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Driverless Evolution

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Greater automation through driverless trains is a ‘necessary evolution’ says Ramon Malla, director of automated lines at TMB Barcelona and chairman of the UITP Observatory of Automated Metros. It’s an evolution that, given time, can be delivered in coalition with the trade unions, he believes, as new research shows no slowdown in the spread of automated metro networks around the world.

Figures published by UITP in July suggested that the growth of automated metro lines will quadruple within the next decade and that the combined length of the world’s driverless lines will almost triple.

The research highlights the Middle East as one of the fastest growth areas, but it showed the popularity of driverless networks is increasing all around the world, with systems now also appearing in Latin America. The scale of some projects dwarf anything that has come before. For example, Riyadh Metro, which opens in 2019, will be double the size of Singapore’s current network – the city with the most kilometres of automated lines in 2016.


Varying grades of automation are used on the UK’s metro lines and for a number of these new rolling stock and signalling will turn them into fully automated railways within the next decade. From the early 2020s, driverless trains will be in use on the Glasgow Subway and the New Tube for London programme will bring the first driverless Tube trains to the capital in the next 10 to 15 years.

‘Automation has been a constant feature in the evolution of metro and in general of the railway. Progress in driving with ATP and later with ATO systems has been a positive development for the sector,’ Ramon told RailStaff. ‘Full automation is one last step in this process where many aspects have already been automated.’

Photo: Leonid Andronov / Shutterstock.com.
Photo: Leonid Andronov / Shutterstock.com.

But as the five-day Southern strike in August over driver-only operation (DOO) demonstrated, the technology’s engineering challenges are only part of the battle.

‘They have generally eliminated more routine activity to concentrate on tasks with higher added value tasks. So it is a process of transformation that is not new for union relationship, it can be addressed normally if managed holistically, involving all parts in the change management.

‘The challenge for the operator is that knowing this process, they must prepare in advance.’


By removing the element of human error, automated systems can claim to be safer and more efficient. Having fewer staff operating trains is also clearly cheaper, something the industry tries not to highlight too eagerly but does acknowledge.

For the people currently carrying out these roles, automation is seen as a threat to their jobs. Having fewer trained staff on board can only degrade safety, they believe. Advocates of the technology say it leads to more rewarding roles for staff.

‘The operators of automated lines testify that these lines give more meaning to the work and enhance the status of the jobs triggering greater staff and customers’ satisfaction,’ said Ramon.

‘But they also agree that, to be successful, the new model requires a rethinking of management culture. While this is true for the success of new automated lines, it is even more crucial for the transformation of networks where conventional and automated lines coexist. Automation is an opportunity to become a motivational project for everyone working in the company.’

Siemens baut fahrerlose U-Bahn in Riad / Siemens builds driverless metro system in Riyadh


Ramon went on to describe the ways in which the traditional driver role changes with the introduction of driverless technologies.

‘In general terms, operational staff in a full automated line acquire a deeper knowledge of all key systems, and a global overview
on the functional interactions among them, allowing for professional evolution. In automated lines, operations staff tasks also evolve towards maintenance.

‘Two fields of activity separated in a traditional line merge, having a positive impact in the performance of the line and of course in the staff, which enjoy greater diversity in their tasks/job profile.

‘The nature of the tasks in an automated line calls for more human, proactive and efficient roles from the staff. They require being closer to the customer, and stronger cooperation among the staff as a team, which result in job positions built on relationships, and therefore, more human.’

Thirty-six cities around the world now have at least one fully automated metro line. It will still be a long time before automated metros represent the majority of systems around the world, but that is the way things are going. Says Ramon, ‘When a city builds an automated metro line, it never opts for building subsequent lines in conventional, manual operation. Those who try, repeat.’

Neither the operator, the manufacturer or the unions wants to see a railway with no human input – nor do paying passengers. We’re in a driverless evolution, but the industry knows it needs to ensure that knowledgeable staff aren’t left feeling disenfranchised and unappreciated, but are involved and given the opportunity to move into the more interesting and challenging roles that automation promises.