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What can autonomy do for railways?

Autonomous trains are attracting more and more attention. We examine the reasons why.

Trains that can “see”, “think” and “decide” for themselves are well on their way to becoming a reality. In fact, Thales is launching its very first autonomous product: a new train positioning system, already successfully trialled on the New York City Subway. 

Meanwhile, solutions for main line autonomy are in the pipeline – including Thales’ RailBot™, a complete concept for autonomous train operation.

The excitement around autonomous trains is growing. And train positioning is just the start. Trains equipped with autonomous technology will soon be able to interpret and react to their surroundings, detect obstacles and drive safely – all without human intervention.

Autonomous attractions

It’s not just the technology itself that’s exciting. It’s also the enormous potential autonomous systems have to transform the way railways are run. Autonomy addresses the rail industry’s biggest pain points and helps infrastructure managers, train operators and public transport authorities to achieve their big ambitions.

Here are six ways autonomy could transform railways:

1. Decarbonise faster 

Autonomous trains make it possible for railways to carry more people and goods. That’s good for the environment, because railways are one of the least polluting modes of transport. Autonomous operation, in conjunction with moving block signalling, has the potential to increase rail capacity by up to 50% – enabling even more low-carbon journeys without the need to build new railways.

2. Cut energy consumption

Autonomous technology improves rail’s already impressive energy efficiency and reduces the energy consumption of trains by 15%. The savings are potentially enormous.  

3. Transform the passenger experience

Under fully autonomous operation, trains make their own decisions, driving is automatic and operations are centrally coordinated. The combination of intelligence onboard and full network orchestration is transformative. Autonomy offers greater resilience, an ability to adapt to real-time demand, rapid recovery from disruption and greater punctuality – all increasing the attractiveness of rail.

4. Easier CBTC deployment

Autonomous positioning eliminates many of the problems associated with deploying CBTC signalling on urban railways. In conventional CBTC, positioning is determined using wheel odometers and tag readers under the train. Today, when a line is resignalled, trains have to be taken out of service so they can be adapted – a complex business. On top of this, conventional positioning is costly to maintain and odometers are prone to slip-slide errors. 

Autonomous positioning solves these problems and delivers new benefits. It uses radar, lidar, inertial measurements and radio ranging to pinpoint the train’s position. This is extremely accurate and highly redundant. Autonomous positioning integrates seamlessly with CBTC, requires no wayside equipment and the entire onboard system can be fitted in as little as two days – with no need to work under the train.

5. Revitalise rural railways

Expanding public transport in rural areas is an increasing priority. In many cases, such areas are under-served by rail. Public pressure to reopen (or keep open) secondary lines is growing. Autonomous trains provide a new, low-cost way to breathe life back into rural railways. As well as making lines less expensive to run, autonomous trains boost capacity. They can also improve safety: many secondary routes today are not equipped with train protection systems.

6. Real-time infrastructure monitoring

Autonomous trains are capable of gathering data about their surroundings, including cuttings, embankments, lineside infrastructure, buildings and vegetation, such as trees. This can be used to create a topographic database – and to establish a baseline of normality against which deviations can be measured in real time. This can be further refined by integrating external data, such as weather reports. This has immense value in applications which range from detecting the risk of slip-slide during the leaf-fall season, to monitoring changes in the condition of earthworks beside the track.