Rail franchise Govia Thameslink (GTR) has operated the first automated self-drive train with passengers on the mainline UK rail network.

Thameslink operated the train in autonomous mode in central London during a service between Peterborough to Horsham on Monday (March 26). But the company has insisted that trains would still “need a driver in the cab”.

Even when the train is in self-drive mode, the driver still has to check platforms at stations, close the doors and manage the overall safe operation of the train. GTR has been testing autonomous trains for 18 months.

The franchise said that the self-drive mode would allow mainline trains to “run at Tube-like frequencies” across London because the technology speeds up journeys and will enable GTR to increase capacity by 60,000 passengers next year.

GTR’s engineering director Gerry McFadden said: “Govia Thameslink Railway is blazing a trail with self-drive trains which can run at higher frequency than manual operations. We are embracing digital technology to boost capacity through the heart of London, an historical bottleneck that has held back rail expansion across the south of the country.

“Self-drive technology also has great potential for the rest of the country’s rail network, particularly on congested routes, and could in future reduce the need for costly infrastructure projects.

“We’ll always need a driver in the cab but this technology allows us to run more trains, more frequently than we could by driving the trains manually and for passengers, the trip will be as smooth as ever.”

GTR plans to start using automatic train operation (ATO) in May 2019 – initially between St Pancras and Blackfriars stations in London. It will then be extended to London Bridge in December 2019.

The driver presses a button to implement the ATO system, which then takes over the braking and acceleration of the train.

But the RMT union has criticised the move as being “another step along the road to a faceless railway”.

RMT general secretary Mick Cash added: “Not content with throwing the guards off their trains Govia Thameslink Railway is now determined to diminish the role of the driver when the service enters the automatic train operation zone.

“It is clear that the company have every intention of spreading full automation as far and wide as they possibly can in a move that takes us another step along the road to a faceless railway.

“There’s a clear pattern here – close the ticket offices, remove the guards and now automate the functions of the driver. This isn’t about improving reliability and service quality for the public, it’s about maximising the profits of the private rail operator.”


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