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4 March 2022

Should we replace well-paid Tube drivers with driverless Tubes?

The fact that Tube drivers are very highly paid and the fact that they can bring the capital to a standstill are not coincidental.

By Jonn Elledge

I was meant to see a former NS colleague for drinks last night. I didn’t. Sorry, but I don’t like anyone so much that I’ll travel across London during a Tube strike to see them — unless they’re literally on fire and there’s a cash reward for putting them out.

Every time the RMT (the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers) holds a 24-hour Tube strike, which mystifyingly causes London to break for three days, everyone gets furious about the same two things. One is that this has absolutely ruined their day. Ten-minute underground hops are replaced by long queues at bus stops and lengthy walks in the rain. Right-wing commentators complain about the difficulty of getting a cab as if they were blithely unaware of either buses or feet. The vast majority of Londoners use public transport to get to work. So while the Tube is the sort of thing every other city in the country would kill for, it does mean we can’t really function without it.

The other thing everyone gets furious about is the fact the RMT are holding their strike, even though Tube drivers are incredibly well paid. The basic salary of a Tube driver is £56,496, not including bonuses. They earn more than most Londoners? And they still want to ruin my day? The actual purpose of the strikes rarely enters the debate.

The thing is, though, the fact Tube drivers are well paid and the fact they have a militant union that can walk out and ruin your day are not independent variables. Tube drivers have a job which involves tremendous responsibility, in so far as they’re not allowed to lose concentration for a moment because they might kill someone. But even if they didn’t have that power, you’d expect them to be well paid anyway, because they have the power to paralyse a major world city by withdrawing their labour. “Well nurses aren’t paid that much” isn’t an argument for poor Tube drivers but for better-paid nurses.

Is there a way out of this dilemma? The government is pushing Transport for London to prioritise the introduction of driverless trains, as a condition of offering a long-term funding package that’ll stop the capital from grinding to a halt. But this’ll cost a fortune, namely £10bn (amusingly, a 2020 feasibility study found that the overall financial case for driverless trains could not be justified). Trains will still need on-board staff, and anyway it isn’t only Tube drivers who walked out. It’s not clear the introduction of driverless trains would be enough in itself to break the power of the RMT.

More to the point, though, it mixes up cause and effect. Tube staff don’t hold London to ransom because they have a strong union: they have a strong union because they can hold London to ransom. 

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