2004-04-15 / View From the Middle

View From

The Middle
By Charles Rogers
Driverless Subway Trains: The Future Is Upon Us
View From The Middle By Charles Rogers Driverless Subway Trains: The Future Is Upon Us

By Charles Rogers
Driverless Subway Trains: The Future Is Upon Us

While the MTA was lamenting a drop in subway ridership by some four percent and, at the same time, heralding a hefty rise in revenue, word came last week that the L train — that good old Canarsie staple —could be the first to be able to eventually go from Manhattan to the Rockaway Parkway station without a human operator on board.

It’s been a long time a-comin’ and the futuristic project has had a lot of resistance in the past, but the plan was inevitable. How could it not be only a matter of time before the establishment of the plan to have driverless trains was actually implemented?

I remember back in the ’80s and early ’90s when I was approached by a member of one of the subway-related unions (actually a union representative) who asked if this newspaper would, essentially, lobby on behalf of his membership against having driverless trains. His plea was cordially listened to, of course, but we rarely (if ever) give an endorsement of a project or person — one way or another — no matter what it is. Private opinions, in some cases, yes. Endorsements, no.

In any case, I remember at the time sympathizing with the union guy because of the obvious effect such a plan would have on jobs, whether in his union in particular or not. He and his fellow workers were beginning a fight for their jobs. I suspected he knew it would eventually be a losing fight, but it was his task to do the union thing. My sympathies were with him, but I remember being almost brutally pragmatic in talking with him. This was the future. It can’t be stopped.

Unfortunately — or fortunately — this is the price of progress: driverless subways; pilotless airplanes run by people with joysticks on the ground (Have you seen the commercial for the U.S. Air Force, where the pilot is guiding one of those things from inside a room as if he’s playing a video game?); robots doing things a human being might have done at one time. They all replace jobs; that’s the way of the world.

Oh, don’t worry too much. For now there will be an "operator" on board the L trains in case of an emergency. Even the union people are not too worried about the short-range view.

But the writing is on the wall for a few years down the line when the Canarsie Line will be completely automatic. We all know that.

I guess we should feel privileged that the line has been chosen as the first in the city. The plain, simple and practical reason is that this one and the 7 are the only major lines in the system that don’t share tracks with another route. This is why we got a bunch of brand new trains a couple of years ago before any other line.

The move will indeed eventually take its toll on jobs lost. On the other hand, it will lead to more upgrading of train lines throughout the city. It will only be a matter of about another 20 years before driverless trains are the norm, with a very few short shuttles using operators primarily.

Sympathy is probably due for the operators and conductors and other primary personnel from the MTA whose jobs will be replaced. What can one say?

Progress wins again.

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