19 June 2010

Driver-less Tube

The Conservatives have called on the London Mayor to investigate the plausibility of transforming the entire London Underground network into a driver-less operation, identical to that of the Docklands Light Railway (DLR). This could save around £141 million a year in wages.

Many will undoubtedly believe that Tube drivers are paid a handsome sum for the work required of them - around £40k a year. Compared to what their above ground counterparts at London Overground receive, this is in the same ball-park. Compared to what the vast majority of other train drivers throughout the country receive, Tube drivers are in the upper quartile in the spectrum of basic gross annual earnings.

Compare the role of a train driver to that of a bus driver and the disparity between pay becomes positively cavernous. Bus and coach driver rates of pay suffer in direct contrast to that of their railway counterparts due, in part, to their job descriptions not being classified as 'safety critical'. As one of our LEYTR Associates, who's a train guard - paid in excess of a bus driver and classified as 'safety critical' - said recently: "We're paid a lot more as a basic wage as we come into our own when things go wrong."

I can see where he's coming from, but there will be plenty of bus drivers out there who will disagree.

Comparing bus and train driving is something that shouldn't really take place on account of the respective roles being so different. Travelling within the confines of one of Southeastern's new Class 395 'Javelins' earlier in the year brought it home to me just how technical and mechanical the task of driving a train is. You have more than the speedo to concern you here. While the cabs of TfL's fleet of Tube trains looks nothing like that found in a Javelin, the job's premise and core requirements remain the same.

Which, in itself, is a good argument not to convert the Underground network into a driver-less operation. Who will assist with evacuations? Who will press all the shiny buttons and pull the levers and check the gauges? Even the driver-less DLR has on-board customer service assistants, who 'come into their own' when things go wrong (and are paid £34k p/a). Then there's the d-d-dreaded RMT union to consider. They take much responsibility for Tube driver wages being at the level they are. They've fought their corner since year dot and have a very high membership rate. The former London Mayor, Ken Livingstone, publicly told the nation during one of the London Mayoral debates that it was impossible to break the RMT.

Now Livingstone wasn't given the name 'Red Ken' for nothing, and his affiliation with the large unions is well known, but to make such an outspoken and, frankly, unexpected statement not only to the millions of Londoners watching but to his advisories, was unprecedented. His comments came as Boris Johnson said he'd vow to insert a 'no strike' clause into Tube drivers' contracts.

If, in the opinion of London's most popular and respected mayor to date, the RMT cannot be broken over a no strike clause, how do the Tories propose they overcome the comparatively gargantuan proposal of getting rid of the lot of them? The DLR is to be badly affected by strike action soon, as Serco, who operate the systems as a concession to TfL, see its staff undertake the first of three days' strike action over pay. If the Tories want Londoners to believe a driver-less Tube would also mean a system which was never disrupted by strike action, they need look no further than Canary Wharf DLR station from 27 June!

And all this for a measly saving of £141 million a year. If the UK's financial deficit is the size of the Atlantic, the savings made here would genuinely be just one single drop in the ocean.

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