Train strikes are good for the future of transport

Controversial perhaps, but shouldn’t employers and employees both take reasonable steps to plan around such eventualities? As someone who works from home most of the time now, I had to travel from Surrey to Docklands in London on both 13th and 14th (for MediSens, one of our sister events).

No hassle, no delays, just straightforward planning to satisfy my commitments to employer, clients and family.  I don’t care about union disputes, who is right or wrong, what the politics are right now or potential fall out might be in the future, because frankly, it will become largely irrelevant. I commuted for years (up to 2 hours each day, every day) but what’s clear to me is that it’s people that have no choice who are affected the most – those with particularly limiting mobility issues, from disability or old age for example.

In conversation with a public transport operator earlier this year, I was told that he’d convert his vehicles to be driverless as soon as a viable option became available, saving him his largest outlay – staff costs of £20m per year. But this was not practical even when the technology was ready, sometime within the next 5 years (yes, it’s that close) because of union resistance.

The Southern Rail strike is an early skirmish on what will become a long union-fought war that will decimate jobs across the transport system (both public transport, like trains and buses, and on-demand transport, like taxis and yes, Uber) as transport steadily evolves into the new shape of transport, referred to with a variety of pithy terms including Intelligent Transport and Mobility as a Service.

What these terms hint at is that transport systems will move away from their schedule (i.e. the hourly train or bus) and towards yours (near instant ride-hailing), reducing and potentially completely removing the need for personal ownership of vehicles, or reliance on humans in the system at all.

This really is nothing to do with safety on particular trains at particular stations, it’s a much bigger change – on a par with Thatcher shutting unprofitable coal mines.  It’s fitting that the Orgreave report is coming out so soon, because some of the background to what’s coming next is also a lesson from history.

Despite the protestations of organised groups lambasting the decimation of their business or employment model (whether train staff or tax drivers), my last four Uber drivers are happy with their lot, work flexibly and earn more than they would if minicab driving or being employed by a local firm, though they are not yet aware that eventually they too will be usurped by newer transport technologies.

As for the Southern train strike, many of the concerns held are legitimate, but also the fall out from the poorly managed hybrid finance and oversight system of taxpayer, regulator and shareholders of several companies not able to provide a key service to hundreds of thousands of people.  But is that their role?

In ten years’ time (and much sooner in many places), it won’t matter, devolved transport systems, on-demand mobility as a service will be everywhere, and not just with Uber, but with driverless cars, transport pods and a step change in how transport is used, managed and perceived.  In the mean-time, any event like this puts the focus on technology, and the difference between those that embrace it (two days of travel, no delays) and those that reject it.

With the news this week that Uber and Volvo are running driverless cars in San Francisco (instead of human-driven Uber cars) and Google’s Self Driving Car project has this week become its own entity (Waymo) and plans to launch real public services in the very near future in association with Fiat Chrysler, it’s absolutely not science fiction. In fact it doesn’t take a stretch of the imagination any more, all you have to do is watch the news, go forth and hop in to a driverless vehicle.

Those affected most by disruption, people with the most challenging mobility issues which restrict their alternative means of transport, will also be the greatest beneficiaries of this transport revolution.  For the first time, many will be able to be truly independent, not relying on specially adapted cars, station staff or planning journeys with the minute attention to detail that includes step-free entry to obscure stations and ease of access facilities that fortunately mobile people such as myself take for granted.

I will happily correct anyone to suggest this is futurist navel-gazing, and point out that driverless cars, and certainly cars capable of being driverless, are already in use on the roads in most first-world countries.  Huge, data-driven organisations including Uber and Google are gathering knowledge on how transport is changing and how technology is enabling that, and we, as transport consumers, remain stubbornly oblivious to the driverless vehicles we get on regularly to ferry us around – whether they are pods at airports or trains in London’s Docklands.  In the UK, like many other enlightened countries, the government is investing, there’s an official policy unit, even the wizened inhabitants of the House of Lords are receiving training to better understand decisions and policies they will be asked to consider on matters of national importance, in a realm that most people on the street have no clue about.

With every major car manufacturer scrambling to look at driverless vehicles, and understand what their future role might be if private ownership of cars falls by the wayside, this radical change could confirm ours to be the last generation of near universal car driving.

Humans are flawed – their motivations of money from share dividends or employment in the regulator, policy-maker, government, train or platform will be irrelevant in the not-so-distant future.

So why are strikes good? They make people angry, they make people look for alternatives, they force people to question the established order of things and maybe, just maybe, they will help more people realise that there’s more to mobility than relying on humans to provide what machines can usually do just as well, and often much better.