As Day 1 of nationwide rail strikes brings the country to a grinding halt, ministers are under pressure to find creative solutions.
One of the most radical would be to make the rail system strike-proof, by taking the pesky human component out of it.
Electronic ticket machines and phone-reading smart gates have already reduced the need for station staff. The next logical step in automation is driverless trains.
The efficiency benefits are tempting. Removing the need for a driver slashes operating costs and frees up capital. Automated trains can run closer together, increasing the network’s passenger capacity. Without a focus on staff and rosters, extra services can be laid on at short notice during unexpectedly busy times. And optimised acceleration and smooth braking make driverless trains a lot more energy efficient. Studies point to the expected rate of return for train automation being 10 to 15 per cent.
Axing staff and automating the rail network would cause huge political blowback. But could it be done?
The UK has already taken a few tentative steps towards automation. While trains on London’s Docklands Light Railway (DLR) have operated without a driver in the cabin since the system opened in 1987, there are still “train captains” who man them from afar. Brand new Elizabeth line trains can turn themselves around in sidings with the driver on the platform.
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Yet across the developed world, driverless metro systems are par for the course. Sixty-four automated metro trains ran in 46 cities around the world in 2019, with Singapore, Shanghai and Dubai boasting the longest lines and sleekest trains.
It seems to have paid off. A study of more than 20 fully driverless metros found that automation reduced staffing requirements on the network by 30 to 70 per cent.
Metros are closed systems, making automation relatively straightforward. It’s much more complicated to adapt existing nationwide rail infrastructure (track, signalling systems) to make it compatible with driverless trains.
The technology that removes the need for a driver, Communication Based Train Control (CBTC), requires the constant transfer of data between trains, trackside equipment and a central control system. The division in the UK between Network Rail (in charge of infrastructure), the Train Operating Companies or TOCS (in charge of passenger services) and the ROSCOs (that lease the TOCs their rolling stock) would make the equation especially fiendish.
Even so, the Germans have proved integration is possible. In December, Siemens and German rail operator Deutsche Bahn launched the first fully automated train in the city of Hamburg. It can safely run on existing rail infrastructure alongside regular human-driven trains, using AI to adapt to peaks and troughs in demand.
While integration won’t come cheap, successful test cases point to the future of train travel being driverless. Months of misery on British railways will only strengthen the case.