Automatic for the People: Driverless Trains and the Underground

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In our look at the Piccadilly Line upgrade we explained that the line would be upgraded so as to be capable of unattended train operation (UTO) with the exception of the Rayners Lane – Uxbridge section but that no decision had been made on whether the trains would actually run without a member of staff on board. We now take a look at a history of earlier attempts to introduce UTO on the Underground and, beyond the hype, what the future is likely to be.

UTO in tunnels – nothing new

It is easy to forget that UTO beneath the streets of London is nothing new, with a fully-operational UTO railway line in existence from 1927 and complete by the following year. It was an impressive 6½ miles long and double track throughout with nine stations. Of course, crucially, the Post Office Railway, as it was then known, did not normally carry passengers (although as we announced last year, it may well do so in future).

The current proposal to at least make trains on the Piccadilly Line capable of running without staff on board is also not the first. For that we have to go back to the first half of the 1930s. Then, no doubt spurred on by the success of the Post Office Railway, there was a proposal to run an unstaffed two train shuttle service on the Aldwych branch.

The rationale behind the Aldwych branch proposal is not immediately obvious. It would have involved building a crossover tunnel just north of Aldwych station so that the line could operate from Holborn as a double track railway. Trains would leave both single platform termini at the same time, proceed to pass each other on the double track section and arrive at their respective termini more or less at the same time. The process would be repeated all day. Given the capital cost of building the crossover tunnel and the cost of the extra train to provide a frequency that really wasn’t necessary, it is fairly clear the proposal made no sense as a money saving measure.

The likely objective of the Aldwych shuttle proposal would have been to see what was technically possible, with a view to implementing similar schemes elsewhere. One could imagine the forward-thinking Frank Pick endorsing the plan as a showcase for future development. Maybe the proposals were not serious but were a test to see if the Ministry of Transport would countenance such an idea. It didn’t. It was firmly rejected in May 1935. It was clear that consequences of something going seriously wrong (such as  “the occurrence of … smoke”) with no-one present to deal with it were of major concern to the ministry. In those days the only communication the driver had with the line controller was effected by clipping a telephone into the tunnel wires so it is difficult to see how passengers would have been able to summon help. Presumably the first indication to staff of something being wrong would be when a train did not arrive at the terminus as expected – or maybe smoke billowing from the tunnels.

DricoHow a driver communicated with the line controller in the tunnelled sections prior to the opening of the Victoria Line.

What is a little more surprising about the Aldwych proposal is that after it was rejected London Transport didn’t then appear to try to get the Ministry of Transport to approve driver-only operation, which would have seen more reasonable and practical on this short shuttle line. If it had gotten approval then there would have been at least the possibility of extending the idea to the East London Line with its short trains, which would have produced a worthwhile saving in staff.

UTO on the surface – nothing new

Although the Aldwych branch proposal was the only one in 1935 which concerned the Piccadilly Line, it wasn’t the only one on the Underground system. There was also a proposal for no staff to be aboard the short shuttle service between Acton Town and South Acton, which was already operated by just a driver.

tearunThe South Acton shuttle. As it was single carriage there was no requirement to have a guard.

The logic behind permitting just a driver appeared to be that a guard was normally essential and had to ride at the rear of the train in case it became divided for any reason. As the shuttle consisted of a single carriage this could not happen and so a guard was not required. Like the Aldwych proposal, the effort that would have had to be expended all for the purpose of saving one member of staff at any one time suggests this too was done to see how receptive the Ministry was. On this occasion the service would be entirely above ground and maybe the Underground thought that this may have been treated more favourably.

The 1960s and another proposal for UTO

The next recorded proposal was an ill-fated scheme to extend the Aldwych branch to Waterloo which was developed in the early 1960s. The London Transport Board at the time was enthusiastic and the scheme got as far as parliamentary approval (the equivalent of a Transport & Works Act Order today). It seems that they wanted to push the embryonic technology intended for the Victoria Line further towards automation.

