Transport Committee Part 1: Underground Reliability & Driverless Trains


Thursday saw the latest meeting of the London Assembly Transport Committee take place at City Hall. As usual, it provided some interesting context and updates on things at TfL with this month’s guests being Mike Brown, MD of London Underground, Gareth Powell, Director of Strategy and Service at London Underground and David James, Chair of IIPAG. IIPAG are the Independent Investment Programmes Advisory Group, who are currently working to both benchmark and assess TfL’s performance with regards to maintenance in the post-PPP world and general project management best practice.

As is often the case the entire Committee meeting is well worth watching, and you can find an archive of the webcast here. A number of key topics came up, and thus we’ve decided to break our coverage of this month’s session into two parts.

Below is a summary of some of the key points that were raised with regards to reliability, and with regards to Deep Tube and driverless trains. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is Brown’s comments on the subject of Deep Tube and future Underground trains that have garnered attention in the press, and thus rather than summarise these, we have decided to transcribe his comments below, in order to provide readers with the full sweep of his comments.

Reliability on the Underground

Firstly, however, discussions at the meeting turned to the subject of current Underground reliability. Here, Brown provided a brief roundup of the current state of affairs. He admitted that the Jubilee Line had seen various issues in the run up to the Olympics, but indicated that he was happy both with the line’s actual performance during the Games themselves and since.

Elsewhere, he admitted that the Metropolitan Line’s performance over the last 12 months has been disappointing, but pointed out that to a certain extent this was to be expected as the A-Stock came to the end of its life and the new S-Stock rolled out. Brown’s assertion that the last four weeks had seen the Metropolitan Line achieve its best ever performance metrics was interesting, but it is perhaps too short a period on which to base too many conclusions yet.

Brown also commented on Victoria Line performance, indicating that he felt that too had improved since before the Olympics. He confirmed that the solution rolled out to address the sensitive-edge door issues has been both a software modification (to make the doors less prone to reporting a problem with the pressure is in-to-out) and clearer guidelines on when the Driver can override what are clearly spurious reports.

Finally, Brown commented on where Underground reliability now sits both in relation to other networks, and what the future challenges now are.

“It is true to say,” Brown commented, “actually, that really for the first time in the history – the modern history at least – of London Underground for the Victoria and Jubilee Lines we are now pushing at the reliability levels of the very best in the world. Now that’s not true across the whole system, but we should be in that position for those lines.

“We’ve had a lot of money invested, we’ve had a lot of energy expended in getting us to this point and indeed passengers have put up with some disruption along the way. So my challenge now is how not just do I sit complacent with the level of performance that we’ve now got, but how do we increase it still further.

“For example of the Victoria Line how do we increase it still further, in the New Year, when we increase services to 33 trains an hour in the peak, which is way in the way the most trains we’ve ever run on any line, on the Underground, in our history.”

The Future Of London Underground Rolling Stock

Most, if not all, of the comment that has circulated in the press since Thursday on the subject of “driverless trains” can be traced back to Brown’s comments on this topic during the meeting. Brown was being asked to elaborate on the topic following the Mayor’s recent comments about driverless trains. There had also been the suggestion in the press that London Underground were planning to test “driverless” trains on the network, leading to both a statement of protest from several Unions and a rebuttal from LU itself.

Brown’s comments during the meeting, however, confirmed that there are effectively no new developments on the topic. LU’s current thinking remains that already understood to be part of the Deep Tube project, and that which was outlined in the Operational Strategy Discussion Paper that caused a similar flurry of media activity this time last year.

In essence, this can be boiled down to a relatively simple, and not exactly surprising, statement:- LU plan to explore greater levels of automatic operation as part of the Deep Tube project, the objective of which is currently to establish the future upgrade path of the Piccadilly, Bakerloo and Central Lines. As Brown pointed out, discussion of what level of automation might be possible let alone when it might take place, skips past a far more critical point – that TfL have yet to negotiate a funding settlement with the Government that will enable them to upgrade those lines at all. Indeed there was a hint of frustration lurking within his comments on the subject.

“First of all,” Brown commented, “if I could just be clear, we have no money, there is no order, and there is no design.”

