Try not to panic but driverless trams are set for city streets

Driverless trams are set to be introduced on Edinburgh's streets in a move which will see another major shake-up of city centre traffic management, it was revealed today.

Friday, 1st April 2016, 7:33 am
Updated Monday, 4th April 2016, 3:00 pm
Driverless trams could become a common sight on the streets of the Capital. Picture: Ian Rutherford

The plan for the Capital’s tram line follows a decision by the Strathclyde Partnership for Transport to order driverless trains for the Glasgow Subway and the UK government ­giving the go-ahead in February for the testing of autonomous cars.

Removing the need for a driver on the trams would represent a major saving, with the funds earmarked for extending the line to Newhaven.

However, it will also mean yet more disruption in the city centre as cars are banned ­permanently from certain areas to ensure safety.

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New restrictions on ­Shandwick Place, Princes Street, St Andrew Square and York Place are all likely as a result of the new system, with all traffic except buses banned, sources told the News. Officials are working on a ­report detailing the options to present to councillors.

The trams, which Spanish firm Polof Rail say can be easily converted, could be operating driver-free by April 1 next year if given the go-ahead.

Our transport source said: “We’ll be looking at an initial investment of around £1 million to convert the fleet and then there will be associated costs with traffic management.

“With the savings achieved this should pretty quickly pay for itself.

“The council would be fools not to go for this. There will be concerns about safety but we have been reassured that this system is very nearly 100 per cent safe.

“We can’t have any traffic operating around a driverless tram at least initially, but we have taken the view that buses will probably be OK as long as the drivers are carefully vetted.”

While the trams will be automatic, the tram conductor will have the option to over-ride controls in the event of an emergency, through a secure mobile app. Staff in the Gogar control room will also be able to operate the vehicles remotely when necessary.

The use of Automatic Train Operation (ATO) systems is commonplace around the world, mainly on subway systems. Tram systems elsewhere, including Hannover and Frankfurt, have introduced partial Driver Assistance Systems but none has so far dispensed with drivers completely. The move is likely to be highly contentious, not least because it will part-fund the controversial £162m expansion of the tram line.

One long-standing tram opponent said: “Of all the ­madcap transport schemes Edinburgh has been involved in, this is the most foolish I have ever heard.

“What happens to the manual over-ride when the phone reception dies in the West End? The tram will have ploughed on to Princes Street before you get a signal.

“Edinburgh’s bus drivers are the best in the world but who could forgive them a shunt or two when they pass a driverless tram which used to be driven by their mate? It’s a recipe for disaster.

“Extending the line to Newhaven is one thing but what will this mean with a driverless tram? Are we going to be banning all traffic from Leith Walk, too?”

• Yes, this was an April Fool’s joke. But you all saw through it, didn’t you?