Monday, 14 September 2015

Are driverless Tube trains possible?

A few weeks ago I noticed public support growing for driverless trains for the London Underground system because people have claimed that driverless trains reduce strikes

The Docklands Light Railway is the only driverless system in London and has been in service since 1987.
It's worth noting that the DLR workers have threatened strikes in the past over pay and conditions. Source 1, Source 2 & Source 3, so if you think driverless Underground trains would contribute to fewer strikes then you’re wrong as DLR’s Passenger Service Agents are RMT union members as well.

So then, how are driverless trains going to work out for the London Underground system? The length of the London Underground system is 250 miles (402km) which makes it the 3rd largest rapid transit system in the world. The length of the DLR is 21 miles (34km) and most of it is elevated with some parts of the DLR system having tunnelled sections. The deep level tunnel diameter from the bank is 5.39 metres and is able to have a walkway for emergencies. However, the diameter of the deep level Underground lines is 3.56 metres and the trains have to be custom made which is why it's called The Tube.

Safety is the main priority when it comes to driverless trains; back in 2010, the DLR union members threatened to strike over pay because of the DLR system upgrading to 3 car trains which meant they had to do more to deal with capacity.  The length of the 3 car Docklands Light Rail train is 86.4 metres compared to the 8 car 2009 stock train (for Victoria Line) which has a length of 133 metres. So the shorter trains are ideal for Passenger Service Agents because their duties are to check tickets, give information to customers and deal with the doors at the station. They are also trained to deal with emergencies.

But with the New Tube for London which is a deep level articulated train, TFL planned for them to be driverless, but the unions objected to it because they need to have drivers cabs for the drivers safety.

Comparison between the Fixed block and Moving block system
Currently the Central, Jubilee, Northern and Victoria Underground trains use Automatic Train Operation (ATO) as it drives the train automatically. The Jubilee and Northern Line uses the Transmission BasedTrain Control (TBTC) which is a moving block system which enables the automated train to follow behind another train at a safe distance which is controlled by the computers. But with the fixed block signalling system it only allows the following train to move up to the last unoccupied block as the train occupies the fixed block ahead.

The new signalling system does however increase capacity as it allows more trains to run on the line, hence why the Northern Line has reduced delays because of the new signalling system. The Docklands Light Railway, Northern and Jubilee lines currently use the signalling system from SelTrac.

Recently, there is new legislation which regulates unions to strike less because they say “ensuring the right to strike is fairly balanced with the right of people to be able to go about their daily lives and work. All workers have a right to strike over disagreements with their bosses ranging from problems with safety, work conditions and to their pay.  Many Trade Unions like the TUC object to the new legislation.

When it comes to the new proposal, safety is the number one priority which affects the conditions of the workers and others. With the transport industry, the strikes can also disrupt the economy because it makes it more difficult for passengers to travel to their work place. This is why the Transport industry is one of the most important industries because it enables people to travel and contribute to the economy.

Going back to driverless trains, there are many rapid transit systems around the world which have automated trains involving driverless trains. Some of the countries which have driverless trains are capable of operating automatically at all times, including door closing, obstacle detection and emergency situations. This is known as Grade of Automation 4 (GoA4) system.

The countries that have this are as follows:

1) Denmark
2) Spain
3) Italy
4) France
5) Germany
6) Switzerland
7) United States of America
8) Hungary

A couple of airports in Britain which have that type of people mover system are London Gatwick and London Stanstead Airports.

Countries that have Grade of Automation 3 (GoA3) system require a member of staff to open and close doors and deal with emergency situations; most notably the Docklands Light Railway has that type of system.

The list of the systems is short as only Docklands Light Railway, Barcelona Metro, Beijing Subway Airport Express and Sofia Metro, which is scheduled for 2018-2019 use the system.

With Grade of Automation 2 (GoA2) the Central, Jubilee, Northern and Victoria Underground lines are listed, but this type of system has a drivers cab as the train driver operates the doors and presses buttons to start the train.

There are various countries that have this system:

  1) France
  2) Germany
  3) Austria
  4) Hungary
  5) Spain
  6) Russia - Saint Petersberg and Kazan Metro
  7) Sweden
  8) Finland
  9) USA
10) Canada
11) Italy

The Glasgow Subway in Scotland also has automated trains, but the drivers duty is to check the way ahead is clear and also to operate the doors at stations.

You can see more on this Wikipedia article.

So what is my conclusion on driverless trains?

With the New Tube for London proposal, I think the drivers cabs should be retained because a driver would be needed to check if the way ahead is clear. 45% of the Underground system is below ground which shows that the majority of the Underground network is above ground.  Driverless Tube trains may put more emphasis on safety, but as part of the New Tube for London program, they will add platform screen doors on to underground stations to increase safety. The Jubilee Line already has them as part of the Jubilee Line Extension project back in late 1990s.

The Underground system is busier now as it is and between April 2014 and March 2015 a whopping 1.3 billion passenger journeys were made on the London Underground compared with 140 million passenger journeys on the Docklands Light Railway.

With the technology we have today it may be theoretically possible, and safety will always be a priority but the popularity for driverless trains is certainly there amongst Londoners.

Tube workers work very hard to run the system and they deserve some respect as they have to deal with millions of passengers to keep London moving. Please take your time to read the message from the Tube driver which ITV News posted.

If you decide that driverless trains are a good thing for the London Underground then please post a comment below outlining your own thoughts.

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