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Autonomous trains: the journey starts here


Climb aboard Lucy, Thales’ laboratory train, to find out what the future could hold for main line railways.


With the announcement of the “European Year of Rail 2021”, plans to boost European rail traffic and governments around the world racing to cut carbon emissions, the future for railways looks bright. 

In our Intercity & Cross-Border Section, you will discover complete solutions for future mobility – including tools to unlock capacity, cut emissions and reduce costs. Here are some examples:

Train autonomy

Thales pioneered automatic trains more than 30 years ago. Now we are pioneering autonomous trains. A train equipped with advanced technology uses artificial intelligence to “think” and move for itself, with sensors and software to state its exact position, review its speed at any time, detect obstacles on the track, monitor its surroundings and many other things.

The key is getting trains to take the right decisions at the right time. And that’s where Lucy comes in. Lucy is a part of our ongoing research programme – a fully-equipped mobile lab for developing new functions in a live railway environment. 

The beauty is that real autonomous capabilities can be built up incrementally starting from today. Functions range from train positioning all the way up to full autonomous operation.

The benefits are huge. They include reduced operating costs, extra train paths, improved reliability, less trackside equipment and lower energy consumption. The revolution is closer than you think. The first autonomous trains should be in scheduled service just a few years from now.

Automatic operation – GoA2 for main lines

In GoA2 (Grade of Automation 2), the main driving functions of a train are carried out by computer software using Automatic Train Operation (ATO) technology. Metros have already benefited from ATO for years. It is a vital building block of modern operations, providing reduced emissions, coupled with smooth acceleration and braking.

But ATO can do much more than provide smooth journeys. By combining ATO with a Driver Advisory System (DAS), it is possible to boost the energy efficiency of trains.

ATO has not yet been widely applied on main lines. One reason is that ATO cannot easily interpret commands from older types of signalling. But the advent of ETCS (the European Train Control System) means that it is now possible to provide ATO as an overlay, with energy savings of 10-20%. And looking further ahead, the combination of ATO and autonomous operation could yield power savings of up to 30%.

Futureproof Interlockings 

Modern interlocking systems are electronic and digital – a world away from yesterday’s mechanical and relay-based systems. But electronic interlockings, like their predecessors, still rely on bespoke hardware. This can make it difficult to alter track layouts. It also makes hardware replacements expensive.

Our futureproof interlocking solves these problems. Interlockings are hosted on standard COTS (Commercial Off the Shelf) servers located in trackside equipment rooms, data centres or in the cloud. There are no geographical constraints – the interlocking can be anywhere, even in a different country.

This approach delivers many benefits. Track layouts can be changed easily by uploading new software rather than replacing hardware. Resilience is transformed, because it is possible to run mirror interlockings on servers at different sites for security, safety and backup purposes. And maintenance and obsolescence are easy to manage thanks to standardised hardware.

Our futureproof interlocking is “Cybersecured by Design”. All functions run on Thales’ Secure Digital Platform, so critical data is protected at all times.

As well as reducing interlocking complexity, infrastructure managers want flexible ways to control field elements such as signals and points. Thales’ Distributed Control Architecture (DCA) meets this need. DCA makes it possible for customers to put controllers wherever they want them. For example, controllers can be placed near signals and points to minimise cabling. Or they can be centralised to ease maintenance. 

Hybrid ETCS Level 3

Infrastructure managers are under increasing pressure to provide extra train paths so more trains can be run over existing lines. But fixed block signalling imposes a finite constraint on possible train traffic.

The ideal solution would be to deploy ETCS Level 3 signalling. This provides more capacity because it is based on the principle of moving block. Headways are reduced, so trains can be run closer together.

But implementing pure ETCS Level 3 presents big practical problems – not least the challenge of proving the integrity of trains at any given time. This is straightforward with modern passenger trains, but proving that a freight train has not become divided is much more difficult.  

Hybrid ETCS Level 3 provides a workable and effective solution on mixed-traffic lines. It works on the principle of block slicing. Passenger trains equipped for ETCS Level 3 proceed under moving block principles – so capacity gains are achieved – while unequipped trains (typically freight trains) continue to work under fixed block.

As the examples above show, Thales provides complete solutions for futureproof mobility –unlocking capacity, cutting emissions and reducing costs.