Throwing money at the strike problem: Can the Tube be automated?

Alex Hern looks at the question of Tube automation. It can be done - but it may not be worth it just for a PR coup for Boris.


One of Boris Johnson’s key pledges at the last mayoral election was to engineer a no-strike deal with the tube unions “to get Londoners moving”.

On that, he has been a disastrous failure, with 23 strikes in his four years as mayor, compared to 16 in the eight years before him.

His response to his failure to negotiate seems to now be to do away with Tube drivers altogether.

The BBC reports:

Mr Johnson said: “When the Jubilee Line is complete there will be three lines in London which operate on an automated system.

“It is a fact that as we speak most of the Jubilee Line runs under automatic operation.

“The driving of the train is done by computer, rather than manually.”

Mr Johnson said trains still needed one member of staff aboard, as on the Docklands Light Railway.

But he continued: “It is a fact that anybody in this room could in a matter of a few weeks acquire the qualifications to supervise an Underground train.

“The huge implications of that change will be obvious to all of us.

“I hope they [the unions] will recognise the patience of Londoners is not endless. They should abandon the recent pattern of strikes.”

The three lines which could easily be automated are the Central, Jubilee and Victoria lines; however, the safety issues of doing so are not to be sniffed at.

Evacuation is one. The DLR, London’s largest driverless system at the moment, has very few underground sections, all of which are built with walkways alongside. The Tube relies instead on evacuation shafts, which were built into the Victoria and Jubilee lines at the time of construction, but not the Central line.

Safety on the platform is another. Just yesterday, the Evening Standard reported on the narrow rescue of a five-year-old child, moments before he was crushed by a tube train.

Dick Murray writes:

He slipped under the Jubilee line carriage while trying to board it ahead of his parents. The driver had been given the signal to set off as the couple rushed to rescue their son, who was fighting desperately to climb back onto the platform.

But he carried out a last-minute check on his CCTV – and spotted the child’s hands reaching up from beneath the train. Today the unnamed driver was hailed a hero after jamming the brakes back on and raising the alarm.

London Underground deny that this has any relevance to the automation argument, and told Murray that:

In the case of driverless trains, special platform or train-mounted sensors would alert staff to any such accident.

This is probably the case; it certainly seems that if TfL throw enough money at the problem, they could automate the three lines with the correct signalling. Of course, if they throw enough money at the problem, they could end strikes as well.

Either way, drivers are going to remain a feature of the Underground for quite some time. The sub-surface lines of the Tube contain some of the most complex signalling arrangements of any metro railway in the world, and automating them without essentially rebuilding the entire network is not possible with today’s technology.

Tech fetishisation won’t get Boris Johnson out of his strike problem anytime soon.

See also:

“No one uses TfL” Tory: Users should pay, except when they are my votersAlex Hern, February 9th 2012

Serious concerns over transport commissioning – how will Greening respond?Matt Dykes, December 16th 2011

Boris fiddles as London prepares for transport chaosAlex Hern, October 19th 2011

Tory fare rises are an indirect tax on jobs in LondonClive Efford MP, January 6th 2011

Lack of access will hit disabled fans’ enjoyment of ParalympicsSarah Ismail, August 24th 2010

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19 Responses to “Throwing money at the strike problem: Can the Tube be automated?”

  1. Martin Steel

    Throwing money at the strike problem: Can the Tube be automated? by @alexhern

  2. Alan199

    Throwing money at the strike problem: Can the Tube be automated? by @alexhern

  3. JC

    Good article. The more the unions strike, the more people will stop using public transport and companies will be more likely to move out of London. Sounds like the drivers hate the workers as much as the right wing.

  4. Extradition Game

    RT @leftfootfwd: Throwing money at the strike problem: Can the Tube be automated? by @alexhern #NewsClub

  5. leftlinks

    Left Foot Forward – Throwing money at the strike problem: Can the Tube be automated?

  6. Anonymous

    Well, we can just change the law and make striking by tube workers illegal.

    Break the strike and damages are due. I suggest their pension fund is the obvious place to get the cash.

    Ah you can’t do that I hear being muttered. You can’t force people to work.

    The state does. Both in terms of taking money by force with taxation, and by forcing people who want benefits to work – except they aren’t.

