Driverless trains; a necessary transformation…

Train travellers in the UK are being inconvenienced by frequent industrial action by rail sector Trade Unions. Finger pointing, ideological differences, and slow progress in dispute negotiations are clear to see. Attempts by the employers to modernise working practices, improve efficiency, and move towards driverless trains, seem to be a red rag to a bull for the Unions, as the following two sentences from an RMT press release neatly illustrate:  

“Driverless trains are a Tory fantasy that should be consigned to the science fiction shelf. They are dangerous nonsense and just another dead cat lobbed on the table to distract from what’s going on in the real world.”

These words bring a wry smile to the Badger’s face, because they capture a holistic general truth, namely that technology is always available to enable change, but it’s the mindset of people and the motives of their leaders that determine whether and when – or not – the technology will be embraced.

The pandemic has seismically changed railway passenger numbers, people’s travel patterns, and reduced train revenues in the UK. It thus seems unrealistic to think that the way things were pre-pandemic is a good model for the rest of this decade, especially when technology like that here can contribute so much for the greater good.  This decade is transformational for society, whether we like it or not, as a result of global health, energy, and economic crises, geo-political redefinition, and rapidly advancing, technological capabilities. No person or organisation is immune to these changes, which need politicians, employers, and Trade Union leaders to cooperate with shared objectives if they are to be navigated effectively for the country’s benefit. Currently this doesn’t look to be the case when it comes to the railways.

Why is that? Well, successful transformations require stakeholder alignment with common, apolitical, objectives. The press release sentences above suggest this clearly isn’t the case with the UK railways. Deep rooted antagonism is obvious. The Badger feels that one reason for this lies with the fact that rail unions are themselves struggling to transform in today’s world. Government statistics show that unions have many membership, demographic, and societal change challenges, a fact fully recognised by the TUC itself.   Rail union belligerence towards driverless trains might thus be just an act of petulant resistance that does not benefit their members, the travelling public, or the country, in the years to come.

Progress towards introducing driverless trains should be more advanced than for driverless cars on the road network, but it isn’t, and it looks unlikely that they will be common on the UK rail network this decade. There are always pros and cons with automation, but the two press release sentences above help to illustrate why UK productivity is 15% below that in the US and France.  Things need to change…and driverless train technology needs to be embraced rather than demonised.

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