After running briefly through the basic (and different) types of automatic train control again, the discussion continued.

“When the Mayor talks about driverless trains,” Val Shawcross asked, “because he has expressed enthusiasm for this concept in public, which category of these trains [ATC, DLR style Train Captains, or unstaffed] is he talking about?”

“Well I can’t possibly put myself into the mind of what the Mayor might be referring to in that.” Said Brown. “But let me be clear about what I’d be talking about, and I’ve been very consistent in saying this. What I’ve always said is that when and if – and I hope it’s a when – we get the opportunity to procure another fleet of trains, beyond the orders that we’ve currently got in place, we have to of course explore all the technology that’s available.

“Technology is available around the world that includes trains without driver’s cabs, and therefore I think it would be foolish of me to rule out at least exploring that as a possibility.

“Now there are some unique characteristics in London that present some challenges to this So the other metros to which I referred to [Paris and Sao Paulo] as having fully automated trains don’t have single bore, deep level tube tunnels – like the Piccadilly Line has for example.

“Therefore there are some huge issues that we would need to address before we even got to the design stage and the thinking process about what we were going to procure at that point.

“But the prize for me, if I may say it, is actually around ensuring reliability of the system. The reason that we can run 30 trains an hour on the Jubilee, on the Central line and on the Victoria line and not anywhere else is because they are being driven, these trains are being driven, by the system. They are being driven optimally, the acceleration curves are optimal, the braking curves are optimal.

“You will never, even with the best driver – and we’ve got many great train drivers out there – even with the best driver you’ll never get that with manual operation.”

Val Shawcross pushed the point – was Brown ruling out the highest level of automation (full remote operation) on the Underground?

“I think there would be many challenges for us to get to that point. So I’m not… well you can never rule anything out because technology moves along.”

The discussion then turned to timing.

“Do you have a timetable,” Shawcross asked, “for introducing driverless trains at all?”

“The only timetable I’ve got,” Brown replied, “Is dependent entirely on the funding envelope. I don’t have funding and therefore it’s impossible for me to have a clear timeline as to what I can do.

“I need… I’m going to need… we’re going to need to replace the Piccadilly Line trains, which were built in 1973 and the Bakerloo line trains built in 1972 quite soon – and at the moment I cannot let a contract with which to let it.”

If the money suddenly turned up, Shawcross asked, when would you be aiming to introduce the first “driverless” trains of whatever specification?

“Well I think that’s the point.” Replied Brown. “I think that’s when we’d have to work through and look at all the technical issues, the safety issues, and other concerns.

“I’m not trying to be elusive here!” He stressed, “it’s just that this is… this is… really dependent very specifically on what’s being done and…”

“Are you still committed to having ATC on 48% of the network by 2014?” Asked Shawcross, interrupting.

“Yes.” Replied Brown. “Because the Northern Line will be complete by that date.”

The discussion then turned to the safety impact.

“The Unions,” Shawcross asked, “are very concerned about public safety on driverless trains and there’s clearly some worries there. What are you doing to actually discuss and have dialogue with the unions about this issue?”

“Well as I just said,” replied Brown, “I’ve already talked to the General Secretaries some time ago about the concept of this. I’ve been very open with all of my staff, all of my employees, directly about this and the reality as new technology continues to emerge, and I have further meeting – am intending to have further meetings this side of Christmas with the General Secretaries to continue with that dialogue.

“So clearly I understand their concerns. I mean frankly safety is absolutely at the top of my concerns because ultimately I’m accountable for the safety and operation of the system. So there is no question of me ever putting in a system of operation that doesn’t meet the highest level of safety criteria.”

Richard Tracey then took up the questioning, beginning by clarifying the Mayor’s opinion.

“Mike” Tracey asked, “you say that you don’t know what’s on the Mayor’s mind…”

“I don’t think the Mayor does” murmured a committee member, interrupting.

“…but just yesterday the Mayor said very publicly in Mayor’s Question Time that what he foresees as driverless trains are trains which don’t have a driver in the cab but which most certainly do have staff on the trains.

