The Shape of Things to Come Part 2: What the Operational Strategy Discussion Paper Means for the Underground


The word “driverless” does not feature in the Operational Strategy Discussion Paper once.

Given the amount of times this word has appeared in the press recently, the above statement may seem rather surprising. What it demonstrates, however, is that just as with the topic of ticket office closures, the Paper’s proposals with regards to Train Operators and operation are more complex than one might think.

Automation for the People

Sources indicate that the Paper lays out a brief overview of the current state of automation on the network and how it may progress. It is from here that much of the talk of “driverless” trains has come, yet the actual breakdown seems to be far more nuanced.

The Paper divides methods of operation into three categories, which will be familiar to many of our readers:

  • Manual Operation: the driver controls all aspects of the train’s operation
  • Automatic Train Operation (ATO): the driver retains the “stop/go” element of operation, as well as other aspects such as door control
  • Remote Operation: All motion control is operated remotely, with other aspects such as door operation are operable either remotely or manually.

Sources suggest that the paper identifies a number of stages through which London Underground will pass in the coming decade, which will see the balance between the above methods shift as time progresses:

Stage 1: The Network Now (70% Manual, 30% ATO) – The Victoria and Central Lines have had ATO systems in place for many years. To these has now been added the Jubilee as a result of its upgrade programme.

Stage 2: The Network Post-Northern Line Upgrade (50% Manual, 50% ATO) – The middle point of this decade will see the completion of the Northern Line upgrades, adding that to the ATO fold.

Stage 3: The Network Post-SSR Upgrade (20% Manual, 80% ATO) – the completion of the scheduled signalling and rolling stock upgrades on the Circle, District, Metropolitan and H&C Lines in circa. 2017/18 brings the Sub-Surface Railway (SSR) into the ATO fold.

Stage 4: The “Deep Tube” Programme begins (15% Manual, 80% ATO, 5% Remote) – “Deep Tube” is a topic to which we will return in more detail shortly. Effectively, Stage 4 represents the point post-2018 where elements of a Bakerloo and Piccadilly Line Upgrade begin to manifest.

Stage 5: Deep Tube Completed (80% ATO, 20% Remote) – The completion of Deep Tube in circa. 2020, bringing all lines into either ATO or Remote Operation.

Stage 6: The Far Future (100% Remote) – A hypothetical point beyond the current decade where time, money and technology enabled remote operation system-wide.

As can be seen, of the six stages above, stages 1 – 3 comprise entirely of plans and upgrades currently underway. It is with the addition of “Deep Tube” in Stage 4, that the Paper first starts to head into new territory.

Deep Tube

The Piccadilly Line Upgrade was one of the early casualties of the fall-out from the failure of PPP and the need to tighten the purse strings at TfL. Originally slated for the early-to-middle part of this decade, this upgrade project officially slipped into “tba” territory with the Spending Review.

Various sources have since suggested that London Underground had begun to look seriously at how the project might be recast – both to ensure the necessary upgrades took place and to ensure that they were rescoped and timed in line with other work that still needs to take place elsewhere.

The Deep Tube Programme is the result of this rescoping.

The first official signs of Deep Tube began to emerge in May, when it received a one-line mention in TfL’s Q4 Investment Programme Report. Since then, various details have begun to emerge, some of which this Paper seems to confirm.

Deep Tube focuses on the upgrade of signalling, communications infrastructure and rolling stock on the Bakerloo and Piccadilly Lines. It has long been understood that this includes a completely new rolling stock design for both lines (known to many as the EVO project), with both Siemens and Bomdardier recently confirming in the railway press that they have been undertaking some concept work in this area on London Underground’s behalf.

EVO (and indeed Deep Tube) are both topics which future articles outside of this series will focus on in more detail. In the context of this article, however, it appears that the Paper all but confirms two things, which sources suggest it seems to take ‘as read’ about Deep Tube:

  1. That the result of the EVO project will be a rolling stock solution that doesn’t feature a dedicated cab
  2. That this rolling stock will, out of the box, be designed for Remote Operation as well as ATO operation.

Sources suggest that the Paper proposes that it is with Deep Tube/EVO that Remote Operation be first introduced to the Underground, with the Bakerloo likely to be the first candidate for operation in this style.

Changes to Control and the SSR

Alongside the shift to an ATO/Remote Operated network, sources suggest the Paper includes a number of concepts for reshaping the Sub-Surface Railway.

The Paper, it seems, argues that the rollout of the S-Stock to the SSR, along with the move to a common control centre at Hammersmith as part of SSR upgrade programme, present a perfect opportunity to rethink and centralise its operation.

Sources suggest that the Paper advocates rationalising the SSR into a single SSR unit. This would include redrawing the existing Station Groups into SSR-wide ones grouped geographically, rather than line-specific groupings, and rationalising down Senior Staff into a single SSR management structure. In operation terms, the Paper also appears to suggest making Train Operators on the SSR non-line-specific, and thus available for any SSR line for which they have been qualified. Expanded pool coverage or a more zonal approach are also suggested for consideration.

Beyond the SSR

A more centralised, simplified operational approach is something that sources suggest the Paper argues for beyond simply the SSR. The current system of control centres at multiple locations is, it argues, inefficient and fragmentory. This contributes to bad incident management and a failure to sufficiently learn from mistakes.

