Boris Johnson's driverless Tube trains: the oddest argument yet

Boris Johnson plans to run again for mayor of London (Photo: Paul Grover)
Boris Johnson has revived discussion of tube trains without drivers (Photo: Paul Grover)

Boris Johnson’s proposal for driverless trains provoked a very curious article in yesterday’s Evening Standard from the respected transport commentator Christian Wolmar – described on the jacket of his very good latest book, Engines of War, as Britain’s leading transport journalist.

Wolmar told Standard readers that the “idea of driverless trains any time in the near future is a ridiculous fantasy” and  “the idea of completely unstaffed trains is equally fanciful.”

For Christian Wolmar’s future reference there are, in fact, 32 cities with driverless trains in daily passenger service – not even in the near future, but right now. They are: Ankara, Bangkok, Barcelona, Copenhagen, Detroit, Dortmund, Dubai, Guangzhou, Hong Kong, Jacksonville, Kobe, Kuala Lumpur, Las Vegas, Lausanne, Lille, Lyon, Miami, Nagoya, Nuremberg, Osaka, Paris, Perugia, Rennes, Sao Paolo, Singapore, Taipei, Tokyo, Toulouse, Turin, Vancouver, Yokohama… and London (ours is called the DLR, Christian – it’s been around since 1987, you must have heard of it.)

Several of these cities – including Lille, Paris, Lyon and Las Vegas from personal experience – have one or more lines with completely unstaffed trains, without even an attendant on board. Both Paris and Nuremberg are in the process of converting existing, traditional driver-operated metro lines to completely unstaffed automatic operation.

Several other cities are building driverless metro lines or planning to convert some of their existing lines. Fanciful, ridiculous, fantastic? I don’t think so.

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Boris Johnson threatens to get rid of striking Tube drivers

Boris Johnson is threatening to get rid of tube drivers (Photo: PA)
Boris Johnson is threatening to get rid of striking tube drivers (Photo: PA)

Boris Johnson last night threatened to get rid of Tube drivers and automate the system in the face of waves of “pointless” strikes by London’s greediest unions.

At his speech to the annual London Government Dinner, Boris said:

“When the Jubilee works are complete there will be three lines in London – the Jubilee, Victoria and Central – which will operate on an automated system.

“It is a fact – though not a widely known fact – that as we speak most of the Jubilee Line currently operates under automatic train operation, from Stratford to Neasden. In other words, the driving of the train is done by computer rather than manually.

“Of course there will still need to be someone aboard the train, but thanks to the advanced signalling being installed it is also a fact that anyone in this room could in a matter of a few weeks acquire the qualifications necessary to supervise an underground train.

“The huge potential implications of that change will be obvious to everyone, and so I say to our colleagues in the trades union leadership that I respect and understand the vital role of unions in a free society to secure the best terms and conditions for their members, but I hope they will recognise that the patience of Londoners is not endless.

“They should abandon the recent pattern of pointless strikes.”

A driverless Tube is an idea I’ve been pushing for a while now. In 2009, for the Standard, I went to Paris to see how their Metro, even more strike-plagued than ours, is automating its oldest line, Line 1, roughly equivalent to our Central line. Last year, the Tory group on the London Assembly also took up the idea.

Boris’s plan is less ambitious – the Paris trains, which run almost entirely underground, will not have any staff on them at all – but it makes perfect sense in transport terms, and even better sense politically.

Boris rightly sees the dismal behaviour of Aslef, the RMT and the TSSA – who since the autumn have held a series of strikes over total non-issues – as a political opportunity for him.

Londoners simply cannot understand the behaviour of these people, who are well paid, for easy work, with total job security and absolutely no grounds for complaint  – but still push for yet more, even as everyone else has to tighten their belts.

There are a lot of votes to be won in standing up to them – especially since Ken Livingstone, with his usual political brilliance, has locked himself in to a position as the Tube unions’ advocate and beneficiary.

Ken Livingstone: more Aslef links

Twenty-eight London Tory MPs this morning called on Ken Livingstone to condemn the Tube strikes by Aslef and hand back the £5000 donation he took from the union, first revealed on this blog. Ken has refused both demands.

