Driverless trains are coming, but what about the workers?

Driverless trains are coming, but what about the workers?

An employee of the French national railway SNCF walks on an empty platform at Saint-Charles railway station, during a week-long strike in Marseille, France, on 17 June 2014.

(AP/Claude Paris)

Around the world railways and light rail projects, like metros, are becoming increasingly automated or even going driverless. In 2018 the International Association of Public Transport found that 42 cities already run automated metro lines. In June 2019 the Anglo-Australian mining giant Rio Tinto launched the world’s first fully automated rail network at one of its Australian mines, and the French rail operator SNCF wants to develop a prototype for driverless trains by 2023.

But what does this mean for train drivers and their unions? Today they often form the core of powerful transport unions that can halt entire public transportation systems with their strikes. As well as undermining that power, increased machine inputs threaten to weaken the labour conditions of railway and metro workers, in addition to forcing them to re-skill and change jobs.

“This is potentially a threat to workers’ wellbeing,” says Henri Janssen, chief negotiator with the train section of FNV, the biggest trade union confederation in the Netherlands. NS, the Dutch state-owned railway operator, which serves around 1.3 million passengers daily on around 7,000 kilometres of railway, is currently testing a train automation project; if implemented, it would take over specific tasks from train drivers and allow trains to operate more efficiently.

Janssen says the unions are not against automation, but that he is clear about its potential hazards: “We need to put the workers first, not the technology.”

He continues: “[Automation] is a European trend. In the Netherlands they want to use this system around the most crowded cities because in those areas there’s a lot of train traffic, and automated systems might allow trains to drive closer to each other, and thus increase peak traffic. This is a good thing, but it might also mean lower quality work for train drivers, and there are also some doubts about the feasibility of this system. So, we need to be critical about it.”

Four levels

Still, it might take some time before we move from these types of partially automated systems to fully driverless trains, says Professor Burkhard Stadlmann from the University of Applied Sciences of Upper Austria, where he heads a research group working on automated trains. “When you’re talking about metros, full automation already exists in various cities,” says Stadlmann. “But on regular train lines, where, for example, you have road crossings and no fences along the track, we’re nowhere near operating driverless trains.”

In technical terms there are four levels of train automation, according to Stadlmann, also called Grades of Automation. At the first level, everything is done manually: the train is operated by the train driver, and the doors are opened and closed by onboard staff. At the second level, train driving is partially automated, but the train is still staffed and there is a driver in the cabin. At the third level there is no longer a driver in the cabin, but there are still attendants on the train. At the fourth level, the train is completely automated, with no staff assigned to the train.

For regular trains we’re now slowly reaching level two, the level the Dutch railways are currently experimenting with. But moving up from there might be harder than expected, says Stadlmann. “We have already reached grade four of automation on metro trains, but that’s because they are closed systems,” he explains. “Regular trains are harder. They need very good obstacle detection and safety systems need to be top-notch because they ride around in all kinds of weather conditions. When there’s an emergency, the train might also be kilometres away from a nearby station, slowing down a response.”

Stadlmann’s last point is a particular concern for trade unions, since a completely autonomous train has no onboard staff to help passengers during an emergency.

This is an issue over which members of the UK’s National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) have gone on repeated strike, as train companies are attempting to remove train guards from their carriages.

The fact that going completely driverless won’t be easy leaves train workers some breathing room. Nevertheless, automation itself is a train that can’t be stopped. “I don’t like to make predictions, but I think it will take at least a couple of years to reach level three or four. But eventually we will move to driverless trains, particularly at the third level. The fourth, however, has the psychological barrier for passengers of being alone in the train. But eventually we will move to a situation where there are no drivers in the cabin.”

Long-term investments and quality of work

As it is only a matter of time before driverless trains become a reality, unions are doing their best to prepare for this future. “We’re not against the technology”, says Janssen from the FNV. “That would be foolish. We just want this technology to be implemented in a way that serves everyone.”

He is critical of the fact that automation is being pushed forward in a context of privatisation. In the Netherlands railways are held partly in private hands, and companies bid for concessions of certain rail lines. But if profit is the driving motive, private companies are unlikely to make the significant investment required to automate a railway system. “Are these companies really going to make long-term investments knowing they only have contracts of 10-15 years?” asks Janssen. “These innovations cost money and will only show returns in the long-term. I’m not sure that a short-term oriented company can field that.”

Then there is the issue of the quality of work available to train drivers who may no longer have a train to drive. “A driver cannot control every movement of the train any longer,” says Janssen. “So, you’re dependent on a machine, which can increase stress. When we talk to drivers, they tell us that their muscles tighten and their heart rate goes up whenever they drive into a station with an automated system. It’s a new way of working, which means their old skills need to be replaced with new ones.”

But just because people’s jobs will change, it doesn’t mean they need to disappear entirely. A train driver might in the future be less of an actual driver, and more of a process operator.

“These transitions aren’t necessarily bad,” concludes Janssen. “Today, for example, we no longer have stokers shovelling coal into the train. But other jobs were created at the railways to replace those that were lost. Workers just need to have a hand in the process. They need to be able to exert some control over their futures.”

This message is echoed by research from the International Labour Organization (ILO). In its 2019 report, Work for a brighter future, the ILO calls for measures like the provision of lifelong learning for displaced workers and the maintenance of ‘human-in-command’ systems, so that people, rather than machines, can make the final decisions on the issues and situations that directly affect the work of others.

Stadlmann notes that in some cities, like Nüremberg in Germany, there hasn’t been a decline in staffing numbers despite the automation of metro services. Drivers have simply been reoriented to other jobs, like customer services or non-automated lines. Paris is another case of a city where the automation of certain lines hasn’t resulted in the firing of drivers. Nonetheless, tensions between unions and the metro company recently flared up, partly because of suggestions to expand automation to other lines.

“To do these transitions well, unions need a place at the table,” says Janssen. “Technological changes are coming for us, but we need to implement them together with workers. If you want technological innovation, you also need human capital. Without humans, innovation isn’t possible.”