The paper seems to suggest the creation of a single London Underground Control Centre within which the currently dispersed control functions would be co-located, including the British Transport Police. Effectively existing Line Service Control Teams would remain separate, but their relationship and responsibilities to the network as a whole would be more strictly defined and a new senior post of “Head of Railway Operations” would be created. The HRO would have formal command of the whole network, replacing the current Rostered Duty Officer role. The Service Control strategy would then be reviewed to take into account the new centralised element.

What this Means For Train Operators

As can be seen from all the above, the Paper highlights that even if only projects currently underway are continued, by 2017/18 the role of the Train Operator will have changed greatly from what it is now. Should Deep Tube proceed as appears to be planned, it further suggests that by 2020 the network will likely see ATO operation over all its Lines, with Remote Operation also beginning to feature.

Sources suggest that the Paper, rather bluntly, asserts that the requirements of the Train Operator role are already outdated in some cases. This, it claims, is largely due to both Union and cultural resistance, which has meant that whilst the technology on the network has begun to change, the roles and frameworks associated with the TOp role haven’t. This disconnect is one that will only grow greater as the various upgrade projects continue.

To address this, sources suggest the Paper advocates a phased plan aimed at rebalancing and refocusing the Train Operator role. The end result (as with the suggested changes to station staffing) would be Operators whose role included both operational and increased on-train customer-focused elements.

The first phase of this process, running concurrent with the upgrades already completed and those underway on the Northern Line, would be a reassessment of the TOp role itself on ATO lines, widening it out to include elements of Incident Management and Customer Service where possible. Minor changes to the current framework – including the option of voluntary overtime – would also be sought in order to increase the flexibility of the role and coverage.

Controversially, the Paper also appears to suggest the introduction of a new job role – Reserve Automatic Train Operators – within some existing support roles, effectively creating a pool of staff with limited “driving” ability outside of the existing Operator pool.

Phase 2, beginning with the rollout of the new SSR upgrades, would see the process of updating existing Operator frameworks continue. Alongside this, a new “Automatic Train Supervisor” role would be created, the occupants of which would be individuals qualified to operate services under ATO and restricted manual (i.e. very slow emergency manual moves).

Finally phase 3, concurrent with the rollout of Remote Operation under Deep Tube, would see the creation of “Train Attendants” for the Deep Tube Lines. These would be far closer in concept to the Train Captains found on the DLR or indeed traditional Train Guards, with the bulk of their role focused on revenue and customer functions both on-train and potentially on-station.

Sources indicate the Paper argues that a successful Remote Operation rollout might theoretically lead to the end of the need to have dedicated Train Attendants on each service throughout the day.

Managing the Trains

Alongside these changes to the TOp role, sources indicate that the Paper argues for a possible phasing out of the Duty Manager grade in the long term. Duty Managers are currently responsible for booking Train Operators on, undertaking various personnel management activities and for reforming the service during disruption. The paper, it appears, argues that a more technical solution should be sought for booking Operators on and off, with that and service reformation possibly become a function of Service Control whilst the other elements of the DTSM moved to a revised Instructor Operator grade.

The suggested staff changes to the Train Operator and DTSM roles above probably represent those within the Paper which will likely be seen as most controversial. Certainly, they’d represent the trickiest both to explain to, and receive buy-in for from, the Unions and staff themselves.

At their root, the changes suggested by the Paper cut to the heart of the Train Operator role, opening a debate that some would argue has been lurking on the radar for some time – as technology and infrastructure changes on the Underground, just what is the role of the Operator?

To a certain extent, it’s a debate that both the Unions and London Underground are at times guilty of oversimplifying in order to try and further their goals. The Unions (notably the RMT) are often guilty of portraying the TOp as the single, crucial point of control within the train – very much the “driver” and heir to the era of steam and early electrics. It’s an image that almost actively dares London Underground to take the opposite stance as ATO spreads across the network – that Operators are “button pushers” with technology and central control now doing the bulk of the heavy lifting.

Both views, however, are ultimately wrong – black and white caricatures of a role that is most definitely grey. Train Operators across all Underground lines are not simple stop/go merchants, but nor are they the drivers of old. “Safety” may be a word that is overused in the eternal grind of the driver debate, but it is very much a fact that the Operator role currently includes various elements related to proactive and reactive safety needs that would be tricky to automate. There are other day-to-day operational elements inherent in the role as well.

At the same time, however, just as technology has increasingly left the average car driver unable to simply pop the bonnet and fix their own car, the same thing is true of Tube trains. The days when an Operator was expected (and trained) to be part mechanic as well as driver are gone.

The simple fact is that, as the Paper rightly appears to point out, the nature of the Train Operator role has changed and will continue to change. Whether the Paper’s initial suggestions as to how this role should evolve are correct is open to debate – but here it is worth remembering that, as indicated in the first article in this series, the Paper is the early foundations of a possible strategy not the final product.

Whatever that ultimate strategy is (and signs do indeed suggest that this will end up being its foundation), for it to be successful London Underground will need to look carefully at not just what is wrong with the current Operator role, but also what is right. Indeed this is true of all the changes suggested in the Operation Strategy Discussion Paper.

Correctly identifying the things that need to be kept as well as those which need to be overhauled will prove a tricky challenge, as will convincing both staff and management that both need to be done (and, importantly, are being done for the right reasons). Sources suggest that this is something that the Paper does indeed acknowledge and accept, and so in the final part of our series, we will look at this topic in more detail, and also some of the barriers to change that London Underground is likely to face.

Next: Managing Organisational Change

Many thanks to the source who confirmed the lack of the word “driverless”

Written by John Bull