Boris Johnson reignites driverless Tube trains idea

Chakrit Yenti /

Driverless Tube trains should be a condition of any future government funding for Transport for London, Boris Johnson has said.

The prime minister’s comments, made on a visit to a rail manufacturing facility in West Yorkshire, have been heavily criticised by rail unions, which said it would be dangerous to operate trains on the London Underground without a trained member of staff.

In May TfL secured a £1.6bn emergency bailout to keep the London Underground and bus services running until September, after they had experienced a drop in demand due to the lockdown.

But speaking at a press event yesterday (6 July), Johnson said he wanted TfL to take advantage of technological innovations – reiterating predictions about the introduction of driverless trains made while he was Mayor of London.

“You can run these trains without the need for somebody to be sitting in the driver’s cab the whole time,” said Johnson.

“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.”

However, Mick Whelan, the general secretary of the Aslef union, said driverless trains were “simply not viable” on the London Underground.

“It would not be safe to run services without a trained member of staff onboard in case of emergency. Even the Docklands Light Railway, which was purpose built to be driverless, is staffed with a train captain who is able to drive the train if necessary,” he said.

“Train drivers on London Underground have continued to work throughout this pandemic to make sure that fellow key workers can get to work and back. Now those very same workers are being treated with contempt and told they’re not needed.”

Mick Lynch, senior assistant general secretary at the RMT, said Johnson needed to “get a grip” on the challenges the transport sector was facing as lockdown eases and said the sector needed security of funding, services and jobs.

“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.”

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