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Last Updated: Wednesday, 30 June, 2004, 12:46 GMT 13:46 UK
Could driverless trains break the Tube strike?
Central Line trains
Going nowhere: Tube trains rest in the sidings
While millions of London commuters struggled into work because of a drivers strike on the London Tube network, it was business as usual on one line at least.

The Docklands Light Railway (DLR) is Britain's only driverless metro, but with more walk-outs in the capital threatened, the appeal of such systems could grow on passengers.

Europe's first driverless metro was opened in the northern French town of Lille in 1983 and expanded a decade later.

Today, automatically operated commuter train systems are dotted around the world, from Copenhagen to Kuala Lumpur; Paris to Taipei.

In New York, engineers have been busy converting the subway's L-line to driverless operation. The service will begin operating in "shadow" mode in October, with train operators still in full control.

If all goes to plan then by next spring the trains will be driving themselves. However, drivers will continue to ride the trains to allay passenger fears and step into the breach if things go wrong.

HOW DRIVERLESS TRAINS WORK
Trains are fitted with onboard computers
These pick-up signals from track-side transponders
Control room keeps overview of all train movements on network
The public's fears are acknowledged in the industry as being one of the main obstacles to developing driverless trains.

Instead of a driver, the DLR has uniformed attendants who walk up and down all trains, checking tickets, issuing fines and operating the doors.

"People still don't trust the system despite the fact that some metro lines with drivers are basically automatic anyway," says Matthew Willey, of the website Railway Technology.

Yet, according to Herve de Lacotte of Siemens Transportation, which developed the pioneering Lille system 20 years ago, there has not been one accident on that network.

An independent investigation into 11 driverless systems around the world found automated metros allowed the operators to provide exceptional service quality while reducing operating costs.

Specifically, they resulted in shorter waiting times for passengers and greater cleanliness, and better information and safety both on trains and stations.

DLR attendant
Instead of drivers, DLR trains have attendants
Siemens is currently developing driverless systems in Turin and Barcelona and M de Lacotte says Paris is looking into automating its existing metro lines.

"In future perhaps all new metros will be designed without drivers," says M de Lacotte.

Some years ago London Underground was reported to be working on plans for fully automating the Victoria Line. Although it is already largely self-operating, drivers work the doors and are fully trained. However, a spokesman for the network would only say there are "no plans for driverless trains in the near future".


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