“As you mentioned,” he continued, “the DLR has staff on the trains and that is the Mayor’s idea and it’s certainly the view of the Conservative group – my colleagues – that there should be staff on the trains. So we need to be clear with you on what we’re considering from our end of the political perspective here.”

“Are you aware of the amount of public support,” he then asked, “for driverless trains?”

“Clearly the public support,” Brown responded, “and the views of Londoners, the views of our staff, the views of anyone who uses the Tube are very important to me in this context. So absolutely I’m aware of what people’s minds are on this.

“But I do go back to the point that actually the overarching imperative for introducing new technology is to improve the reliability and the capacity of the system.

“That’s where I come from – it may be a bit of a naïve place to come from – but I think that fundamentally Londoners care about. How do you ensure that, instead of a train arriving every two and half minutes, you have one arriving every two minutes or even less if that’s possible?

“And as I say, some of that is only possible by exploiting some of the new technology that we need to – as indeed we’ve done throughout our entire history as an organisation and indeed as any organisation should do.”

Tracey then mentioned that another concern of the public was avoiding disruption due to strikes, and that he believed that surely the amount of automation on lines like the Jubilee already meant they were surely just one step away from being able to remove the cab completely.

“Well yes,” Brown replied, “like I mentioned there are metros around the world that have taken that further leap forward. As I said – and I’m in danger of repeating myself – I just want to be absolutely clear that as we exploit, as we should do, new technology as it emerges and as it’s proven to operate in other cities and in other contexts, that we are absolutely clear that there are some unique operating circumstances within London. One of them I alluded to earlier – with the depth and the size of the single bore tunnels – but also that we are cogniscient about the overall impact on the reliability of the service.

“One of the other things I should just say is that a third of our issues of delays, when you look at our overall statistics are around so called ‘passenger action’ and occasionally people do – although not so much on the Jubilee line clearly where there’s platform doors on some parts of the network – people do occasionally find themselves on the track. Either unfortunately because of a deliberate suicide attempt, or to retrieve an object or some other foolish thing that people occasionally do because human beings are like that of course, we all are.

“So I just want to make sure that all of those things are properly reconciled, properly dealt with, properly thought through. Therefore I think this needs calm reflection, as and when we get some funding and we’re about then to consider a design, and consider the type of issues that we’ll need to talk about before the procurement of a new fleet of trains.

Tracey then pointed out that there are in order of 30 cities in the world using driverless trains, and wanted to know what evidence there was that it was less safe.

“Well clearly each city has its own unique circumstances,” Brown explained. “What I’m interested in is obviously exploring the data from other cities – and there is mixed evidence, it has to be said, across the world on this subject. Some countries culturally, and for other reasons, look at these issues slightly differently than we might here and I’m quite proud of the way that we look at safety in this country actually in terms of our operating systems.

“So I think it’s important that we look at that [the experience of other cities] in terms of the overall context, but it shouldn’t be the sole driver to decisions we make in London.”

Tracey pushed again – surely there was no evidence that they were less safe?

“Well there are some different circumstances.” Brown replied. “London’s Tube network is constructed entirely differently from any other one in the world. It’s a hodgepodge of joining together old railway companies into one holistic system and that creates its own unique challenges. It creates its own unique challenges day to do in the operation of the place, but also as we introduce new technology including new trains.

“So we just have to be very mindful of that going forward. I never rule anything out, but I have to say that we have to look at this in a proper, considered, calm way. Of course involving people in London, of course involving a trade union and our employees – all of which I’m committed to do.

Tracey then asked as to whether the Jubilee, Victoria and Northern, having received ATC, would thus be the most likely for any conversion.

“No.” Said Brown. “I think it’s much more likely that we will see any introduction of further technological developments when we procure a new train. Because I think these trains are as they are, they’re part of an overall system, there… for example there aren’t platform edge doors – apart from one section of the Jubilee line – on the rest of those lines and that creates some major difficulties, I know, for our regulator and for other people who are interested in looking at us.

“So we do have to work this through in time. So I do think it’s more likely that further technological developments will emerge with the procurement of the new fleet of trains.”

