The UK’s first automated mainline train made its debut on a London track yesterday but unions warned they would oppose any move to dispose of drivers.
Some 150 people were on board the 9.46am Thameslink service from Peterborough to Horsham which made a historic switch from manual to computer control as it sped through the capital.
The rail company, possibly wary of alarming passengers following the recent death of a pedestrian in the US at the hands of a self-drive Uber car, did not announce the change, meaning most remained none the wiser.
Govia Thameslink Railway, Thameslink’s parent company, later stressed the driver had remained in the cab at all times to carry out safety checks and close the doors at stations and would take full control of the trains outside central London.
It was the first time that self-drive “automatic train operation” (ATO) has been used on the mainline rail network, although such trains are in use on several London Underground tube lines.
Unions have urged caution on the project, warning they will not support any rollout beyond London and stressing that a driver must be retained on all services.
Mick Cash, the RMT general secretary, said: “Not content with throwing the guards off their trains Govia Thameslink Railway is now determined to diminish the role of the driver when the service enters the ATO zone.
“It is clear that the company have every intention of spreading full automation as far and wide as they possibly can in a move that takes us another step along the road to a faceless railway.
“This isn’t about improving reliability and service quality for the public, it’s about maximising the profits of the private rail operator.”
Aslef, the train drivers’ union, has supported the use of the system as long as a driver is retained on all services but warned against using the technology on parts of the Victorian network outside central London.
Mick Whelan, Aslef’s general secretary has said: “Trains have to be driven; they don’t drive themselves, whatever science-fiction writers think. Even with increased automation, we will still want, and need, a trained driver at the pointy end of the train.”
Self-drive trains can accelerate and brake more efficiently than those operated by a driver which the company hopes will lead to trains running every two to three minutes, similar to the frequency on the Tube, a 60 per cent increase in services at some of the busiest stations in the capital.
The project, part of a £7 billion Thameslink Programme, involves rebuilding stations and adding new tracks and signalling as well as the introduction of 115 new trains. It will eventually result in 24 trains an hour running at peak times.
Gerry McFadden, engineering director at Govia Thameslink Railway, said: “We are embracing digital technology to boost capacity through the heart of London, a historical bottleneck that has held back rail expansion across the south of the country.
“Self-drive technology also has great potential for the rest of the country’s rail network, particularly on congested routes, and could in future reduce the need for costly infrastructure projects.”
Passengers, meanwhile, appeared more concerned about the state of the trains than who was in charge of the controls.