railway infrastructure

Autonomous trains compromise public safety, major rail union warns

Plans to run autonomous trains in the UK have been strongly criticised by the largest rail workers’ union, which accused the Government of trying to axe thousands of jobs including drivers.

The Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union said a Rail Capability Plan, published with the support of ministers and the industry’s safety body, sets out proposals to “compromise and dilute” the current safety regime and run “autonomous” trains.

The union said the Department for Transport has launched a new innovation competition with up to £9m to support UK businesses in developing “technological solutions” for the railway.

A document invites applications that “create high-value, low-cost railway innovations, which increase the value of rail services to passengers while driving down operational expense,” said the RMT.

The document adds that “innovations in this theme need not be constrained by existing railway standards but will help deliver optimal staffing for a high-value, low-cost railway.

“Intelligent trains will reduce the reliance on complex and expensive rail infrastructure and control systems and through automation transition the role of railway staff from direct control and operation to supervision,” according to the union.

RMT general secretary Mick Cash said: “The cat is well and truly out of the bag now. The Government are working hand in glove with the private train operators and the RSSB [Rail Safety and Standards Board] on a long-term plan for rail in this country that would axe thousands of jobs across the industry, hammer down on safety and run services on the cheap in the name of fatter profits - the majority of which will be shipped abroad by overseas state rail companies to subsidise their own domestic transport operations.

“The rail capability plan sounds innocuous enough but is, in fact, a blueprint for automation with the long-term objective of a faceless railway where passengers are left to fend for themselves without any human contact whatsoever.

“It is scandalous that this whole drive towards the faceless railway is being smuggled through without any serious scrutiny whatsoever.

“RMT is blowing the whistle on this disaster in the making and will continue to fight for a properly staffed and resourced railway where public safety comes before private profit.”

In October, a report from the Commons Transport Select Committee found that the number of trains running on the UK’s railways could be boosted by using digital traffic-management technology.

But rising budgets and delays in schemes designed to electrify Britain’s railways have sparked criticism from the Public Accounts Committee over the way in which the Department for Transport and Network Rail have handled the plans. 

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