Tracey then asked for clarification about the testing of driverless trains on the Jubilee line, a subject that had appeared in the media.

“You made an announcement through TfL,” he said, “that there would be testing of the driverless concept on the Jubilee line I think and then there were some reports that – you were quoted apparently – that this was not now going to take place. What is the truth there?”

“Well I never made an announcement they were going to be tested and they’re not.” Said Brown “There’s no plan to test them at the moment.”

“Well certainly I recollect press releases…” Said Tracey, looking slightly confused.

“I have never said it. There are no plans to test them, and there is no… I have no plans to test this technology on the railway at this moment in time.”

“So, it was purely press speculation?”

“So it would seem.”

Moving away from talk of testing, Tracey then pushed Brown again as to when he believed we would see driverless trains rolled out.

“Well I refer back to my question earlier on.” Brown said. “That really depends on a comprehensive spending review giving us the ability to procure, to let a contract to procure, to go to competitive tender for the development of these trains which we then have a very clear specification around their reliability, around service levels and what would be required of them, and that is when the detailed work would need to be thought through as to when – and whether – we could introduce a level of automation that takes us to that point.”

“So when would the earliest be,” asked Caroline Pidgeon, “if you did decide to go ahead?”

“Well I think the earliest would be in the early 2020s.” Brown replied. “In terms of an introduction of a new fleet, I would say, so that means obviously there is some, there would be a lot of work to do. But if there was a spending review early next year then that would be the time I was looking at.”

Tom Copley then asked whether a Train Captain model would make the Underground more resistant to strikes.

“Presumably with a Train Captain model,” he asked, “you’re in the same situation as you are if the drivers go on strike?”

“Yes.” Replied Brown.

After a brief discussion about industrial action votes and staff training, talked returned briefly to driverless trains and the relationship with the Unions one last time.

“I’ve read the submissions,” said Tony Arbour, “which have been submitted by ASLEF and the RMT. Both of them have as their principle objection to driverless trains a fear that safety would be compromised.

“Isn’t the only way that one can test whether or not that foreboding of the unions is correct, would be to test driverless trains?”

“Ultimately I suppose yes,” Brown replied, “though I have to say that I think there’s an awful lot of work, as I’ve alluded to already, before we get to that point.

“And again, just to make it absolutely clear there is no prospect of me leading this organisation into any situation where we do compromise safety. It’s just not conceivable for me to be doing this job in that situation.

“What we do have to ensure is that, where there is new technology, it is properly applied, that it is properly scrutinised, properly assessed as to whether we can provide a service given new technology and what the implications of that new technology will be on the delivery of that service. And then follow it through in a proper way with proper consultation with our employees and with the trade unions and with other interested parties.”

“I don’t doubt your good intentions on that,” Arbour said, “and I’m absolutely certain that there is no-one who believes that TfL would behave irresponsibly on this. But clearly the only way that one can test this principle limb of opposition to driverless trains would be to test them.

“Is it therefore completely inconsistent,” Arbour continued, “indeed irresponsible and irreconcilable for the trade unions to prevent that testing which could prove the hypothesis one way or the other?”

“I suppose there is an element of irony if the trade unions are saying that they don’t want to get involved in the testing of driverless trains.” Answered Brown. “Well, that would be the logical conclusion to that discussion.

“But I have to say this is all hypothetical at the moment, because there isn’t a plan to test them on the railway at this moment in time. There maybe at some point in the future, in which case if there is there will be a proper discussion, consultation and involvement of our employees and I have no doubt their trade union representatives. But there isn’t a plan at the moment, there simply isn’t. And when and if there is we will, of course, cross that bridge.”

“But the tenor of their statement,” Arbour said, “is that you’re never going to reach that point because they’re not going to allow you to test them.”

“Well… well I’m afraid I can’t comment for the…” Said Brown.

“But it’s worse than ‘irony'” interrupted Arbour, “it’s Luddism, isn’t it?”

“…Well I… those are your words!” Continued Brown. “What I think I would say is that there has been new technology introduced throughout the hundred and fifty years history of the Underground. Frankly if there wasn’t we’d still see steam trains running round the Circle line!”

Written by John Bull