This push for total automation was partly to improve the financial case for the proposed line, as it was known that the government was not yet entirely committed to the idea. Automation would potentially make the Victoria Line cheaper to run, with the carrot of perhaps extending it to other lines for further cost reductions no doubt dangled as well. Given that the Underground was a drain on the public purse, any money saved would have effectively gone back to the government. The government prevaricated, however, and in the end the London Transport Board was effectively told that they could extend the Piccadilly Line shuttle to Waterloo or an extension of the Victoria Line to Brixton – but not both.

The Victoria Line – A few automated steps forward

Full automation may have been out of the question, but by the end of the 1960s London Transport did at least have a showpiece success of driver-only operation (DOO) on the Victoria Line to build on. Despite touting the advantages and technological success of the Victoria Line though, it is noticeable how slowly the conversion of other lines to driver-only operation took place.

The conversion of other lines to automatic train operation (ATO) has been even slower. In the early 1960s a lightly used part of the Central Line was experimentally converted to ATO but manual driving and conventional signalling were reinstated. Apart from that, the first regular passenger-carrying ATO service on the Underground ran on the Victoria Line in 1968 and today only the Central and Jubilee Lines can truly claim to be fully converted. Progress is, of course, still ongoing. With the latest “migration area” recently switched over, the bulk of the Northern Line is now also ATO with only Stockwell-Morden and Chalk Farm-Edgware still to be completed. Indeed under current plans all Underground lines will be ATO by 2033 with the completion of the Bakerloo Line Upgrade.  If all goes to plan, the last manually driven train in passenger service can thus be expected to run on the Bakerloo Line around 2032/3. That is, around 65 years after the first one – something that both politicians and planners would do well to bear in mind when managing expectations over any rapid introduction of UTO on the London Underground.

An unwanted UTO record

This is not to say that UTO hasn’t, technically speaking, happened already. The Victoria Line can actually claim to have featured the very first run of a passenger service without any train staff aboard – but it was unintentional. In the early days of the line, a driver pressed the start buttons but the train refused to move – apparently because a set of doors had not closed properly. Exiting his cab, the driver went out onto the platform to ensure the door were fully closed…

…and was horrified to see his train disappear into the tunnel.

Needless to say there was some fairly urgent modifications to the train’s electrical circuits carried out after that incident. It is a UTO record that the Victoria Line would perhaps prefer not to have.

An immature technology

Accidental milestones aside, and despite much optimism, the opening of the Victoria Line really highlighted why technology at the time was not ready for UTO. The first problem, quite minor, was that London Transport could not manage a service on the automatically operated Victoria Line beyond 28.5 trains per hour(tph), yet 30tph was quite possible with manually driven trains and good operational working. 30tph was continually promised on the Victoria Line but ultimately never achieved with the old 1967 stock. Some of this was down to poor acceleration by modern standards, but a lot of it was due to the relatively crude 1960s implementation of an ATO system.

The second issue was more serious – that on the Victoria Line the trains would not consistently stop at the same point along the platform. If this could not be managed below ground, it did not bode well for the conversion of other lines above ground –  where the added complication of wet rails was a permanent risk. Manual intervention used to be quite often necessary on the Victoria Line to stop a train before it overran the stopping mark and possibly even continued into the running tunnel a short distance beyond it. They rarely, if ever, stopped short. To a certain extent inaccurate stopping was an anticipated issue – the reason for the Victoria Line’s long platforms is to allow for some overrunning – but despite this they were clearly still not long enough.

Indeed the issue of inaccurate stopping haunted the Victoria Line for most of the lifetime of the 1967 tube stock and it was only towards the end of the stock’s life, with advances in electronics, that this issue was finally solved. For the Victoria, that problem has thus now finally gone away, although the same cannot be said for the Central Line which still has problems – yes, you probably guessed it – when it rains. A read of ASLEFshrugged’s blog mentions this in passing in various entries.

A further attempt at UTO in the 1980s

Despite ATO issues on the Victoria, by 1980 London Transport were confident enough to successfully run trials with full UTO. In January 1980 a Central Line train ran between Chigwell and Grange Hill via Hainault. Not an unusual event in itself, but this particular service was special – not only did the train involved run without any train crew, it also ran without any fare-paying passengers. Mike Horne describes this and other aspects of UTO in an article in a Modern Railways article in the September 2012 issue, which is well worth a read. The article included a clip from the Evening Standard with the Headline “Driverless Tubes in service by 1990”. Within the Evening Standard article it states that “By the year 2010, almost the entire London Transport tube network will have been turned over to fully automatic trains”. Again, when some of the more optimistic forecasts are suggested today it may be a good idea to reflect on the track record of these predictions over the years.

