NSW Transport Minister Gladys Berejiklian confirmed earlier today that the North West Rail Link will have driverless trains. The new line will be run independently from the rest of the network by a private operator, featuring screen doors and completely automated rolling stock.
Driverless trains are a massive game changer, and have many potential benefits. The most significant is the reduced marginal cost of operating an additional train service. It’s the marginal costs that matter, because it indicates the cost of providing an additional train or savings from cutting one. With lower marginal costs, a much lower level of patronage is needed to maintain a reasonable level of cost recovery via fares. Anecdotal evidence from Vancouver’s Sky Train driverless network (where you never have to wait more than 8 minutes for the next train, even late at night) shows that driverless trains there resulted in marginal cost of $11 per hour.
The average operating cost of SkyTrain may not be thaaat low, but the marginal cost is apparently $11/revenue-hour forum.skyscraperpage.com/showpost.php?p…—
(@alon_levy) February 24, 2013
But there a also reliability and safety benefits. An automated train never calls in sick, or turns up to work late. Meanwhile, human error was responsible for both the Waterfall and Glenbrook disasters, both of which resulted in fatalities.
The transport union has decided to oppose this move, which is unfortunate. Their suggestions that driverless trains will be less safe flies in the face of the Waterfall and Glenbrook examples previously mentioned. It also overlooks the fact that modern aircraft run on autopilot all the time, despite being massive flying machines, where there are many more chances for something to go wrong than a train on a fixed guideway. They probably also fear job losses, but the benefit of driverless trains means that limited resources can be better allocated, to have more station staff or more staff roving trains (something which neither drivers nor guards on trains currently do).
Other concerns have been raised. Advocacy group Action for Public Transport raises the issue of assisting passengers on a train that breaks down between stations on the NWRL, which can be up to 6km apart.
If trains on Sydney's north west rail link are driverless, who will help evacuate stalled trains? Underground stations are up to 6km apart.—
APTNSW (@aptnsw) June 06, 2013
Shadow Transport Minister Penny Sharpe suggests that this represents a broken promise, given that the government had previously said it had no plans to introduce driverless trains. That criticism boils down to how much you consider weasel words to be a broken promise.
Penny Sharpe (@PennySharpemlc) June 06, 2013
Ultimately the decision to go with driverless trains is a good one. It will benefit passengers, and has been proven to work well in many other cities around the world.