Are driverless trains the future of transport?

How would you feel if you caught a train in Japan and it had no driver?

Train travel is one of my favourite activities and I’m a particular fan of the transportation systems in Osaka and Tokyo.

So I was intrigued to learn that human-operated trains may be on the way out. Tests for a new driverless trains are scheduled to begin soon on one of Japan’s busiest and most important urban routes – Tokyo’s Yamanote Line.

Ghost trains

The scheme’s still at a test stage, according to Japan Kyo. It says that next week, after the ordinary trains stop running, the automatic driverless train will start operating on the track in the early hours of the morning.

“The Automatic Train Operation (ATO) system will be implemented into the Yamanote Line E235 trains. When engaged the system controls every aspect of the train’s movement, including its acceleration, cruising speed, and brakes,” says the piece.

Railway Gazette adds the significant fact that the Yamanote Line in Tokyo does not share tracks with other services, and this makes the trial appear viable. It says there’s also a plan to test driverless trains on the Tohoku shinkansen, or bullet train, which runs from Tokyo to Eastern Japan.

Several websites suggest that one of the goals of the railway company JR is to combat future shortages of personnel that will inevitably arise due to Japan’s ageing and shrinking population.

No complaints

There’s no sign of anger or resentment among the JR staff about the tests of automatic trains. They are certainly not going to provoke a strike by drivers or train crews.

That’s a big contrast to the situation in the UK, where plans to reduce the number of staff on trains have led to a series of strikes which have been going on since 2016, according to the BBC.

I am annoyed because the RMT union has arranged a strike over Christmas on the route I use to visit my family for the holiday.

The railway company South West Trains says that: “By announcing further strike dates, the RMT has shown it has no intention of finding a solution and is only interested in inflicting more misery on passengers as they try to enjoy the festive season.”

The union says that removing guards from trains threatens the safety of passengers although personally, I have never felt unsafe on a train with doors which are operated by the driver, rather than a guard.

Strikes are extinct

I’ve never been affected by a strike at any stage during the many years I’ve been going to Japan. I learn from the Japan Times that the strike has virtually become extinct.
University teacher Hifumi Okunuki writes that students in his class have never seen or heard of strikes.

In the article he explains: “I teach labour law to teenagers and 20-somethings at university but the most challenging lectures focus on strikes. The questions I field: “What is a strike?”, “Why would anyone do something like that?” and “What is the point?””

I suppose of course that the teacher could explain the political theory behind strikes, in that they empower workers to influence managers to make decisions in favour of the staff.

However, personally I don’t feel very positive about the liberating power of strikes at the moment, so I’ll leave it to Professor Okunuki to explain their value to people who’ve never had their life disrupted by one.

What’s your view? Have you experienced a strike in Japan? Do you think the workers should be more assertive and threaten to withdraw their labour if conditions are bad? Share your thoughts below.