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Autonomous trains picking up steam

Autonomy on rails

Autonomous systems save time and money – and are not necessarily limited to roads. Especially when it comes to railway freight traffic, this development has been “on track” for some time. The first cautious steps are being taken toward the goal of gradually introducing autonomously driving trains. We examine a pilot project with 240 wagons in the Australian outback, ever-vigilant HD cameras and the exceptional potential for optimizing train operations.

These days it would be easy to get the impression that “autonomous driving” is mostly about automobiles. Self-driving buses, driverless trucks and autonomous navigation systems in passenger cars loom large when we imagine the future of mobility. But this development has been playing out in the railway sector for some time and is already a reality today.

A 30-year head start

Trains have a good head start over cars when it comes to autonomy. As far back as 1983, the world’s first fully automatic subway entered operation in Lille in northern France. About 100 million passengers now travel on this system every year. And autonomous or partially autonomous subways today transport over a billion people per year in 15 other European cities, such as Stockholm, Copenhagen, London, Paris, Nuremberg, Budapest, Barcelona, Milan, Rome, Athens and Istanbul. To be fair, automating a subway without street crossings is an easier problem to solve, but progress can be seen around the world even on “classic” railways.

But what is the point of such concepts? One goal is definitely more precise timing of the schedule, making it possible to carry up to 20% more passengers while decreasing energy use by as much as 30%. This is all made possible by efficient, computer-controlled operation, and the advantages from a business perspective also include the accurate and stable forecasting of costs. Similar potential for optimization is seen in the freight sector as well.

2.4 km train moving on its own

Much larger distances and transport volumes are also possible. The third-largest mining company in the world, the British-Australian Rio Tinto, has shown the way. After almost 10 years of development and testing, the company put its 1,500 km railway in the Pilbara region of Western Australia into fully automated operation in June 2019. Cost for the entire development: about 790 million euros.

The first freight railway in the world with automated network operation runs up to 50 unmanned trains at a time. Each train consists of 240 wagons with a length of 2.4 km and requires two to three locomotives to move 28,000 tons of iron ore from the company’s mines to the transshipment ports of Dampier and Cape Lambert. The 800-kilometer trip is fully automated and takes about 40 hours.

Only the last mile into the ports is under human control. The loading and unloading of the wagons are also fully automated.

It pays for itself

A look at the numbers shows how efficient the new automated system is. Eliminating the previously required two to three shift changes shortened the average trip by one hour. The transit time deviations are now just 15 to 30 seconds, compared with 2.5 to 5 minutes when the trains were manned. This helps the operator create more efficient train schedules, reduces bottlenecks and increases productivity. There were also improvements in fuel efficiency and reduced wear and tear on the route and the locomotives. It is worth noting that such projects are naturally easier to implement in the remote outback. Still, it is an impressive first step and has proved itself well.

The "AutoHaul" Freight Transportation System


High-tech is indispensable

Rio Tinto selected technology expert Hitachi Rail STS to install the automated train management system. A central “Vital Safety Server,” which is essentially a radio block center, safely and flexibly manages and coordinates the trains. The solution also includes locomotive control systems for monitoring the use of electronically controlled pneumatic brakes. The locomotives are additionally equipped with sophisticated collision detection systems and automatic train safety technology that controls the train speed and ensures compliance with speed limits. Special attention was given to development of the railway crossings, which pose the largest risk to the public. These are equipped with lighting, video surveillance and a laser-based obstacle detection system. The HD cameras offer a clear view of crossings and are designed to be superior to human line of sight.
It is clear that both safety and smooth operations were high priorities.

First steps lead to further projects

This complex but forward-looking project is attracting attention from all around the world. Even if Rio Tinto does enjoy unique circumstances: “We were able to implement this because we have a closed, private track system. There is no other railway traffic. All the trains, train control systems, traction systems, track infrastructure, mines and ports belong to us. Plus, the Pilbara region is a dry desert with minimal interaction between humans and the rail network.”

Nevertheless, it still serves as an example to others. Another project has been under way since 2019 in Colorado, USA, with the system “LEADER AutoPilot” from Knorr-Bremse subsidiary New York Air Brake (NYAB). Successful tests have seen three locomotives pulling 30 wagons loaded with 4,725 tons of cargo on a 77-kilometer test track without human intervention.

France leads the way in Europe

The French national railway SNCF has made even more progress and is considered the innovation leader in this area within Europe. The first autonomous trains should be in regular operation by 2024/25. Two prototypes are expected to be operating entirely independently by 2023. The intensive pilot project for developing “robo-trains” has been running for three years now. Also on-board are the technology group Bosch, train manufacturers Alstom and Bombardier as well as the Thales Group, with its competence in artificial intelligence. The French government is covering 30 percent of the 57 million euro investment, while the rest is split among the project partners.

The project is of strategic importance for SNCF, which is planning to use driverless trains for freight transport. An appropriate map of the entire rail network is being created in order to install the necessary sensors, which will detect the traffic flow, pinpoint the location via GPS and then independently analyze the situation. The objective is a win-win situation that combines efficiency with economy. It will be exciting to see how far these developments go and how soon we will be adjusting to fully automated freight traffic without human drivers.

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