The impact of technological development in railways

The railway systems in most countries were established over a hundred years ago, when competition from other land based modes of transport was almost non-existing. 

The railway industry as a whole was seen as the backbone of the land based infrastructure. Connecting rural and urban areas, inland and coast becoming important for industrial development and a large employer providing stable workplaces. Railways were also in the forefront of technological innovations, especially in the form of improved steam and mechanical/electromechanical technology.

With the widespread introduction of the private car and also the development of the airline industry, the railway gradually lost its importance as the primary land based transportation system, especially on the passenger side. Many services were running with a deficit and were subsidised with government funding or were closed down. Investment was reduced, for both infrastructure and rolling stock. Existing systems were lagging behind compared to rubber wheel based transport in cost and efficiency. The development in technology still happened though, the introduction of diesel and electrical locomotives replacing steam is a typical example.

During the 1960s and 70s more new technology was introduced to save costs and improve the efficiency of the railways. One example is Centralised Traffic Control systems (CTC), where control centers were established and the signaling systems were remotely controlled. Another example is automated level crossings. This meant substantial reductions in the workforce for staff with safety tasks at the stations and along the track which the unions had to manage.

With the introduction of computer technology and the use of internet from the 1990s we have seen another level of automation and introduction of new systems, such as automated selling and validating ticket systems resulting in large sales staff and onboard staff reduction. Automated track inspection systems replacing former manual control and computer diagnostic systems for maintenance of rolling stock reducing the periodic maintenance intervals leading to less staff. 

Another trend that has had a significant impact on the workforce is the standardisation of both rolling stock and other railway hardware. Big multinational companies like Bombardier, Siemens, Alstom, Hitachi, General Motors, General Electric, Daewo and Hyunday are producing railway equipment that is exported worldwide. Big Chinese companies are standing in line to enter the international market, and many have already done so. In many cases this equipment was formerly manufactured by subsidiaries of the national railway company. The reason for this change is that the development of new technology requires top expertise, significant resources and large-scale production. These companies often have in their contracts operation and maintenance of the delivered sub-systems. It means that this work, originally carried out by the national railway company, is now contracted out. Important is also the hunt for profit itself; free trade agreements makes it in many cases impossible for the railway companies to place direct orders to nationally owned companies, even to their own subsidiaries. 

The present worldwide trend is an expansion of railways due to both efficiency reasons (road congestion) but also for environmental causes. This leads us to believe that the focus on cost savings will be even stronger. Privatisation, with its emphasis on profits, adds to this.

On the technical side, the next step is introduction of the European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS)  or similar systems. This fully computerised system communicates between the control center and the train computers by modern telecommunication technology. No external signaling systems are required and the block sections can be adapted to fit the individual train based on speed and braking parameters. In countries with high speed lines this system is already introduced. The problems seem to be high implementation costs, that the technology is already outdated upon introduction and the issue of standardisation between all the various software and sensor providers.

Driverless trains require in general 3 basic technical systems closely linked together and interacting:

• Technical control of the locomotive (power, breaking systems)
• Transmission from the signaling systems giving clearance for entering block sections
• Transmission from track side detectors warning about irregularities that can have impact on the train, like cars on level crossings

In addition there will be a practical requirement for access to the train for external assistance in case of technical breakdown or accidents. These requirements altogether mean that driverless trains usually are introduced in closed railway systems like metros but can also be introduced for new constructed high speed lines with an easily controlled environment. 

The Rio Tinto mining company in Australia has introduced driverless freight trains from the mines to the port. These trains currently (2018) run automatically about half of the time, with supervising drivers onboard, the company expects them to become fully automated later this year. This is a case of retrofitting an old system to driverless operation.

Unions should be aware that advanced computer technology can make operational planning more flexible and efficient  resulting in demand for a more flexible workforce, part time work and zero hour contracts. In any case this kind of technology means intensification of work. Other technologies that intensify labour include those that allow increased surveillance of workers through GPS data or the use of biometric indicators or programmes that can determine response times for particular tasks. Many of these can be brought in by the introduction of mobile phones or tablets for workers. 

Technological change means that the skills required by the workers for doing their job are changing. Many companies seem to use technological change as an excuse to reduce training levels for cost saving purposes, but what is needed is not less skills, but different types of skills. 

Often changes are introduced under the excuse of technological development. This is mainly when it comes to replacing workers with machines in relations with passengers. Examples are passenger trains running without onboard staff and automated help points at stations instead of station staff. It is a fact that technical systems cannot replace humans especially in emergency cases, passengers should be supported by staff being present. These kinds of changes are only for cost saving reasons at the expense of the passengers. 

In many countries the national railways consists of parts in very different stages of development.  The reason is often that the modernisation requires huge investments; new solutions are introduced gradually and over a certain time period. This gives the unions opportunities to negotiate interim arrangements to reduce the impact of the workforce. 

Job loss because of the introduction of new technology is always a great concern in countries where there is a large surplus of labour, like India. When the precarious nature of job is increasing it is very important for unions to know how new technology will affect employment in the country as a whole.