Unions take aim at driverless Tube plan

Oliver Gill
·3-min read

The cost of running London's transport network could be cut if driverless trains are introduced on popular Tube lines, according to a leaked report - despite union claims the transformation would be a £7bn white elephant.

Union bosses said the study by Transport for London (TfL) showed that removing drivers from the Underground was “not economically feasible” after it concluded that there would be no additional benefits from a blanket change.

However, the study also revealed that moving to driverless trains could generate substantial wider economic benefits if targeted at five lines: the Piccadilly, Victoria, Bakerloo, Central and Waterloo & City.

Upgrading the Waterloo & City, for example, would return £9.40 for every £1 of investment spend. More marginal would be the Piccadilly line with £2.10 per £1 spent. 

Alexander Jan, former chief economist at engineering firm Arup, said: “The wider economic benefits for converting some lines are actually quite attractive.”  

Earlier this year Boris Johnson said that driverless trains should be a condition of continuing to bankroll TfL. 

The finances of the London transport authority have been hammered by Covid. Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London and TfL's chairman, has asked for a £4.9bn bailout after securing £1.7bn earlier this year. 

Ministers have said they will only hand over the cash if Mr Khan hikes council tax and extends the congestion charging zone but he is refusing to agree to these demands.

Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, has threatened to take control of TfL if a deal cannot be struck.

Finn Brennan, of drivers' union Aslef, said: "Boris Johnson has said that introducing driverless trains should be a condition of a funding settlement for TfL, but these documents show that not only is there no business case for this, it would make TfL’s financial position much worse.”

Mr Jan said: “Apart from being an industrial relations nightmare, it is clear that the cost of converting the entire London Underground network would be very high and would not generate a pure financial return.

"To deliver it could require the central government to increase its support by more than the Mayor is currently asking for to deal with the impact of Covid.

"In a world where money was less of a constraint and TfL didn't have so many other fish to fry, they may well have been more tempted to push on with at least some of the schemes."

Professor Tony Travers, of the London School of Economics, said: “The fact that the Paris Metro, which lots of Britons use, has more than one line now that is driverless … means that this has more to do with transport operators' perceptions of how people might react to the idea rather than whether it is viable in terms of an engineering project.

"It is all a matter of whether the authorities are prepared to invest in the necessary upgrades that will make this a possibility.

“The industrial action, I would imagine, [would be] at scale, if a programme of this were to be embarked upon.  It is an investment. You could save a substantial amount on tube drivers’ earnings, which are relatively high by the standards of all other equivalent workers.”

A spokesman for TfL said: “Our train operators perform a fundamental safety critical role on the transport network and, along with all our frontline staff, have played an essential role in keeping London moving during the pandemic. 

"The possibilities, costs and benefits of driverless trains are things that TfL has looked at in the past and will continue to keep under review but it is not something we are actively pursuing.”