Night out tonight? Millions are already catching driverless trains

By Kitty Knowles 20 November 2015
Tube for London, automatic driverless trains. Pic: TfL

While you struggle back on the night bus this weekend, lucky revellers in Copenhagen and Barcelona will cruise home on a driverless train.

There won’t be a single Londoner who has failed to notice this year’s tube strikes, as workers continue to dispute the implementation of 24-hour “Night Tubes”.

Although it’s not clear when, the capital remains set to follow the likes of New York, Berlin and Vienna by offering city-dwellers round-the-clock service on Fridays and Saturdays.

Revellers who party way past midnight will be soon be able to cruise their way home on London’s Jubilee, Victoria, and most of the Central, Northern and Piccadilly lines.

But the Night Tube is just one way in which we move around is evolving, and with talk of driverless trains, more change is on the cards.

Millions around the world already travel driverless

For millions it’s normal to commute on completely driverless trains, where any on-board staff serve a simpler customer-facing role.

While Copenhagen and Barcelona have the only 24-hour fully driverless services, they are a clear example that automated trains offer a cheap and efficient way to run through the night.

Completely driverless services, (known as GoA4 routes) are found across Asia, including Malaysia, Singapore, Korea and Japan.

Across the West these trains are already found at airport terminals. Here in the UK, the only completely driverless train systems we have operate at Gatwick and Stansted airports.

But more than a dozen of our neighbouring European cities already have fully-automated lines including Budapest, Nuremberg, and numerous cities in France and Italy. 

A Copenhagen Metro train. Pic: Gadgetbox at English Wikipedia
A Copenhagen Metro train. Pic: Gadgetbox at English Wikipedia

Car loving-Canada and America both boast driverless routes in Miami, Jacksonville and Vancouver. And Brazil is investing millions in more routes in Sao Paulo in the lead up to the Olympics.

Don’t forget Britain’s favourite driverless service

Many forget that our capital is already home to the driverless Docklands Light Railway (one of Britain’s most punctual train lines).

The DLR is a lower grade of driverless where an on-board conductor opens and closes doors and handles any emergencies. And an even lower grade of driverless technology is already found on the Jubilee, Victoria and Central lines and in over 50 cities around the world.

DLR train. Pic: Creative Commons/Hippoattack
DLR train. Pic: Creative Commons/Hippoattack

So when will London be driverless?

Last year, Transport for London unveiled plans for the ‘New Tube for London‘, a 250-strong fleet of driverless tube trains due for operation by the mid-2020s.

TfL said the new trains will start out with an operator on board, but will be designed and built to be “capable of fully automatic operation”.

New Tube For London. Pic: TfL
New Tube For London. Pic: TfL

The first trains are scheduled to be rolled out across the Bakerloo and Waterloo & City lines as well as the new 24-hour Piccadilly and Central lines, and could increase passenger capacity by thousands. Better still they will boast air-cooling and walk-through interiors.

London’s population is expected to rise from around 8.4 million people today, to an estimated 10 million by 2030, any improvement on the system’s capacity should be well-received by commuters.

Unsurprisingly though, driverless trains would likely lead to a cut back in London Underground employees at some point.

“When the trains first enter service, they will have an operator on board,” a TfL spokesperson told The Memo.

“We would only consider implementing full automation following extensive engagement with our customers, stakeholders, staff and trade unions. There is currently no timetable for implementing automation.”

According to the department, today’s tube drivers will not be affected by any changes.

“It’s too early to speculate whether the trains will have customer service staff on board or what these staff might be paid,” confirmed TfL.

“However, we have confirmed that all drivers currently working at London Underground will be able to continue to drive trains for the remainder of their careers.”

Say goodbye to the rowdy nightbus home

We have often felt that TfL undervalues the benefits of having real-life staff (who else has been sent trekking for a newsagent because ticket hall Oyster machines are broken, or don’t accept paper notes?), but in the long run technology that can streamline services for the benefits of its users should not be sniffed at.

TfL’s move towards driverless trains would support its adoption of a 24-hour tube service, and that’s a service that would benefit our city.

We hope when this happens there will always be a trained member of staff on board, and not just as a temporary measure. No one wants to be in the situation, when due to some unforeseen error, they find themselves stuck mid-tunnel, post-midnight, with only rowdy drunks for solace.

The days of bussing it home on a double-decker that reeks of booze and fried chicken are numbered, but in the future we’ll soon be catching driverless night tubes with those familiar smells too.