The Anonymous Widower

Self-Driving Trains Will Run Every 2½ Minutes On Main Lines

This is the title of an article in today’s copy of The Times.

The main line in question is the Thameslink route though central London.

Some will cynically groan and mutter that this will be another excuse for labour troubles.

However, this is said in the article.

Aslef, the train drivers’ union, has supported the use of the system if a driver is retained on all services. It cautions, though, against the use of the technology on other parts of the Victorian network outside central London.

If you look at the titmetable between St. Pancras and Blackfriars station from 09:00 to 10:00 on a Monday morning, then nine trains will pass along the route.

After the 2½ minute headway is introduced, this will be increased to twenty-four trains per hour (tph).

I think that just on the number of trains per hour, this would mean a substantial increase of train crew. If the factor were to be 24/9, that would be a near 170% increase in train crew.

Surely, Aslef won’t find that unacceptable!

If this use of modern signalling technology should work according to specification, surely we will be seeing it on other busy sections of the UK rail network. It is already gong to be used on Crossrail, but there are other places, where it would probably be beneficial.

  • Between Wimbledon and Waterloo.
  • On the Ordsall Chord in Manchester.
  • Between Edinburgh and Glasgow.
  • Between Shenfield and Liverpool Street.
  • East London Line between Dalston Junction and Surrey Quays

Note that money has already been allocated by Chris Gtayling to do a study to see if Transpennine services would benefit from this type of modern signalling.

Not all of these routes will be operating at twenty-four tph, however some will surely see a great improvement in services.

The East London Line

The East London Line will be running twenty tph from 2020.

Sir Marc Brunel and his famous son;  Isambard would be astonished at the capacity of their Thames Tunnel, that was started in the 1820s and opened in 1843.

The Ordsall Chord

The Ordsall Chord will connect Manchester Piccadilly, Manchester Oxford Road, Deansgate, Salford Central and Manchester Victoria stations with a high capacity double-track railway through the centre of Manchester. But it is also entangled with other routes in the area.

  • Manchester Victoria to Bolton via Salford Central and Salford Crescent.
  • Manchester Victoria to Liverpool via Salford Central and Chat Moss.
  • Manchester Airport and Manchester Piccadilly to Bolton via Manchester Oxford Road, Deansgate and Salford |Crescent.
  • Manchester Airport and Manchester Piccadilly to Liverpool via Manchester Oxford Road, Deansgate and Chat Moss
  • Manchester Airport and Manchester Piccadilly to Warrington via Manchester Oxford Road and Deansgate

Probably the highest frequency will be between Deansgate and Manchester Piccadilly, where according to Wikipedia, the following services will run.

  • Four tph between Manchester Airport and Manchester Victoria via Manchester Piccadilly.
  • Six tph between Manchester Piccadilly and Chat Moss or Bolton and Preston.

But that is for starters and if Thameslink is anything to go by, trains on one side of Manchester and Salford will be linked to trains on the other side of the conurbation to release platform space at both Manchester Victoria and Manchester Piccadilly stations.

Just as automatic train control has increased the capacity of Thameslink, it will increase the capacity through Manchester.

Shenfield To Liverpool Street

Crossrail will take over the slow lines and these will probably be subject to automatic train control to handle up to sixteen tph between Stratford and Gidea Park stations.

In addition Greater Anglia have expansion plans and it looks like they’s be running at least twelve tph on the fast lines, almost all of which won’t stop between Stratford and Shenfield.

Will it be decided to add a degree of automatic train control to the new trains on this route?

About The Technology

If anybody is worried about this sort of signalling, the following should be born in mind.

  • Most airliners are flown automatically, whilst the pilots monitor everything and take control as required.
  • The Victoria Line has used a similar automatic train operation system since it opened in 1968 and currently handles thirty-six tph.
  • The original system on the Victoria Line allowed twenty-seven tph. Not bad for a 1960s system, where some of the electronics was based on valves or vacuum tubes.

Remember though, that as in an airliner, there is always somebody monitoring everything for the unexpected.


October 7, 2017 - Posted by | Transport | , ,


  1. It is a phased introduction, with just 20 trains per hour for the first few months. Moreover many of the trains are ones that currently terminate into Kings Cross or LBG and there will be timing improvements on the ones moved from Elephant and Castle to Brighton main line. So not 170% more drivers really.

    Maybe they could put pretend door operation panels in trains for the RMT members?

    Comment by Mark Clayton | October 7, 2017 | Reply

    • Which ever way you look at it, they’re going to need more train crew. And probably platform crew too, due to the frequency of the trains.

      Remember most people familiar with the Underground, are very happy with trains with just a driver, provided there is someone on the platform, in case of difficulty.

      One station-man said to me, that if you need to get someone off or on the train in a wheelchair it is so much easier, if the ramp is positioned by someone who works at the station.

      There’s always been a difference between button operation in London and the North.

      When buses were two-man operation in London, if you wanted the bus to stop, anybody pressed the button. I’d done that from when I was tall enough to reach the button.

      On one of my first trips on a Liverpool bus, I did the same and was told in no uncertain terms, thast it was his job.

      But then the ruiles on Liverpool buses are a bit strange. They still don’t allow you to take an inflated balloon on the bus.

      Comment by AnonW | October 7, 2017 | Reply

  2. Autonomous trains are an obvious approach to improve reliability of services and the volume of passengers that can be carried. Most people I talk to, don’t need to get from A to B any quicker, but just need a reliable service that provides facilities that allow them to travel and work in comfort. Autonomous trains would allow us to have trains safely running closer together, with fewer unplanned interactions, and hence operate more frequently. This would give us the possibility to use exiting tracks, bridges, and stations to provide a greater throughput, thus making HS2 unnecessary, releasing funds for other developments/uses. We are looking at having autonomous cars within a few years. If we can drive cars autonomously on roads with all the interactions and responses that this requires, then it shouldn’t be beyond the wit of man to run a vehicle on rails! Take the human out of the car and train, and accident rates will plummet, and throughput increase. Unfortunately, the first time there is an accident on the roads involving an autonomous vehicle, the doom-mongers will be crowing “I told you so”, ignoring the thousands of accidents that happen with human drivers at present.

    Comment by John Wright | October 10, 2017 | Reply

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