    No difference. Lets have a bit of violence. The left have always been good at it, so lets use that to solve the problem.

  7. Political Planet

    Throwing money at the strike problem: Can the Tube be automated?: Alex Hern looks at the question of Tube automa…

  8. Patron Press - #P2

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  9. Pulp Ark

    Throwing money at the strike problem: Can the… #Public_Services_for_All #Boris #Boris_Johnson #muslim #tcot #sioa

  10. Alex Braithwaite

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  12. NORBET

    RT @leftfootfwd: Throwing money at the strike problem: Can the Tube be automated?

  13. Blarg1987

    Violence solves nothing, good leadership, good arguments and educating public perception is the best way to win.

    Strikes are a good thing, you have to rememeber that if strikes are seen as to succesful chances are membership of trade unions and new trade unions will start, this is of course against the will of the minority of individuals who treat workers as drones.

    People may get upset at tube drivers for going on strike but instead of moaning they should look at how come they get good pay and conditions if it is through a union then perhaps they should form their own union.

    It seems that people seem to want to kick everyone else down which would include themselves rather then try and elevate themselves upwards, granted I accept there shoul be a reasonable wage, not in the millions of pounds etc but somewhere that providesa comfortable life style and not the bare minimum to live on.

  14. Anonymous

    Try not paying any taxes and see who uses violence. The state.

    So if strikes are a good thing, why isn’t the taxpayer allowed to strike?

    For example, if you have a deep held belief that war is wrong, why shouldn’t you be allowed to withhold a percentage of your taxes proportionate to what is spent on war?

    ie. I’m winding you up to see of you bite. You’ve taken the hook.

    The right to strike is correct. I’m all in favour of it. It goes back to the question of should you be forced to work for anyone else against your will. That include strikers and the tax payer.

    People should not be forced to pay taxes for anything they don’t believe in, just as people should be allowed to withdraw their labour from their employer if they so wish. The employer should also be allowed to withdraw their pay under those circumstances. For example, if you opt out of paying tax for welfare, then you don’t get welfare in return.

    State slavery, just as much as individual slavery is wrong.

  15. Ed's Talking Balls

    ‘This is probably the case; it certainly seems that if TfL throw enough money at the problem, they could automate the three lines with the correct signalling. Of course, if they throw enough money at the problem, they could end strikes as well.’

    I don’t care. Blackmailers should be crushed, not rewarded. That is a point of principle.

    In any case, you miss the point. Laying out a vast sum to automate the tube is a one-off payment (fair enough, there would then be maintenance and upgrade costs, etc) but, owing to the greed of tube drivers, splashing cash on wages would need to be repeated ad infinitem. The drivers have shown that their greed cannot be sated, so would keep on striking.

    When you pay Somali pirates their ransom demands, they realise that kidnapping is a profitable business and keep doing it. If you keep giving in to Bob Crow’s demands, the drivers will obviously want to repeat their trick too.

  16. Newsbot9

    Of course, you can just ban striking without a health and safety good reason. And why not let the Government gun down anyone they like in the street. After all, basic human rights are now up for grabs. Why should you keep breathing? What are you offering?

    And right, you’re the pro-government slavery man here.

    The “automated” lines have FAR more issues than the normally-driven ones on the tube, and even minor disruption costs FAR, FAR more than occasional striking.

  17. Newsbot9

    Ah yes, trying to lie your way out of supporting Workfare slavery now.

  18. Newsbot9

    Right, you need to be crushed for your postings here.

    Moreover, it’s NOT a one-off payment. There are major additional payments for maintenance, and billions lost in far lower reliability, as seen on the “automated” lines. Why should you be allowed the right to breath, again? You want basic rights to be conditional, after all, so prove with details…

  19. Blarg1987

    I see where your comming from with the second bit but people are inheritly greedy, what will happen is that people will not pay national insurence etc claiming it is only for people who need it and thinking they do not need it, then one day they will get ill, suddenly they discover it is cheaper to pay into state support and demand top of the range health care, however because everyone did that and not pay into it earlier the system can not cope.

    The classic example being insurence companies offering a payout if you lost your job through redundency, yet this clause was removed when the recession hit as people jumped onto the bandwagon.

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