Autonomous trains on long-distance

Our world’s growing metropolises require a new kind of transport network. Autonomous trains and completely new train concepts will revolutionise passenger and freight traffic between cities.

It’s 6 pm in Berlin. It would be nice to go and try out that new restaurant in Hamburg. So you order an autonomous taxi from Uber via your smartphone. It arrives punctually at your office, picks up your wife from her workplace and then heads over to the central station Hyperloop portal. The autonomous taxi has already contacted the vacuum conveyor, so it can drive directly into the waiting Hyperloop pod. The pod accelerates gradually until it reaches airline speed, and you get to Hamburg in just 20 minutes. The Uber taxi drives out of the Hyperloop portal and straight to the restaurant … This is the vision of Doug Chey, Senior Vice President Systems Development at Hyperloop One. “It’s direct, autonomous, ultrafast intercity travel and the doors only open twice, once to let you in and once to let you out,” he writes in his Hyperloop One blog. He does admit, however, that this is the long-term vision. “We obviously have a ton of engineering work to do.” Elon Musk, who is already successfully building electric cars with his company Tesla and launching spacecraft with SpaceX, is the original visionary behind these trains in vacuum tubes. Hyperloop One is one of the companies working on implementing the idea and has already carried out some initial driving tests with the vehicles – but currently only at a speed of just over 100 kilometres per hour.

Driverless doesn’t equal autonomous

For now, “traditional” trains will continue to connect metropolises. But here, too, there is a trend towards more and more automation. In the future, as well as the doors closing automatically, the entire train will run automatically.

Driverless trains were introduced a number of years ago and can be found in cities including Nuremberg, Singapore and Paris. However, they are only in use in local transport systems. What’s more, they are not truly autonomous, because the intelligence that runs them is in the infrastructure; only a little of it – if any – is in the railway vehicle itself. None of the driverless trains we have seen thus far are fitted with any sensors to monitor the route in front of them. In addition, the trains are controlled remotely via a computer system that is installed in a control room and do not make any decisions for themselves.

However, this will change in the not too distant future, and it is a change that will bring significant benefits. Autonomous trains can run more frequently and achieve higher speeds, enabling managers to increase the number of trains in operation on a route instead of having to go to the significant expense of building new tracks.

The French rail operator SNCF, for example, intends to run its TGV high-speed train autonomously from 2023 onwards. Equipped with its own sensors, the train should be able to detect obstructions in its path and brake automatically. Testing is due to start in 2019. There will still be a train driver on board of autonomous trains, although he or she would only intervene in the event of an emergency. SNCF expects to be able to increase the speed and frequency of rail connections with an autonomous TGV and operate up to 25 per cent more high-speed trains on the route between Paris and Lyon.

Deutsche Bahn has also announced that it will be introducing autonomous trains on a small number of selected routes by 2023 at the latest. The company started a pilot project for its autonomous trains in the Ore Mountains in 2017, running a converted diesel train in an “automated” manner on a 25-kilometres test route. The vehicle has to learn to detect obstacles and optical signals in its path. “The train will have sufficient intelligence to work with the existing infrastructure,” according to project coordinator Michael T. Hoffmann. Sensor systems like those fitted to driverless cars (cameras, radar and lidar, for example) are used for the optical measurement of distance and speed. However, the vehicle does not make its own decisions, as “a control room remains in control”, to quote Hoffmann.

Intelligence for single wagons in freight transport

The gift of autonomy will be bestowed not only to complete trains. The German Aerospace Centre, or DLR for short, recently presented NGT Cargo, a concept for the freight trains of the future which gives every individual wagon the capability to be autonomous. “Freight transport is currently dominated by block trains that are not shunted and that use a large number of wagons to carry large, standard volumes of freight from point A to point B,” explains DLR researcher Dr Joachim Winter, who is leading the Next Generation Train (NGT) project. Coupling these trains, however, takes up a great deal of time and significant resources. The automatically driven NGT Cargo trains will be made up of single wagons and powerful end cars, automatically coupled together as required. The intelligent freight wagons in the NGT Cargo concept have a separate drive based on electric motors and a battery that stores energy recovered during braking. This makes it possible for the single wagons to shunt autonomously and, thanks to their sensors, they can even travel the final kilometres to the respective customer autonomously.

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