Today, another link between Ken and Aslef: a senior official of the union, Simon Weller, will appear at Ken’s “Progressive London” conference next month, an event dedicated in Ken’s words to “building the widest possible alliance” against the Tories.  The conference is co-sponsored by Aslef and in 2009, I can reveal, the union donated £2,500 to “Progressive London.” A similar amount is likely to have been donated in 2010 and 2011.

Gerry Doherty, the general secretary of the TSSA, will also appear at the conference. The TSSA is separately striking on the Tube and has provided Ken with his campaign office.

Ken also received £10,000 from Aslef for his 2008 mayoral campaign, and £20,000 from the union for his 2004 campaign. In 2008, he also received £100,000 from another Tube union, Unite, which represents engineering and electrical staff and voted for industrial action in 2009. Unite’s London regional secretary, Steve Hart, will also speak at next month’s conference.

It is not immediately clear to me what is “progressive” about Aslef. These strikes are a nothing more than an attack by prosperous middle-class train drivers on poor, working-class Londoners, who are forced through their fares to subsidise the Aslef Lifestyle.

Aslef members on the Tube enjoy salaries of nearly £45,000 a year, a 35-hour-week, almost seven weeks’ annual holiday, a final-salary pension, free travel for themselves and anyone else they care to nominate, easy if boring work, and total job security. Now though this is an employment package not shared by perhaps 90 per cent of the London workforce, I don’t necessarily begrudge it to the Tube drivers. What I do say is that it can scarcely be described as legitimate grounds for grievance.

Yet now the oppressed toilers of Aslef are striking for triple time and further days off in lieu for working Bank Holidays – even though their extended holiday entitlement was given them precisely in order to compensate for this. Though Aslef is now back-pedalling on its threat to strike on the day of the Royal Wedding, there is no doubt that the threat was explicitly made.

Team Livingstone this afternoon desperately claimed that the evil Tories were bashing the Tube unions to distract attention from the bankers. In fact, the two groups are the same.

Just like the bankers, the Tube drivers have become people locked into a private value system, where the most outrageous behaviour seems perfectly reasonable. In some ways, the drivers are worse. Unlike the bankers, they are paid directly by the rest of us and their actions have an immediate impact on our lives.

Not only has Ken refused to condemn Aslef, he has actually called on Boris Johnson to negotiate with the union – as if there were anything whatever to negotiate about.

This is the core reason why Ken is unfit to be mayor: he will work for some of the capital’s most reactionary special interests, rather than in the interest of London as a whole.

Boris Johnson's new Routemaster will have conductors all day

Boris Johnson’s new son-of-Routemaster bus will be staffed by conductors, and its rear platform kept open, for at least twelve hours a day, London Buses’ operations director, Mike Weston, has said.

I couldn’t make the official launch of the mocked-up bus back in November, so Mr Weston and David Hampson-Ghani, the project manager for the new bus, kindly gave me a personal tour. I very much appreciated their giving up their time to do this.

“We will double-staff all the buses for the majority of the day, from the beginning of the morning rush hour to the end of the evening rush hour,” said Mr Weston. Between at least 7am and 7pm, you will be able to jump on and off to your heart’s content.

The danger, of course, is that the conductors will have too little to do and will not last very long. The plan at the moment, says Weston, is that they will help you board, but not collect fares; passengers will tap in, as on bendy buses. But it makes very little sense to have someone on board and not checking tickets; the arrangement should be that, as on the old RM, people get on without paying, sit down, and wait for the conductor to come to them (tap their Oyster card or even, you know what, collect their money.) This would speed up boarding and reduce fare evasion. We don’t want the new Routemaster to become known as the “free bus,” do we?

The all-day conductors are the first piece of good news. The second piece of good news about the bus is that it is aesthetically a very attractive vehicle, particularly inside. The horrible colours used inside modern buses and trains – typically a depressing grey and a cold blue that makes you feel like you’re sitting inside a fridge – have been binned. Instead there is a much warmer, more attractive colour palette close to the deep red used in the old Routemaster.

The seats are covered in a very good modern update of the London Transport red moquette and the rear platform has a wood-effect slatted floor, another pleasing colour and another Routemaster design cue. The saloon lights are much nicer than standard bus and train inside-of-the-fridge fluorescent strips.

