Is The Future of London Underground Automated?

london underground future

October 21st 2015 was (unofficially) labelled as ‘Back To The Future Day’. It gave movie fans around the world a chance to look back nostalgically on how far we’ve come in the past 30 years, and whether our expectations have been met. One thing that Back To The Future certainly didn’t predict, is driverless trains. Late last year, London Underground made one of the worst kept technological secrets public knowledge, with the announcement that by 2022 many of their trains will be fully automated. So, how would this work and what would it mean? How2Become decided to investigate. Let’s go back to the London Underground Future!

What is an automated train?

An automated train is, in basic terms, a train that is operated by technology instead of a driver. Whilst there will still be a member of staff on board, the train itself will run on an automated system and will not need to be controlled by any one person. Transport For London are aiming to have 250 of these trains in place by 2022, with even more on the way by the mid 2020’s. Along with the automated system, TFL will include air conditioning, more door space (to reduce crowding) and walk-through carriages.

Why introduce automated trains?

The main argument from TFL for introducing driverless trains, is to boost the reliability of its service. They claim that automated trains will make for a more efficient, punctual and reliable service, which guarantees to get its passengers from A to B on time. Human error is believed to be the number 1 cause of most train delays, and by eliminating this, it is argued that they will reduce delays significantly. TFL predicts that they will save huge sums of money by incorporating the new system, as it is far cheaper to operate the new trains than to pay drivers to run the old ones.

Furthermore, this represents an enormous technological step forward. Automated trains could pave the way for future advancements, such as automated cars or even planes (a long way off). As a society, we should be doing everything that we can to move forward and make travel more efficient. For the thousands of people who complain about problems with their commute every day, this is a huge blessing.

automated underground trains

Why not introduce automated trains?

As you can imagine, currently serving London Underground train drivers are up in arms over the new plans. Unions have already announced war on the system, arguing that it will put the many hundreds of qualified TFL drivers out of a job. While TFL have assured them that this will not be the case, as every single train will still require a member of staff on board, the general feeling amongst Unions is that TFL are passing off their drivers in favour of cost cutting.

There are also safety concerns regarding automated trains. While you might argue that a computer is better equipped to handle certain safety issues, ultimately an automated train does not have the power of common sense. It is simply programmed to function. In the event of a malfunction, lives could be endangered, and the only person who can fix this is the driver themselves. Human drivers have an advantage over automated drivers in that they can think for themselves, and make safe and sensible decisions. There is also an argument that just 1 ‘train captain’ (as they are labelled) per automated train is not enough. Would passengers would feel far more secure with 2 or 3 ‘captains’ on their train? What is the automated protocol for ‘one unders’ (suicides) on the track? Do automated trains have the ability to recognise when there is a life threatening situation? What happens to the currently serving drivers who do not qualify as ‘train captains’, and will their expertise go to waste? All of these questions have yet to be answered by the TFL, and hang like a cloud over what should be a fantastic development.

Where would the initial trains operate?

The first line to host the new automated trains will be The Picadilly Line, and this will be followed by Central, Waterloo and then Bakerloo. All of these have been designed by Priestman Goode, a top level transport and design company. The aim is that these initial vehicles will be in use for the next 40 years, and will greatly increase the capacity of all the lines involved.


So, what’s the final verdict on automated trains? Here at How2Become, we have to say we are a little concerned by the lack of clarity surrounding certain issues. Although it’s still very early, the safety issues and the impact that automated trains would have on currently serving TFL drivers could be fairly damaging. It seems almost guaranteed that many drivers will be put out of work. While How2Become are all in favour of technological progress, it seems as if a great number of highly qualified individuals would be laid off, in favour of cost cutting. The question to ask yourself is this. Are automated trains really that much of an advantage? Does human error really account for that many train delays? In our opinion, the answer is no. Train drivers are a highly specialised unit, with skills that computers cannot match. In this instance, the pros of automated trains do not outweigh the cons.

london underground automated