Attacking the Tube unions is a progressive act

Will automated Tube trains solve London Underground's problems?
Will automated Tube trains solve London Underground's problems?

A second leaked “confidential document” (aka press release) emerged this week about TfL’s plans for driverless Tube trains, revealing that they could begin as early as 2015. Someone is clearly testing the waters. Good.

It’s an idea I’ve been pushing for three years, since I went to Paris and saw how they’re automating an entire existing Metro line, their oldest and busiest (they already have one new-build driverless line). It greatly improves the service – machines deliver a more regular and consistent service than people; extra trains can be brought out at the push of a button if there are sudden spikes in demand. It is also by far the simplest way to deal with London’s second greediest, most reactionary group of employees (after bankers): the Tube drivers.

The pointlessness of dealing with them any other way was made clear last month. On October 3, the Tube drivers were given a pay deal of an immediate 5 per cent pay increase, backdated to April, plus guaranteed above-inflation pay rises for the next four years. It takes their salaries to £45,000 at once (backdated for the last seven months, in fact) and to perhaps around £52,000 by 2015. This is for 35 hours a week of extremely easy, if boring, work, with almost seven weeks’ holiday a year. They have also been given extra bribes of up to £1,200 to not strike (ie, do their jobs) during the Olympics.

Two days later, on October 5, they announced a further ballot for strike action.

I think, from conversations with some of the key people involved, that the talk of driverless trains is fairly serious, and it could form an important part of next year’s Mayoral election campaign. How will the public react? On one hand, the Tube unions are highly unpopular and attacking them is clearly a progressive action.

Their principal victims are London’s working poor, who must pay the highest fares in Europe to fund the drivers’ lifestyle, and lose a day or two’s pay (or even their jobs) whenever there’s a strike, in the cause of further enriching an already highly privileged group of employees.

Like the Fleet Street printers of old, the Tube drivers have shown little understanding of just how far they are stretching our patience, how much  they are pricing themselves out of work – or of the technological tsunami that threatens to sweep them away. The icing on the political cake is that Ken Livingstone, inevitably, has aligned himself with the forces of reaction and can truthfully be presented as a client of the Tube unions, two of whom have funded his campaign.

On the other hand, the worry will be whether the public in any way buys the unions’ claims that safety is at risk. It isn’t, of course: driverless trains are safer than traditional ones, because the platform edges are normally gated and the Underground’s principal source of deaths and serious injuries, people falling under trains, cannot happen. Even without gates, the DLR has been running driverless trains for 24 years without notable safety difficulties.

The way to overcome safety concerns (if they exist) is to announce that, as on the DLR, every train will still carry a member of staff. But instead of sitting locked away in a cab where they are of no help to anyone, they will walk through the train offering information, security and assurance to passengers. They will no longer, however, be able to stop the service by withdrawing their labour.

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