivers – so who better to articulate the nuances of train driving and why we need humans to do it? Mick Whelan for example, the General Secretary of the union “ASLEF” was himself a train driver, and he’s quoted in the press saying “Any attempt to introduce driverless trains on the system will result in an all-out campaign of industrial action” in a recent interview but declined to comment when I wrote asking what their concerns exactly were.

Bob Crow, General Secretary of another union, the “RMT” said with equal vitriol “the RMT will not allow Tube safety to be sacrificed on the altar of driverless operation and we are geared up and ready to go to war on this one”.

I couldn’t get a comment from the unions, but they made it very clear they weren’t keen on the idea of driverless trains – but wouldn’t say why. One can only assume that they have two separate concerns – that of safety and that of the productive employment of their workers. Clearly driverless trains do put jobs at risk, but are they safe?

One of the leading driverless systems in the world is in Vancouver, Canada.  Their trains  rely on passenger emergency alarm systems which are connected with a control centre. Commenting on SkyTrain’s safety record, public transport planning consultant Jarrett Walker said that the control centres “are likely to have a better view of the whole emergency, and the resources at hand than a train driver could have.” This appears to me to be true – by freeing the person from an essentially monotonous and procedural based task (driving) you allow them to operate at a higher level, managing the safety of the system as a whole.

It also struck me that it might allow for a greater degree of human warmth than the clinical experience most of us have today.  When trains drive themselves, perhaps drivers could be reassigned to interact with passengers, monitor on-board safety, and to provide assistance to those who need. This way, perhaps the fears of the unions could be avoided.

I asked Neil whether he cared if the drivers lost their jobs. “Of course I have some sympathy for them, but why hold back the advance of technology and the convenience of passengers?  Perhaps if they weren’t striking, then I might be less vocal – but they shouldn’t be allowed to hold the City to ransom like that.” Fair point.  But it led me to ask “What do you do for a living, Neil?”… for a few moments all I could hear was the sound of traffic in the background before a slightly nervous chuckle. You see, Neil works in technology also and finally responded “I guess my job could be done by a computer also, one day”. I wonder how many of us would have to answer the question in the same way?

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