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The Rail Strike and the Future

NSB Norway

It's 7:18 am and I'm standing so close to the others making the commute, that I can hardly breathe. In fact, it’s so strange to feel like a sardine packed in a tin for the first time in this country and perhaps the first time in the countryside of any country.

Quickly after I show a blinking image indicating to the driver I have a ticket (for Ruter, the state-owned transportation company’s ticket app), I sit down. I’m next to an attractive middle-aged man reading the sports section of Aftenposten, on his phone. I soon remember that a law was just passed requiring passengers to wear a seatbelt at all times. I awkwardly find the strap and resume my audiobook, “Happy City” by Charles Montgomery (ironically about the future of cities) and attempt to fall back to sleep.

I normally take a 30 minute train from Ȧs (where my university is located) to Oslo. Simply put, it's quick and efficient in terms of traveling from the countryside. For nearly 4 weeks, NSB (the public transportation company responsible for passenger trains in Norway) train drivers whom are in charge of the eastern side of the fjord, have been on strike over the duration of their educational training.

NSB reduced the education process for driving trains from 2 years to a mere 8 months, and drivers are mad. The drivers think this isn’t enough time to sufficiently learn all that is needed to know to operate trains safely. Fair point.

My initial reaction was, ugh just give them what they want and let me have my 30 minutes of pure bliss—wifi, a comfortable seat, and jaw dropping views of the countryside and fjord. But recently I’ve changed my views.

Last week, I attended a talk at Google Norway, where Jan Grønbech, the CEO and founder of Google Norway discussed the future and whether technological advances are simply innovation or game changing disruption. He reminded me of an article I read in the BBC several months prior about an Oxford University and Deloitte study. The study predicted that 35% of jobs will not be in existence in the next 20 years.

According to the interactive platform linked to the article, train and tram drivers have a ‘fairly likely’ chance at 68% to have their jobs taken over by a robot, at least in the UK. I can only infer that the percentage is much higher in Norway, with a smaller population, highly progressive transportation department, and significantly bigger budget in proportion to the population.

Grønbech himself said, train conductors will be some of the first jobs to go. He later discussed that the CEO of Ruter, Bernt Reitan Jenssen, intends to have the next shipment of trams and buses be self-driving. This isn’t a goal to reach in decades to come, it’s in the very near future. Jenssen is working towards making all trams and buses in Oslo automated within the next 5 years, maximum.

I understand that the train drivers are striking in regards to public safety, but I can only imagine that they are also striking to preserve their livelihoods. People have bills to pay and a family to support, but the future is coming. Soon trains too will be self-driving. Self-driving trains will be safer because they will not be plagued by human error, despite the number of months or even years of training drivers. NSB appears to just be preparing for the future, unlike its employees.

Now, think back to the ticket I had on my phone, it wasn’t printed and handed to me by a ticket salesperson or the bus driver. And the article my seatmate was reading on his phone, it wasn’t on a paper he bought in a store. Or even the audiobook I purchased online. All these tasks used to require humans, however, now they are all automated. It’s funny to think back to the days of switchboard operators and toll-booth collectors, they seem so far away, but in actuality it’s not so far into history. These jobs have more or less been eliminated, yet we don’t think much about it in our everyday lives.

We as a global society need to realize that automation of jobs and reorganization of companies is our reality. We have created jobs and figured out ways to be more efficient to make our lives better, it’s as simple as that. Like everything in life, jobs go in cycles. Yes, perhaps it sucks that the educational training has decreased, but NSB is facing reality.

For now, I don’t mind taking two crowded buses that make me dizzy, not to mention have no wifi. I'm ready to sacrifice for the future of efficiency and safety and overall human progress, aren't you?

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About the Author: Lauren Guido

Lauren Guido is studying international development and environmental studies at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences near Oslo. She came to Norway from the USA to understand how oil has shaped the culture and society of Norway compared to the oil prosperous Ecuadorian Amazon, where she also studied development.

3 Comments

  1. Fair enough, mostly. The bit I worry about, as an experienced computer programmer, is the touching faith in the “no human error” assumption. Sure, the computer won’t fall asleep, but in all that software there is still plenty of scope for error! Even modern self-learning systems can meet situations for which they are not prepared, and then the “fun” starts. Changeover time is when we all believe that our chances are better with the non human driver!

  2. It’s funny how you compare man-made newspapers and man-sold tickets to articles and audiobooks you enjoy from an electronic device. The case is – both have to be made by people at the moment. All parts of it. For the current media: the stories, layouts, and intelectual content, the databases to store them and the databases’ servers, the network to deliver them and the network infrastructure, the materials for the devices, the devices themselves. The case is: the people making them are not in the same building or on the same street, so you consider them abstract, made by robots and software. And by this you make the problem worse: we are going in a direction, where the majority of our stuff is made by poor people in obscure locations in very bad conditions. But there is a good chance we won’t see it in a lifetime, so we consider it all made by some techno-wizards high in their glass towers.

    I don’t have a simple answer for this. If you chose to consider it all in your lifestyle, you’d probably need to give up a lot of what brings you joy and satisfaction at the moment. But certainly being smug about how we innovate and disrupt for a better future is either not answer. And sometimes the disruption is only for it’s own sake, which probably all the fancy entrepreneurs are aware of. But they are people, just like the train drivers, and they want to make a living, right?

    1. The fact is nevertheless that fewer manhours are involved in delivering that audiobook than were needed to buy the book (or physical media audiobook). A server serving newsstories cost many manhours to produce and maintain, but distribute vast numbers of news stories each day only ‘costing’ a few manseconds for a full newspaper’s worth of content. Compared to the manhours required for cutting and refining trees to produce paper, and then printing, distributing and selling the newspaper, you have a much higher cost. Just the time required by the newsstand employee for the transaction to buy the newspaper outweighs the cost of digital distribution. All the other costs of the value chain end up as extras that are saved by automation.

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