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How TfL drivers are preparing for the introduction of automatic train operation

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Open the doors, check the platform, close the doors and launch the train. This is the procedure for driving London Underground’s semi-automated S Stock trains. It sounds simple but the rollout of the revolutionary new signalling system which controls the trains is anything but.

“They’re used to driving trains to signals whilst now we’re telling them to press two buttons and the train will drive itself,” said Stewart Beard, one of the instructor operators overseeing driver training for the 4LM programme at London Underground’s District line depot in Upminster.

Around 1,000 drivers are completing the training, which explains how the new communications-based train control (CBTC) signalling system works and how it will affect them day to day.

Sixteen drivers currently go through the training each week. The four-day course teaches them how to drive the trains in ATO (automatic train operation) mode. This massive training programme began in November last year and more than 200 drivers on the Hammersmith & City and Circle lines have already completed it.

At the time of publication, the programme boasts a 100 per cent pass rate as it edges closer towards its 2019 deadline.

An adjustment

The CBTC signalling solution developed by Thales for the 4LM project does away with the traditional fixed-block signalling and allows trains to run closer together, increasing capacity across the network.

The entire sub-surface network, which makes up around 40 per cent of the Tube system, will be under CBTC control by 2023. This includes the Circle, District, Hammersmith & City and Metropolitan lines.

The solution being employed on the sub-surface lines differs from the CBTC system installed on the Northern and Jubilee lines, where the sleeper-mounted sensors that provide the train location data are hard wired. On 4LM, the data is transferred over a Wi-Fi network.

The switch to CBTC will take place gradually, with sections of the network moving over to the new system one area at a time – these sections are known as Signalling Migration Areas (SMAs). The driver training programme will need to be completed by February next year when the third migration area, which includes Aldgate junction – one of the busiest junction on the network, goes live.

The reaction from drivers has been mixed, said Stewart. Many are understandably apprehensive about how it will change some of their fundamental responsibilities as drivers.

They will still have to open the doors, close them when the platform is clear and launch the train but they will no longer have to manually bring the train up to speed or brake on approach to stations. A new display in the cab will also show messages from the control centre in Hammersmith which could, for example, tell the driver that the train will be held at the next station and give them a countdown to when they are free to launch.

“These drivers, for the longest time, have been driving with a handle,” said Stewart, who joined London Underground as a trainee driver in 2001. “They bring the train to a stop, they let go of the handle and open the doors.”

ATO is not new for London Underground. A section of the Central line between Hainault and Woodford was using ATO as early as 1964 and CBTC is now standard for new metro lines around the world. These systems are the future of train operation, but change can be unsettling.

Stewart explained that, although much of the actual driving will become automated, drivers are still essential to the system’s safe operation.

“The driver is not controlling the train in ATO, not motoring and braking and coming to a stop. The computer is doing it for them. They are opening doors and closing doors and making sure everything is safe in front of them,” said Stewart.

He added: “It’s still down to the driver to tell the system it’s ok to go, so the driver’s still in control of that. Now they’re just not in control of the driving and the braking.”

The course

Four simulators built by Sydac, part of Knorr-Bremse, are being used to deliver the training programme.

The simulators, which are an exact replica of an S Stock cab, use a bank of screens around the outside to recreate a driver’s view of the network. They can simulate a variety of different scenarios that drivers could face.

“If they do make an error it doesn’t matter, but we’d rather it happen here than out in the network with fare-paying customers,” said Stewart.

Throughout the week, drivers have the opportunity to practice on the simulator with their colleagues. At the end of the week, each driver is given a final exam where they must complete a number of scenarios unaided.

The final day of the course is spent shadowing a driver on the Northern line, where ATO is already in use. As ATO goes live across the sub-surface network, and more drivers complete the training, this part of the course will take place on S Stock trains.

The training sessions give drivers the opportunity to ask questions and raise concerns. Stewart explained how one driver asked about how secure the system was from a cyber attack, eliciting a detailed response which explained the various layers of encryption used and pointed out that any hacker would need access to the wayside to be able to connect to the trackside infrastructure. “It’s as safe as anything can be,” said Stewart.

Eight trainers, six courses

Transport for London (TfL) currently has eight trainers and two courses a week; this will eventually ramp up to six courses a week. Once the Hammersmith & City and Circle line drivers have gone through the programme, it will move on to the Metropolitan line and, finally, the District line.

In addition to major retraining programmes like this one, TfL tests its drivers every year to maintain standards. Stewart, 46, became an instructor operator in 2008. “I wanted a challenge,” he said. London Underground’s technical evolution has duly obliged.

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