The front is still fairly undistinguished, resembling nothing so much as a first-generation one-person double-decker; but the sides and the rear make very attractive use of glass. This is quite a heavy material, but the TfL pair assured me it could be used without affecting the bus’s fuel economy.

The new RM will use a hybrid drive and the target for fuel economy is 9.8 miles per gallon. If this can be achieved (current diesel double-deckers only do 5mpg) it will be a conclusive rebuttal of the charge that this is a vanity project. Can it be achieved? Well, TfL’s current hybrid deckers are only managing 6.1mpg, so we shall see.

Some changes appear to have been made from the initial images displayed to the press. There will be seats at the front of the top deck, a major concern of mine when I wrote about the bus last year.

So several of the concerns that I had have been allayed. My greatest worry, the lack of seats, still remains, however, and has if anything increased. The thing that most passengers want from their bus is a seat; that was where the bendy fell down so badly. Even though the new bus will be at least a foot longer than existing, already unwieldy, modern double-deckers, it will have between two and ten fewer seats (and ten fewer than in the most common version of the old Routemaster, the RML.)

The most serious design flaw of modern deckers, though hyped as step-free, low-floor and so on, is their lack of seats, particularly step-free ones. The new bus is even worse. There are only 22 seats downstairs, of which only ten have step-free access. The remaining seats on the lower deck have an often rather high step up to them. Ten is a hopelessly small number, fewer even than the worst existing double-deckers, which have 16 step-free seats.

A further problem is that ten of the 22 seats on the lower deck face backwards, something which most passengers dislike and which makes some people feel sick. This is again more than on existing deckers.

The floor in the lower saloon is not flat. Between the middle and rear doors, it slopes gently up then down again, presumably to accommodate the rear axle or something. This is bad news for mobility-impaired passengers, who also don’t have much in the way of rails to hang on to at this point. I can see people falling down here if the bus stops suddenly.

The seating problems occur because unlike any other double-decker I can think of, this one is somehow deemed to require two staircases, in the centre and at the rear; and three doors, at the front, centre and rear. I am wholly unconvinced by TfL’s explanation – that this is to improve passenger flow and reduce conflicting movements of upstairs and downstairs passengers.

Because on the new RM, again contrary to my previous understanding, you will always be able to enter or leave the bus by any door. You will not have to go in at the front. When the bus is in one-person mode, the rear door will still be opened, at stops, by the driver.

Scrapping the centre door and staircase would actually, therefore, result in less conflict than in the proposed design, since upstairs passengers would not need to pass through the lower saloon at any time. It would also create perhaps as many as eight extra seats, at least half of them low-floor.

I sat in every seat during my look at the bus and spotted a second design flaw: the presence of an air-cooling system, run above the seats, which leaves several, particularly the offside window seats in the lower saloon, with wholly insufficient headroom. A lot of people in these seats will bang their heads when they get up.

The answer here is simply to scrap the air-cooling system in favour of the simple, green and space-creating expedient of having windows that open. There isn’t a single opening window on the new RM.

Sealing the windows so that passengers bake, then installing elaborate, technocratic, power-consuming air-con to try to  solve the problem you have created, is classic “crap bus designer mentality” in action – and a useful reminder that for all its good points, this project does come from the same people, the volume bus manufacturers, who have given us some of the most dismally ill-designed vehicles of any description on Britain’s roads today.

But overall,  I am less hostile to the new Routemaster than I was. The lower deck seating still needs to be ironed out. But the aesthetic of the bus, and the promise to have conductors for most of the day, will make a real difference to passengers’ experience.

Boris Johnson's broken promises on the river

Six-lane highway: the river Thames (Photo: Getty)
Six-lane highway: the river Thames (Photo: Getty)

Through the heart of London, free of all the normal hold-ups, runs a six-lane highway, used to a mere fraction of its potential. In a report launched exactly a year ago tonight and co-authored by me, the think-tank Policy Exchange argued that the Thames could transform many Londoners’ travelling lives.

In under three years, and for an initial outlay of just £30 million, we showed how London could create a new, waterborne Tube line, with a frequent service of high-speed boats at 20 piers from Putney to Woolwich. That is about a quarter of the time, and less than a hundredth of the money, that a similar project would need on land.

