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Mike Brown, managing director of London Underground, has a clear vision in which fully automatic, driverless trains will hurtle down the Victorian-era tunnels of the capital’s subterranean railway early in the next decade.
His vision is not shared, however, by the unions. They reacted late last month in a typically robust manner to a leaked discussion paper outlining how new technologies could change the shape of the capital’s underground system.
Bob Crow of the RMT labelled it an “ill-conceived … finance-led document” that “ignores reality in favour of austerity”. He painted a bleak picture, predicting that the proposals would leave “passengers stranded in tunnels with no means of evacuation and would turn the platforms and stations into a muggers and vandals’ paradise”.
Along with driverless trains, the document envisages that the increasing use of swipe-card technology for debit and credit cards will make ticket offices all but redundant other than at the biggest interchanges.
These two developments, the RMT claims, will lead to the loss of 1,500 jobs and leave passengers with almost no staff to interact with on their journey.
“I have no idea where they get that figure,” says Mr Brown, a fast-talking Irishman who has spent almost 20 years at London Underground. He started working as a manager of a team of cleaners at Neasden depot in 1990, working his way up to chief operating officer. Mr Brown left in 2008 to run Heathrow airport but returned to LU last year to take the top job.
The managing director acknowledges that he faces a challenge convincing his 21,000 staff but is adamant that the changes will not affect interaction with the public.
“A machine can never properly replace a person. I just need to be able to ensure that people are doing the right roles fit for the future not some role in a ticket office that sits more comfortably with the Railway Children film.”
Mindful of the Underground’s fraught industrial relations – the network has been hit by strikes over job losses in the past year while the issue of overtime during next year’s Olympic Games still needs to be resolved – Mr Brown has organised 120 employee events between now and March to discuss his vision.
He will tell staff change is inevitable but does not mean that drivers will disappear from the network overnight. An upgrade programme is seeing £1.4bn invested annually in renewing much of the signalling and track across the network and introducing new trains with drivers’ cabs.
The next big batch of 191 trains has just started arriving for the so-called subsurface lines and will be running across the Metropolitan, Hammersmith and City, Circle and District lines by 2018 as part of an upgrade
. “Those trains will have drivers in them for the next 30 years,” says Mr Brown.
It would not take much to upgrade the system now to driverless trains, says Mr Brown, but “what I’m not going to do, because it wouldn’t be the best way to spend public money, is to take a sledgehammer and start knocking down driver’s cabs on existing trains. And that is why this is about the train procurement after the one I am in at the moment.”
That means the changes will come towards the end of the decade when work starts on upgrading the Bakerloo and Piccadilly Lines. But there is still a lot of work to do before that with 70 per cent of the network due to be modernised, leading to a 33 per cent jump in capacity.
“Look the technology does exist, Paris is running with a fully automatic line, line 14, and line 1 in Paris is being converted as we speak. I was in São Paulo a few weeks ago on a deep tube line that is fully automatic. I don’t believe [driverless trains] are less reliable, I don’t believe they are less safe.
“When the Tube was first invented we had steam trains, we don’t have steam trains any more. Progress happens and nobody would believe me if I said there wasn’t the prospect of change in the future.”
Staff looking for reassurance that change does not happen too quickly on the network need look no further than a bit of equipment at Earls Court station, which tells staff which branch of the District line the next train is due to take – it dates from 1890.