Indeed in passing it seems pertinent to mention that Mike Horne’s recent article on Driverless trains and the Underground’s deep tube programme which covers similar ground (and reaches similar conclusions) to our own.

The forgotten UTO line

Moving forward now to today, there is one line in London that gets forgotten in the debate over UTO on the Underground, but one that without consideration of which any discussion is incomplete – Crossrail.

Terry Morgan, Crossrail’s Chairman, is on public record as saying there is no technical reason why Crossrail could not run its trains in UTO mode on the line’s underground sections. In effect, it is likely that what Morgan really means by this is that Crossrail could be run in UTO mode on the section independent from Network Rail and ATO signalled. This would actually include Custom House and Abbey Wood station which are surface stations, but which would presumably need to have Platform Edge Doors fitted for UTO to be truly possible.

Despite UTO on the central section of Crossrail being technically possible, though, there are absolutely no plans to run Crossrail trains without drivers. On a line that will run out to at least as far as Maidenhead in the west and Shenfield in the east, UTO working on the proportionally short central section would add complexity and logistical overhead. Ultimately just because you can run UTO it doesn’t automatically follow that it makes sense to do so. Indeed it is notable that in Paris they have converted just one line to UTO and only have plans for one more. There, each line has been considered on its merits, and so far it is just for those two lines that it is considered a return on investment.

Towards the goal of eliminating trains staff?

Ever since the publication by the RMT of a leaked TfL report entitled London Underground Operation Strategy Discussion Paper the subject of “driverless” trains has taken a large political dimension. It is abundantly clear from his many comments on the subject that the current mayor has aligned himself to the idea of getting rid of the drivers, although he seems to waver on whether the Underground should go the full UTO route or the “train captain” route (the latter of which has been particularly criticised by Mike Horne as the worst of all options for a crowded Underground). That lack of clarity on both the part of the mayor and others is no doubt intentional. It is clear that there is a lot of hyperbole about this subject that has emanated (and continues to emanate) from the mouths of both politicians and, on the other side of the fence, various Unions. So far very little of it seems to be overly concerned with conforming to the ever-harsh mistress of reality.

Not cutting down on drivers any time soon

Few examples demonstrate this quite so well as the question of future train driver numbers. As long as a year ago an article on Boriswatch highlighted London Underground’s published past and projected driver numbers. These clearly demonstrated that driver numbers have been going up since 2003, are going up now and are projected to continue to do so until 2015 after which they will remain constant for the next three years. Indeed despite all the talk, a simple moment’s thought shows that currently the trend can only continue to go upwards. Reasons for driver numbers to go up in future years include:

  • More frequent services proposed for the Circle, District, Hammersmith & City, Jubilee, Metropolitan, Northern and Victoria Lines
  • Croxley Rail Link and Northern Line Extension to Battersea being added to the tube network
  • More “stepping back” at terminal stations due to the more frequent train service being run
  • Introduction of the Night Tube

When one takes all this into account and considers any possible improvements in employment conditions (more days holiday or a shorter working week) one can quickly see that the reality is that even should the Piccadilly Line go UTO, London Underground will probably be doing very well indeed if they can keep the number of tube drivers in 2025 at or below the 2015 level. In other words, if UTO happens on the Piccadilly Line, it is not so much about reducing the number of drivers but trying to avoid the increase in the number of drivers that would otherwise be necessary.

The long term future of UTO

In recently published plans it was stated that the conversion of the Piccadilly Line will be followed by a conversion the Central Line. The obvious next line for conversion would have been the Bakerloo but, as explained in our article on the tube upgrade plans this has been delayed and TfL have concluded that more benefits can be realised by converting the Central Line ahead of the Bakerloo. Of course if the Bakerloo Line continued to run beyond Queens Park on Network Rail’s track there would probably need to be staff of some kind present on this section anyway. With a journey time today of only 26 minutes to Elephant & Castle the benefits of UTO on the Bakerloo Line will thus not be as significant as on other lines.

