Digitalisation is putting more trains on the tracks

In order to satisfy the requirements of the future, the railways are also moving towards digitalisation. Intelligently networked data provided by infrastructure and vehicles makes more space for trains, improves punctuality and reduces disruptions.

In contrast to road traffic, there have been driverless and fully automatic vehicles on the railways for a surprisingly long time – the first such trains were put into operation in 1981 in Kobe, Japan. Today, trains without drivers can be found in over 40 cities throughout the world, including Copenhagen, Paris, Singapore, Dubai and London. However, these are primarily underground trains which operate in closed environments.

As a result, work is now under way to bring highly or fully automated trains to the more open environments of freight, regional and long-distance transport as well. “Urban driverless systems in closed environments present different risks from networks in open environments,” says Oliver Lauxmann, Global Practice Group Leader in the Chief Underwriting Office – Liability at Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty. “Rail operational exposures vary widely and there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Whatever software works in a mass-produced car won’t apply to all autonomous trains. The technology needs to be highly customised.”

The S-Bahn is driving itself

Nevertheless, at the end of 2021, during the ITS World Congress in Hamburg, German railway operator Deutsche Bahn (DB) presented the world’s first train that runs by itself in rail traffic. However, there are still drivers on board with the passengers to monitor the journey. Shunting – for example train turning – takes place without the involvement of the personnel. Dr Richard Lutz, CEO of DB, says: “With automated rail operations, we can offer our passengers a significantly expanded, more reliable and therefore improved service – without having to lay a single kilometre of new track.”

Autonomous trains are coming

Similar projects that are in the planning stage can also be found elsewhere. For example, the French state railway SNCF has announced the introduction of two autonomous trains which are expected to be rolled out by 2023. Under the leadership of the rail operator Proxion, a consortium in Finland is developing an ­autonomous freight train, also expected by 2023, for the short journeys needed by the steel and forestry industries.

“These are just some of the projects taking rail travel in a whole new direction, thanks to ‘smart’ technologies like artificial intelligence, or AI, robotics and the Internet of Things,” says Oliver Lauxmann. “Combined with the capabilities of data analytics, satellites, lidar, radar and 5G, they offer monitoring and safety systems with wide-reaching benefits.”

Rail traffic without signals

A central building block in the automation of European rail ­traffic is the European Train Control System (ETCS). It is designed to replace the old control and signal systems in the various countries and create a common European standard. ETCS enables rail traffic to run without signals. The information on whether or not the train is allowed to enter a particular section is displayed on a screen directly in the train. Based on information from the route atlas, exact positioning via sensors and predefined rules, the ­system monitors the train and can make the right decisions in good time to ensure safe train travel, even at high speeds.

10.11 billion US dollars the forecast volume of the market for autonomous trains in 2026.

100.1 billion US dollars the forecast volume of the global market for railway digitalisation in 2027.

Source: MarketsandMarkets

Automatic train operation

The second building block in digitalising the rail sector is automatic train operation (ATO). In principle, ATO is the “autopilot” for the railways. It consists of the train manufacturer’s vehicle-side equipment (ATO On-Board Unit – OBU) and the track-side module system (ATO-TS) on the rails. With ATO, the train accelerates and brakes automatically based on the optimum driving profile. This makes the response time between transmitting and reacting to the driving commands much faster than with manual control. 

Train radar

Automatic train operation also requires comprehensive sensor technology that the train can use to recognise obstacles on or near the tracks. In spring 2022, Alstom tested how such a ­system might look in Oosterhout, near Breda in the Netherlands. “The locomotive is able to detect both large obstacles such as a car and smaller ones such as a rabbit or human being, both during the day and at night,” says Abel Poelaert, Customer Director ­Alstom ­Benelux. The system is based on a high-resolution digital radar and ­multispectral electro-optics, which are supported by high-performance algorithms for classic and machine learning.

20 percent more efficient

According to a study by Strategy&, PwC’s strategy consulting business unit, the introduction of ETCS and the technologies that are based on it will make European rail traffic faster, more reliable and more efficient for the long term. Under certain framework conditions, combining ETCS and ATO would enable capacity and efficiency improvements of 10 to 20 percent because trains could run at closer intervals and timetables could be optimised. At the same time, safety would also increase significantly thanks to the modernisation and digitalisation of the train control systems.

The various levels of (railway) autonomy

GoA1: The automatic train protection (ATP) system checks whether the speed is consistent with the permitted limits and can trigger emergency braking. The train drivers start and stop the train, close the doors and take control in the case of a malfunction.

GoA2: The train also has equipment for automatic train operation (ATO), a safety device for operating automated trains. The train starts and stops automatically. The drivers close the doors and drive the train in the case of a malfunction.

GoA3: The system works without a driver and the train starts and stops automatically. The conductors close the doors and operate the train in the case of a malfunction.

GoA4: The train is completely autonomous (UTO = unattended train operation). The train starts and stops automatically, and the doors also close automatically. Likewise, the train is operated automatically in the case of a malfunction.

Revolutionary system changes are unlikely

In the context of track-based transport systems, completely new technologies are always being discussed – from the magnetic levitation train to underground freight transport systems and even systems which enable a dynamic change-over of passengers during the journey. Many of these solutions are actually in development – but at best they are likely to complement conventional trains with electric motors and wheels.

The study “Technologische Weiterentwicklung des Bahnsystems 2050” (“Further Technological Development of the Rail System 2050”), commissioned by the Swiss Federal Office of Transport (BAV), states: “However, experts do not currently regard the question of the type of drive as a question of the future, since we are currently unaware of anything better than the electric drive.”


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