Boris Johnson is demanding the introduction of driverless trains as a condition of a future bailout of Transport for London (TfL), setting him up for another clash with unions representing train drivers in the capital.
The government gave TfL a £1.6bn support package to keep services running after a collapse in revenue in May as a result of the Covid-19 lockdown.
That funding will run out in September and the prime minister has called for driverless technology to be a factor in further support.
On a visit to a site in Goole, East Riding of Yorkshire, where Siemens will open a rail manufacturing plant in 2022, Mr Johnson told journalists: “You can run these trains without the need for somebody to be sitting in the driver’s cab the whole time.
“So what I will be saying to the London transport authority is let’s take advantage of this technological leap forward, let’s not be the prisoners of the unions any more, let’s go to driverless trains, and let’s make that a condition of the funding settlement for Transport for London this autumn.”
The prime minister’s comments have reignited a battle with unions he first fought during his time as mayor of London.
Finn Brennan, the London Underground organiser for trade union Aslef, said: “As always, Boris Johnson is talking nonsense about driverless trains.
“Slashing government funding to TfL means that they cannot afford the signalling upgrade, and other technology, that would be needed for driverless trains.
“While pretending to support a ‘great leap forward’ the prime minister’s policies are actually preventing any progress with transport in the capital. They mean that Londoners will suffer years of delays and overcrowding in the future.”
Mick Lynch, the senior assistant general secretary of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union, said: “It is outrageous for Boris Johnson to wheel out the dangerous nonsense of driverless trains as a condition of the emergency Covid-19 funding of Transport for London.
“This is the sort of cheap political stunt that was a hallmark of his time as mayor and we would have hoped he would have grown up by now.
“Transport services don’t need this kind of political grandstanding to the Tory right – they need security of funding, services and jobs.
“The prime minister needs to cut out this sort of garbage and get a grip of the serious challenges facing the transport sector as the lockdown eases.”
Mr Johnson first approved plans to bring in driverless trains on the London Undersround in 2014. The unions responded by promising an “all-out war” and mass campaign for industrial action to protect drivers.
An internal TfL document, published later that year, revealed the technology was unlikely to be operational in the capital until 2030.
Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, has described the idea of having driverless trains on the Tube as unsafe and “madness”. He said last year there were no plans for their introduction on the network.
“TfL’s heroic frontline workers have worked tirelessly throughout the pandemic to keep our city moving, and are now focused on getting services back to pre-Covid levels,” Mr Khan’s spokesperson said on Monday.
“London is one of the only major cites in western Europe without a government grant for day-to-day transport operations. This outdated model simply does not work in this new reality – ministers urgently need to agree a new funding model with either permanent funding from central government or giving London more control over key taxes so we can pay for it ourselves, or a combination of both.”
TfL has plans to roll out 250 new Tube trains on the Piccadilly, Bakerloo, Central and Waterloo and City lines, with the first new trains serving the Piccadilly line from 2024.