The Driverless Railways of the Future

The technology is quickly becoming possible for fully automated railways raising questions for governments and unions.

Automotive automation has for years captured the imagination of futurists and tech entrepreneurs alike. It has only recently gone somewhat mainstream with Tesla including level 2 driver assists on their cars (Level 5 being fully automated driving). The problem for would be producers of fully automated cars is unpredictability. Roads are not uniform, with complex junctions and pedestrians to navigate the computer has to make thousands of observations a second and try to make sense of our discombobulated roadways. 

It would seem that automation of rail networks would be more attainable. Work on this is already taking place in Europe but the grand prize is a fully automated network. Train manufacturers are starting to develop technical solutions to make this a reality. The French rolling-stock giant Alstrom is collaborating with the German Aerospace Centre and the Technical University of Berlin to develop new ways to implement automation. An ongoing trial is examining the possibility of automating regional trains in Lower Saxony. The goal of the trial is specifically focused on developing technologies that enable self-driving systems to recognise and interpret rail signals and identify obstacles on the track. This project is supported by the federal German government with the Lower Saxony’s Ministry for Economics paying €5.5 million for two test trains. 

Alstom is investing heavily into self-driving rail solutions as the company sees them as the future to Europe’s transport needs. The President of Digital and Integrated Systems at Alstom, Jean-François Beaudoin explains that “Alstom has strong experience in automating metro systems….it’s a whole different matter to automate trains on a several hundred kilometre main line”. 

Overcoming this challenge will be important for public sector companies and government transport departments around Europe as there are a number of benefits. With many rail lines in Europe already operating at full capacity, automation offers the chance to increase capacity on existing train lines. Automation will allow the whole network of trains to communicate with each other allowing operators to run more trains safely. Another advantage to automation is the greater flexibility. Train operators could decide to automate remote lines or lines with little traffic; this would mean that trains could be moved or diverted without ever having to have a human present. 

Alstom is aiming to offer fully GoA 4 (grade of automation) automated trains by 2023 for regional lines. That means trains running completely unattended. This raises a number of tough questions not only applicable to railway automation, not least of which is the fate of the current staff working these regional lines. This is already proving to be a headache for governments and risks creating industrial relations problems. It appears that government and workers’ groups will have to find some way through these conundrums as rail automation is around the corner and will be here to stay. 

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t/a Universal Media
360 North Circular Road, Phibsborough, Dublin 7
talk@unimedia.ie