This service would never be stopped by traffic, points failures or Ken Livingstone’s Tube union chums (it moved thousands during recent strikes.) It would bring new links to places badly served by the transport system, and much-needed relief to the whole network. It would seize imaginations and raise spirits. Hundreds of thousands of Londoners would be liberated from their subterranean holes, travelling instead with the wind in their hair and the matchless spectacle of the world’s greatest city before their eyes.

Sounds good, right? Most people seemed to think so. Outside the ranks of the bureaucracy, the only people who opposed it were various Kennite diehards still in mourning for the bendy bus. Our most important supporter was Boris Johnson. He spoke at our launch, committing himself not to our full set of demands but certainly to increasing the use of the Thames.

In this, he echoed his own 2008 election manifesto, which promised “strong political support” to “promote greater use of the river,” stating that the Thames “offers a remarkable opportunity to relieve congestion on existing transport networks.” The manifesto attacked TfL for “relegating river services far down their list of priorities” and failing to provide “strategic direction to take advantage of London’s river,” a criticism also made by the London Assembly.

Since Boris’s election, some things have got better. Oyster pay-as-you-go has been extended to the Thames Clipper, which provides an excellent and frequent service between central London, Canary Wharf, Greenwich and Woolwich.

But overall, the river service is substantially worse now than before Boris came to office. Thames Clippers has had to axe its boats after about 9pm. At the same time TfL has quietly removed the Thames Clipper timetable from its river service information booklet – it now, incredibly, only gives the times for the tourist boats. Its website still gives the Thames Clipper times, but only in a sketchy, unhelpful format. The river is looking like another one of Boris’s broken transport promises.

As with so many of these, the central difficulty appears to be Transport for London. TfL hates things it does not directly control. The fact that Thames Clippers is a private company has always been anathaema to it.

In a briefing paper on 8 January 2009, the policy unit of Peter Hendy, TfL’s commissioner, directly lied to Boris, providing grossly inflated estimates of river journey times compared with land and stating that along-river urban commuter services had failed to prosper (in fact, at least ten cities have highly successful such services). The briefing also said that the contribution the river could make was “at best” no more than a “popular bus route,” around four million trips a year. In fact, including the tourist services, there are already just under four million trips a year, without any real investment or promotion at all.

Various inflated claims about the boats’ need for subsidy have also been made, not least by TfL, and sometimes regurgitated by the mayor in answer to assembly members. If it charged the same fares as the rest of the network, the service would indeed need a subsidy, just like the rest of the network – but much less of a one per passenger than the Tube (as you’d expect, given the fact that unlike the crumbling Tube the major infrastructure, the river, is already in place, for free.) If it charged higher fares, it wouldn’t need a subsidy, just the capital investment.

Of course, times are tough and £30 million is a lot of money, even for a new network that could serve an absolute minimum (on our estimate) of 9.3 million new journeys a year, and in the medium term an extra 12- 27 million new journeys a year (all figures in addition to the 2.7 million journeys already made on the Thames Clipper.) Let’s see what other projects TfL considers higher priorities, shall we?

1.      They spent £15 million on five new hydrogen buses (number of new journeys per year: nil.)

2.      They spent £23 million painting some blue lines on some roads (number of new journeys per year: 18,250.)

3.      They spent £26 million re-branding a bus route in East London, the 369, as the “East London Transit,” and extending it by one mile. It is otherwise identical to the previous service over the same route (number of new journeys per year: 150,000.)

4.      They spent £198 million on the DLR extension to Stratford International (number of new journeys per year: 4.4 million. Quite rightly, nobody objected to this much more costly project on the grounds that it would only produce as many new journeys as a “popular bus route.”)

Boris has even spent £1.2 million of public money on his latest transport gimmick – after the “living bridge” and island airport, remember them? – to put a new cable car across the Thames. This project, which does not exist and probably never will exist, has already been given about eight times more money than would have been needed to save the evening riverbus service along the Thames – which does exist, or at least used to.

Transport is the alpha and omega of the London mayoralty. Some good things have been accomplished – but judged against his manifesto promises, as I’ve said before, it is by far Boris’s area of least accomplishment. And the clock is ticking.

