Here in New York City, the idea of a driverless train seems like a fantasy. After all, our subways have not one but two people responsible for operations, and any suggestion that trains could operate with one — let alone zero — operators seems laughably futuristic and far-fetched. Of course, within the city, the JFK AirTrain operates automatically, and numerous international subways runs safely with one driver or fewer.
So why can’t American transit agencies embrace driverless trains? The answer isn’t really a secret: Work rules along with aggressive and often misleading public campaigns have led to entrenched and redundant jobs. Management hasn’t adequately embraced one-person train operations or even driverless trains as a cost saving measure, and the upfront capital costs are a barrier to a rapid rollout of such a technology. It’s a perfect storm of mitigating factors, and it’s going to become an issue as transit agency labor costs continue to climb.
Yesterday at The Atlantic Cities site, Stephen Smith from Market Urbanism tackled this very issue. After providing an overview of the international scene and other failed U.S. attempts at reform, he levied his sights on New York City:
And New York? Fuggedaboutit. Upgrades to Paris’s Métro have proven that retrofitting century-old subways for driverless operation is possible (and arguably safety-enhancing, with platform screen doors installed at stations that restrict access to the tracks until a train is safely docked and aligned), and Glasgow’s subway, which predates New York’s by almost a decade, is only five years away from driverless capabilities.
New York’s subway, on the other hand, hasn’t even advanced to the 20th century in terms of labor-saving efficiencies, never mind the 21st. Almost all of the subway’s trains have two paid employees on board at all times, long after other rapid transit systems around the country folded driving and door operation into one job. The city has slowly been winning concessions from its drivers union toward so-called “one-person train operation” and other efficiency measures, but it’s starting from a low base.
New York is an outlier in labor intransigence, but public sector transit unions are a potent force in setting transit agendas in American cities – more so than in Europe and Asia, where high ridership creates a large and wealthy rider constituency to demand efficiency and counteract the political power of transit unions.
I believe Smith’s analysis doesn’t dive deep enough here into a few underlying issues. The first is a problem of management. The MTA hasn’t aggressively pushed OPTO or driverless trains as a cost-saving measure. If the option is between losing frequent subway service or losing an employee on the train, the choice is an easy one. Unfortunately, considering the MTA’s track record with both costs and on-time delivery, it’s tough to see an OPTO treatment happening any time soon at any reasonable price.
Second, the TWU is firmly entrenched against any cutbacks in onboard staffing levels. They take advantage of public fears over safety and the supposed impossibility of such train operations while relying on the fact that New Yorkers have a very limited knowledge of the way things work elsewhere. I don’t expect the unions to support anything that eliminates over 600 jobs at peak hours, and the issue hasn’t even come up in recent negotiations.
Finally, transit ridership isn’t a constituency demanding efficiency. Perhaps this has to do with the city’s love-hate relationships with its subway system spurred on by uneven and misleading coverage of transit politics and economics. Perhaps it comes from the passable-to-decrepit appearance of the subway system that doesn’t inspire confidence. Whatever the cause, subway riders are agitating only for no fare hikes and more service but not for efficiency measures.
Smith thinks it’s only a matter of time. “The only question is,” he writes, “will riders demand it in time to actually improve service, or will transit agencies hold out until they’re forced to use it to save existing service from cuts?” Considering the lead time for deployment, if it isn’t the former, the latter may be a struggle.