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All systems go for driverless metros

Converting metros to fully-automatic operation is now easier than ever

Imagine if you could convert a metro to driverless operation at the flick of a switch. It sounds too good to be true. But for metro operators who already use Thales’ SelTrac™ CBTC (Communications-Based Train Control), full automation can be achieved much more easily than is often realised.

GoA 4 – the gold standard for metros

The highest level of railway automation is known as Grade of Automation Level 4, or GoA 4. No driver or on-board attendant is required, so costs are reduced. Equally important, GoA 4 boosts resilience and transforms the passenger experience in ways that cannot easily be achieved in a conventional system: 

Trains on demand: GoA 4 makes it quick and easy to put additional trains into circulation. In fact, extra trains can be launched at the click of a mouse. There is no need to wait until a driver or attendant becomes available.

Flexible scheduling: with fully-automated trains, timetables can be adapted without the need to take staff rostering into account. Itineraries can be adapted to match passenger demand: trains can skip stops, make early turnbacks or shuttle between two points. 

Adaptable trains: operators with suitable rolling stock can run shorter trains off peak, reducing energy costs and minimising wear and tear. The ability to divide trains easily also opens up the possibility of smaller workshops and maintenance facilities.

Right train, right place: instead of sending trains back to the depot at the end of the day, GoA 4 allows operators to park trains anywhere: at stations, in sidings or even in tunnels. This ensures that trains are in the right place for the next working day and reduces the need for non-revenue train movements. 

In addition, train services on GoA 4 metro lines can be fine-tuned using new data sources, such as passenger density data from video analytics and real-time data from ticketing systems. GoA 4 also paves the way for new, affordable train services because additional labour costs are potentially zero.

Why is interest in driverless metros growing?

Driverless metro lines have operated successfully for decades. Today, about 25% of new metros are delivered as GoA 4 systems. But relatively few existing “brownfield” metros have made the transition to full automation. One of the main reasons for this is that the conversion to GoA 4 is perceived as being complex and disruptive. 

However, interest in switching to driverless GoA 4 operation is growing. 

First, Covid-19 has exposed the limited flexibility of conventional attended metro operations, particularly in the face of unpredictable demand and staff shortages. Second, lower ridership is placing a strain on revenues. Third, governments are linking financial support to efficiency improvements. Flexibility and cost savings are needed.

Fully-automated, driverless operation makes it possible to address all of these challenges. So how can metro operators make the switch? 

Secrets of successful migration

The good news for metro operators already using Thales’ SelTrac™ CBTC is that converting trains to unattended driverless operation is straightforward. 

This is because SelTrac™ was designed from the outset as a GoA 4 solution. The architecture for driverless operation is already in place. This applies to all versions of Thales’ SelTrac™ CBTC – even those currently being used with a driver or attendant on board.

A key point is that GoA 4 can be phased in one step at a time – it doesn’t all have to happen at once. Here are five steps which can be considered as a prelude to full GoA 4 conversion. All deliver immediate and lasting business benefits:

1. Depot automation: converting depots to GoA 4 operation makes it possible to launch trains into service without human intervention. Trains are sent directly to stations at the beginning of revenue service. Drivers or attendants can then take over.

2. Station turnarounds: these can involve shunting a train into a turning loop, or routing it via a balloon loop at the end of the line. This can be done automatically in GoA 4 – building up assurance and providing the driver with a rest break between journeys.

3. Train washing: trains can be routed to carriage washing facilities without the need for a driver. Automatic train washing is an example of how a high standard of cleanliness can be maintained while reducing staffing requirements – a key consideration in Covid times.

4. Off-peak train services: off-peak revenue services can be migrated to unattended operation – including GoA 4 operation of through-the-night services on metros that operate 24/7.

5. Shuttle services: another approach is to retain conventional operations for the core of the network, but to use GoA 4 on lightly-used sections at the urban fringe. The goal is to build up assurance about GoA 4 operations as a precursor to wider deployment.

Our vision

Most metros have the potential to benefit from converting to driverless operation. At Thales, our ambition is to make this as easy as possible. To do this, we provide a complete range of services and solutions. These range from an initial system assessment, to safety case preparation and train conversion.


Download our white paper to find out more