Only with UTO implemented on both the Central Line and the Piccadilly would London Underground start to see any kind of significant reduction in the number tube driver numbers. After that it may even actually creep up again in the period before the Northern (or part of it) or Jubilee Line become candidates for possible UTO treatment.

How soon?

The latest TfL document, mentioned above, suggests that the Piccadilly Line upgrade will not be complete until 2025. Given that UTO cannot commence until platform doors are installed and platform doors cannot be installed until the all the previous generation of trains have been retired from service this means that UTO, if implemented, will only happen towards the very end of the project. With even the possibility of UTO thus at least ten years away, it would seem that any debate on the finer details would be somewhat premature. The simple fact is that next London mayor, even if he completes two full terms in office, is unlikely to be proudly travelling on the first unstaffed passenger service on the London Underground.

Incentives to Introduce UTO

Whilst the whole issue has become politicised, one can envisage other considerations that would encourage London Underground to go down the UTO route and to seek the mayor’s endorsement. The obvious first one is cost saving. A tube train driver currently earns around £46,000 per annum which, with pension contributions and National Insurance, means a cost to London Underground of at least £60,000 per person, per annum. As a rough guide, one probably needs around four drivers per train to ensure a driver is available through the week for each train in service during peak hours. For the Piccadilly Line with an expected order of over 100 trains there are thus clearly potential cost savings of around £24m per annum on this one line alone.

Some politicians clearly feel bitter, and they feel that the drivers are unduly enriched due to the unions and the threat of strikes, but even without the unions we live in a capitalistic world where you have to pay the going rate to get the staff that you want. Over the years shift work has become less popular, but London’s increasingly 24-hour society needs more people working unsocial hours. This means, inevitably, such jobs attract premiums as does the fact that the training course for a tube driver is long (and therefore expensive) and companies generally want to keep staff that cannot quickly be replaced. With the emotion stripped from the debate, the simple fact is that pay for a tube driver is on par with drivers working on the overground suburban railway – but with the disadvantage for the tube drivers that some or all of their productive time is spent in tunnels, something which makes the job less pleasant for many.

The above considerations mean that London Underground has to worry about the wage bill spiralling or, worse still, being unable to attract sufficient drivers. Things in this area will only get worse when Crossrail opens. Already we are seeing mainline freight train drivers (typically working night shifts) able to earn up to £70,000 per annum and there is still a shortage. Their high pay is not down them holding their employers and customers to ransom but simply the law of supply and demand taking effect.

Lowering cost, of course, is not the only operational benefit of UTO. With the human element removed if one gets an unexpected extra flow of traffic one can simply calls up more trains – without worrying about meal reliefs, how many hours the driver has already worked or how they get back to their home station without exceeding their hours – or the fact that there are no drivers available. For the customer, the reduced running costs of operating UTO may generate specific benefits. It could swing the balance when deciding whether or not to run a marginal service or to increase the frequency of an existing off-peak service. It has to be said though that many people say that they feel uncomfortable with the idea of travelling on a train with no staff on board even if they don’t think twice about using lifts or unstaffed airport shuttle trains.

The time is not now

We offer no opinions as to whether UTO will happen. Neither will be be drawn on whether it should happen. All we can say is that, if the policy is implemented and progressed, it won’t happen any time soon – the work of decades not just years.

It is not just the case that there are future Tube drivers who haven’t been born yet. In fact it is quite possible there are future Tube drivers whose parents haven’t been born yet. This is a perspective well worth remembering when watching the theatre of the driverless debate.

The information about early proposals for UTO comes from the book “The Aldwych Branch” jointly written by those stalwarts of tube history, Antony Badsey-Ellis and Mike Horne. Our thanks also go to the London Transport Museum for allowing us to use their photos. The cover photo, by Hitomi Kai Yoda, shows Yuri Suzuki’s etched tube map circuit board (and working radio).

Written by Pedantic of Purley