There’s been an awful lot of hype in recent years over self-driving cars. And indeed, if successfully implemented, autonomous vehicles providing the same service that taxi and commercial truck drivers do today will be a big deal. But there’s a similar application for this technology which is equally important, and in some ways, easier to implement: driverless trains. This technology is not just theoretical: it’s already in use right now, and the odds are that you’re going to be hearing a lot more about this technology in the near future.
Making Driverless Trains a Reality
Driverless trains are in many ways much simpler than driverless trucks or cars. Navigating a train is very simple; its path is confined to the rail network. It can only go in two directions, and a train operator doesn’t have to worry about other trains weaving in and out of its path the way someone driving a car does. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to build and operate a successful driverless train system.
There are unique challenges that come with train operation, such as stopping distance. A car or truck can stop quite suddenly due to the high level of friction between the rubber tires and asphalt. Trains, however, are much bigger and heavier, and travel at higher speeds than vehicles on the road. The sheer momentum of all that mass moving at high speeds combined with the metal-on-metal traction with the tracks means that trains have a much longer stopping distance— up to a mile in some cases.
There are also, of course, less technical obstacles to driverless trains. Labor organizations are obviously not thrilled about the idea of members losing jobs due to automation, and government regulators in some countries are hesitant to go all in on new and disruptive technologies which can cause political problems down the road.
But despite all of these challenges, driverless trains are slowly making headway in various rail systems around the world. One of the most successful examples is the Dubai Metro system in the United Arab Emirates. Since it first opened in 2009, it has carried some 1 billion passengers to their destinations (part of the reason for its massive passenger load is that it is connected to Dubai’s international airport). This network of fully autonomous driverless trains is managed from the Operations Control Center (OCC) which is staffed by only 15 people. Using over 9000 closed-circuit TV cameras, the OCC can monitor the movement of every train in real time, and bring passengers to their destinations with greater reliability and punctuality than any manned system. In the words of the Director of Rail Operations Mohammed Al Mudharreb, “We remove a lot of human error from the system. We run with a headway of nearly two-and-a-half minutes. No other system in the world is capable of running with such an aggressive headway with a driver.” Until the autumn of 2016, the Dubai Metro held the world record of the world’s longest driverless train network (72 km) until it was surpassed by the Vancouver SkyTrain network in Vancouver, Canada. There are now fully or partially driverless train networks in dozens of other cities around the world.
Long-Distance Rail Systems
But what about long-distance rail systems? Can driverless trains be successfully implemented on railways where the Operations Control Center might be many miles away? A recently launched autonomous system in Australia shows that the answer is yes.
Far away from the city and many of the human and regulatory factors that come with operating a train there, Australian mining company Rio Tinto has been operating a fully autonomous train along a 60-mile route since early 2017. The first few test runs had a human driver on board to take over in the event of an accident, but with no errors so far, the system is now fully automated with no human on board at all. The company plans to fully automate its remaining trains over the course of 2018.
There are many factors with long-distance railways that are not a concern with urban metro lines, such as animals and automobiles obstructing the train’s path on the railway. But the launch of the world’s first successful, long-distance driverless freight train shows that it is possible to create such a system, and it is quite likely that you will see more driverless trains for moving freight in the near future.
Whether it’s a freight or passenger train, and whether there’s a crew on board or it’s fully automated, railway engineers rely on industry-specific safety-critical systems like Positive Train Control and other sensor technologies to make sure trains accelerate and decelerate at the correct times, and that people and freight arrive on time and in one piece. At Novel Engineering, we design and implement many different safety-critical systems, data acquisition solutions, and software/hardware design implementation and testing solutions for our clients in the rail industry.