London Tube Opens Bids for Driverless Trains Opposed by Unions

London Underground Ltd. indicated it aims to go ahead with plans to buy driverless trains, raising the prospect of renewed clashes with unions that say the move poses a threat to passenger safety and employment levels.

The company will place a notice with the Official Journal of the European Union today seeking expressions of interest in supplying 250 trains for the Tube’s Piccadilly, Central, Bakerloo and Waterloo & City lines, it said in a statement, adding that the new sets must be “capable of full automation.”

Mayor Boris Johnson has already faced opposition from Tube employees over plans to close ticket offices as more people use automated swipe cards, with strikes suspended Feb. 11 pending further negotiations. The Aslef union, which represents 2,500 Tube drivers, said today any move to procure cab-less models for the subway would prompt further action.

“It would be very foolish,” said Finn Brennan, the union’s district organizer for London and the southeast and himself a former Tube driver. “We would do whatever was necessary to protect the interests of our members and the traveling public. The trains would rot in the sidings.”

In addition to automation, the rolling stock will also feature air-conditioning to improve conditions for passengers on the deep lines on which it’ll run, and be designed to allow people to walk easily between carriages, London Underground said. A formal tender is likely early in 2015, it said.

Siemens Ready

“This vital modernization of our trains and signaling will ensure an even more comfortable, frequent and reliable service for hardworking commuters and visitors to the capital,” Johnson said in the statement. The mayor’s plans include 24-hour services on some lines at weekends from 2015.

Siemens AG, Europe’s biggest engineering company, has already indicated its interest in bidding by demonstrating a concept train in London, spokesman Peter Gottal said today.

“We have to wait to see exactly what the bid requires,” he said. “There are economic considerations, what the technical specifications are, how much local content is required.”

While Aslef opposes trains without drivers, Brennan said Johnson’s enthusiasm is a smoke-screen for slow progress on line upgrades and that there’s little likelihood of London actually adopting a system that would pose a “huge safety problem” on a deep-level subway dating to the 1860s.

The Victoria Line has had fully automated trains since 1968 and the Central Line for 20 years, but both still have drivers in the cab for safety reasons, according to Aslef -- unlike the Docklands Light Railway, which has only four sub-surface stations out of 45 and opened in 1987 with cabless units.

Richard Tracey, transport spokesman for Johnson’s Conservative Party on the Greater London Authority, said Paris, Copenhagen and Barcelona are among cities operating driverless trains without incident and that the technology could slash the annual 141 million-pound ($235 million) Tube-driver wage bill.

About one-third of drivers are represented by the RMT union that led strikes over ticket-booth closures, Aslef says.

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