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TIN news:     Normally, any strike disrupting rail transport services is in London is accompanied by calls for “driverless trains”. These vehicles, it is proclaimed, would end the power of the beastly unions to bring the capital to a halt. Boris Johnson himself has given credence to this belief when wanting to look tough in the face of stoppages on the Tube or when in need of votes. Often, champions of the “driverless” solution cite the Docklands Light Railway (DLR) as an example of what could be achieved if the much larger and more complex London Underground was automated to the same degree. Sit right at the front of a DLR train and, guess what? Not a driver to be seen!
This argument has always been deeply flawed and recent events on the DLR prove it. A 48-hour strike held earlier this week closed the entire system except for a reduced, four-station service between Prince Regent and Canning Town. A ballot by the RMT of its 644 members among the 750 DLR staff produced 339 votes, of which 315 favoured a withdrawal of labour in a dispute with new DLR operator Keolis Amey over the use of agency staff and claims of management bad attitudes - figures which would satisfy the sternest new criteria for legal strike action proposed in the government’s Trade Union Bill. As things stand, it seems the “driverless” DLR can be just as susceptible to strike action as the Tube.
The reason, of course, is that though DLR trains don’t have drivers in the sense of someone sitting in a cab at the front of each train, they do have staff on board. These passenger service agents (PSAs) - often called “train attendants” or “captains” - are there to help passengers, make sure the carriage doors are working properly and, if necessary, drive the trains manually if something goes wrong with the computer system that runs them from a control centre in Beckton. There are 275 PSAs employed on the DLR and about 60 people work in the control centre. If they down tools, the DLR doesn’t run.

That’s what happened this week. And, as things stand, it would also happen on the Underground if its “drivers” were replaced by Tube PSAs. Three years ago Mike Brown, now Transport for London commissioner but at that time the head of its rail division, was asked about this by a member of the London Assembly transport committee. Would having DLR-style “train captains” somewhere on board Tube trains instead of Tube “drivers” in a cab at the front place the network in “the same situation as you are in if the drivers go on strike”.

“Yes,” replied Brown.
It seems that there only two ways that strike action can be eradicated - or mostly so - on the Underground, the DLR or any other rail transport service in London.

One is by removing all human beings from trains, be they called “drivers”, “train captains” or anything else. Is that really going to happen in London? Unlike unstaffed metro systems in other countries - often cited by purveyors of “driverless” mythology - much of ours is in deep, old “single bore” tunnels with no walkways beside the tracks. Would the London public accept having nobody on board who could, if necessary, take charge of an Underground train if got stuck between two stations far below the surface and look after the people in its often packed carriages? It seems unlikely. And even if they would, the control centres would still need to be staffed.

Which brings us to the second way, which would be to ban union membership, ban strikes or both - measures far more drastic than those proposed by the government and, unlike unstaffed trains, they might command substantial public support. But would it really be worth the grief? Would it improve the overall standard of service on London’s rail networks, which heavily depends on a workforce whose morale and commitment to their tasks is directly and very evidently related to the pay and working conditions that union membership helps secure? Does the British capital really want to lead the way in purging its mass transit public services of organised labour?

The only real answer is better industrial relations throughout the system as a whole. Achieving that is very often far from easy, but for London it surely remains by far the best way to go.
This article was updated on 6 November 2015 at 08:22 to give additional information on the strike ballot and its relationship with proposed new trade union legislation.

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