London's Driverless Tube Train of the Future

A design for a 2020s tube has been unveiled, but while it will be capable of fully automatic operation, it'll keep the operator for a while.

Oct 9 2014, 11:00am

Image: PriestmanGoode

London design agency PriestmanGoode has just unveiled their "New Tube for London"—the design for trains that will take to the London Underground network in the 2020s and could one day go driverless.

The trains are built for deep level lines including the Piccadilly, Bakerloo, Central, and Waterloo & City lines, with the first set to take to the rails in 2022. While the overall aesthetic stays true to the city's iconic tube trains, the cars have a few key updates. The biggest technological shift: no need for a driver.

The company is keeping rather coy about the potential driverless aspect, but Transport for London (TfL) revealed that the trains "will serve London for more than 40 years and will be designed and built to be capable of fully automatic operation."

That said, they're not going to be zooming around autonomously right away. The TfL release added that, "When the new trains first enter service they will have an operator on board."

Dezeen reports that PriestmanGoode has in fact produced two versions—one with a driver's cab at the front, and one without—and cofounder Paul Priestman told the design site that while he couldn't comment too much on the driverless aspect, the trains were "adaptable" and "future proofed."

TfL first advertised for fully automated tube train designs in February, to the dismay of rail unions. The largest obstacle to getting driverless tubes running will likely be a political challenge rather than a technological one. In fact, there are already many examples of automated subway systems around the world.

Note the LEDs and digital placards. Image: PriestmanGoode

While waiting for the driverless aspect to kick in, however, there are a few other techy tweaks that London commuters will be able to enjoy. The New Tube has air cooling (which for anyone who's taken the Central line at rush hour in summer is perhaps an even more exciting prospect than automation) and digital screens to show announcements, updates, and, of course, ads. The cars are also wifi-enabled and are lit by LEDs, which give them that requisite futuristic-looking glow.

The 250 new trains will also differ from the more traditional tube train design in that they don't have separate cars but walk-through carriages. They also have wider doors, for the simple purpose of getting more people on and off, faster. According to TfL, the new trains, along with modernised signalling, will provide greater capacity, with the equivalent of 8,000 to 19,000 extra customers per hour across the lines affected.

While the future of public transport is looking at least a bit more comfortable, then, it seems the UK will probably see a few driverless cars in its transport network before it fully welcomes driverless tubes.