Peer floats idea of converting entire Southern Rail network to autonomous vehicle roadway

Written by Rebecca Hill on 27 January 2017 in News
News

A Conservative peer has suggested converting the troubled Southern Rail network to a roadway for autonomous vehicles.

Could the answer to the Southern Rail crisis be autonomous vehicles? - Photo credit: PA 

Speaking in the House of Lords earlier this week, Lord Lucas asked if the government would “commission a feasibility study to consider converting the entire Southern Rail network to a roadway for autonomous vehicles” 

The network has been plagued by problems with repeated strike action over plans to remove guards from trains and have driver-only operation of doors, and the latest survey of passenger satisfaction from Transport Focus, published this week, showed a fall in overall satisfaction by around 12 percentage points.

As a result, the government is facing pressure from unions, opposition MPs and disgruntled commuters to strip Govia Thameslink Railway, which runs Southern, of its franchise, and an official investigation is due to report soon.


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Lucas argued that successful pilots of autonomous vehicles underway at Heathrow “demonstrates the potential” of such vehicles to serve on a branch line such as Lewes to Seaford – and that success there would indicate suitability for the rest of the Southern network.

“If we succeed at that, we will be in a great position in an industry with worldwide applications, which is just what we are trying to with the industrial strategy,” he said.

Although Conservative peer and minister at the Department for Transport Lord Ahmad said there were “currently no plans” to commission such a study, he pointed to investment in autonomous vehicle programmes that were set out in the Autumn Statement and the industrial strategy.

“Of course we welcome the cutting-edge nature of transport innovation in the rail sector,” Ahmad said, adding that the technology was being tested in controlled environments – a coordinating hub for autonomous vehicle testing is to be named this spring – and would need to be incorporated into existing systems.

In addition, he noted that train drivers “play a very important role” and that their, and other railway staff’s, skills would need to be adapted to work with the new technologies.

Elsewhere in the debate, Liberal Democrat peer Baroness Randerson asked what preparations were being made for the implications on the legal structures and road systems in the UK, to which Lord Ahmad said the Department for Transport was “investing a great deal of time” on such research. 

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