Ken Livingstone's dog-whistle politics

You know what they say: if you want a friend in politics, get a dog. So I was thrilled to learn that, in an effort to make him look more cuddly, Ken Livingstone has acquired a pet, a Labrador called Coco (I cannot confirm rumours that the Guardian’s Dave Hill was also considered for the role.)

Ken’s new canine companion was supplied under a special outreach programme run by the London Development Agency for disadvantaged ex-politicians. It was bred by a “social enterprise” run by friends of Lee Jasper, at the bargain cost to taxpayers of £3 million. In its role as a key world ambassador for our Once and Future Mayor, the dog will be sent to a number of vital international conferences in warm, sunny places, at the further modest cost to taxpayers of £600,000.

I made that last paragraph up, of course. But it’s a taste of the lifestyle joys that await for Coco if its master makes it back to the City Hall kennel in 2012. (And don’t imagine I’m entirely joking – remember that Ken employed his own partner as London’s best-paid personal assistant on a salary of around a hundred grand.)

The arrival of the would-be First Pet does raise two slightly problematic questions. Unusually for a politician, Ken already does inspire blind, dog-like devotion in a number of people. Is it really healthy for him to have more?

And then there’s the awkward issue of the name. Is Coco, as its moniker would suggest, an, ahem, black Labrador? And if so, is that name entirely politically correct?

Ken Livingstone's short memory on fare rises

Public transport fares in London are too high (Photo: PA)
Public transport fares in London are too high (Photo: PA)

Higher public transport fares came in this week – and some of the increases, as first revealed by this blog, are swingeing. This could be a great issue for Labour – who have quite rightly been out on the streets today, highlighting it. But it’s also yet another reminder of the party’s ghastly mistake in choosing Ken Livingstone as its frontman.

For every time Ken attacks Boris Johnson for raising fares, he can truthfully be reminded that he did exactly the same – or worse.

Ken has a piece in today’s Standard claiming that “my approach when I was Mayor was always, wherever possible, to hold down fare rises to those things that are necessary for running the service and investing in its future — in other words, aiding ordinary Londoners.”

This simply isn’t true – as the figures show.  Ken protests today that between 2008 and 2011, the single Oyster bus fare under Boris has risen by 44 per cent (from 90p to £1.30.) “Over the past three years, we’ve got used to soaring fares,” he says.

We got used to it long before then, Ken. In the shorter period between 2005 and 2007, the single Oyster bus fare under Livingstone rose by 42 per cent (from 70p to £1) – without even the excuse of a massive public spending deficit and a huge investment programme to fund.

In one year alone, 2007, there was a 25 per cent increase in the off-peak Oyster bus fare, greater than any rise Boris has imposed on it.

The fare was cut to 90p a few months before the 2008 election, but leaked emails revealed that Ken was secretly planning massive fare increases – indeed, exactly the fare increases that were subsequently imposed by Boris – once re-elected. Ken lied about his intentions, telling the London Assembly before the election that he was going to freeze fares in real terms. Luckily, some public-spirited person leaked me and the BBC the emails.

Today, Ken makes another highly questionable promise on future fares. He states: “I guarantee that in all circumstances, fares in the next Mayoral term will not be as high under me if I am elected, than they would be under a second Boris Johnson term.” Even assuming he is not lying again about his own intentions, how can he possibly know what Boris intends to do?

Public transport fares in London are too high, but that is at least as much because of Transport for London’s extravagance as for any other reason. To me, TfL often seems to be a mechanism to redistribute wealth from poor and middle-income passengers to well-paid train drivers and managers (more than 230 of whom are on six-figure salaries.) It spends immodest sums of money on very modest projects (£23 million on the first two cycle superhighways, for instance, which are little more than blue paint on a road.)

The main criticism of Boris should be that he has done too little to address the organisation’s bloated nature. But Team Ken’s principal contribution on this side has been to oppose, at the behest of their Tube union funders, even the modest economies which TfL is trying to make.

During their campaign against last year’s fare increases, Labour sensibly kept Ken in the background. But now they’ve picked the old boy as their candidate, they can’t very well avoid using him. The truth is that both Boris and Ken have a track record of substantially raising fares. But Boris has a track record of being slightly more honest about it.