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Driverless Underground trains row flares after Prime Minister’s visit

THE Prime Minister Boris Johnson has suggested that introducing driverless trains on London Underground should be part of the autumn cash settlement for Transport for London. One senior union figure has condemned his remarks as ‘outrageous’.

The government had not been funding TfL for some years, but the finances of London’s transport systems have been stretched to the breaking point by the loss of revenue from fares since the pandemic broke out in March. Emergency measures agreed by the Department for Transport have given TfL up to £1.9 billion until October, when renewed support appears to be almost inevitable.

Mr Johnson, who advocated driverless trains while he was Mayor of London, was speaking during a visit to the new Siemens Mobility works at Goole in Yorkshire, where replacement rolling stock for the Piccadilly Line is to be built.

He said: ‘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.

‘That’s the way forward for this country and we want to make use of the fantastic technology we’ve got and provide a better service for people in the capital and take the whole economy forward.’

The Underground has automatically-driven trains on several lines, having pioneered the technology when the first sections of the Victoria Line opened in 1968 and 1969. Even so, there is always a driver in the cab who controls the doors, starts the train at each station and is qualified to take full control if necessary. The Docklands Light Railway has been driverless since its first lines opened in 1987, but again there is always a member of staff on board each train who operates the doors and can take over in emergencies by unlocking a control panel.

Rail unions have always opposed any extension of driverless working to the main Underground system, and successfully prevented the introduction of driverless trains on the Piccadilly Line when the next-generation fleet is built.

The RMT’s senior assistant general secretary Mick Lynch 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.’

Commentators are unimpressed as well. Writing in the Independent today, columnist Jon Stone also dismissed the idea as ‘a political stunt’. He added: ‘Driverless train have always been a hobby horse for London’s Conservatives, who see them as a way of bypassing unionised Tube workers.’

Meanwhile, a spokeswoman for the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan said the established funding model for TfL ‘simply does not work in this new reality’.

She added: ‘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.’

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