Rail automation – Reaching out across Europe


    From Glasgow to Dubai, Algiers to São Paolo, automatic train operation (ATO) is in commercial service on metro lines across the globe.

    Boosting capacity, punctuality and safety, eliminating routine operations, providing computerised support for decision making, and reducing maintenance costs… the technology certainly promises benefits to please.

    Yet taking ATO out of the city and into the wider European railway network is no easy task. To address the issues, Rail Forum Europe hosted a meeting in Brussels, on May 25, to bring the related technology, regulatory, and social implications to the table.

    One challenge in particular concerns the ‘local’ versus ‘network’ approach to deployment. Coupling the ATO functions too closely with ETCS (European Train Control System) will mean a long regulatory process in bringing the system into operation and delays in obtaining any returns. Note, one of the objectives of rail automation is, after all, to improve the competitivity of rail.

    “Ideally we need a European system with a European system architecture so that locomotives can run seamlessly across borders, yet are uncoupled as far as possible from ETCS to avoid making migration more difficult than it already is,” pointed out Josef Doppelbauer, executive director, European Railway Agency (ERA).

    Other issues are the need to provide dynamic train information along lines for automatic corrective action, to include new functions such as ‘virtual coupling trains’ and ‘ETCS Level 4’, and the threat to the railways of automation in other sectors – savings with autonomous trucks / truck platooning are expected to be greater than those to be achieved by rail with ATO.

    The human element should also be taken on board. On this point Laurent Dauby, rail director, UITP (International Association of Public Transport) recommended entering into dialogue with unions and workers as soon as possible in the process to discuss and explain ‘what’s in it for them’.

    On the environmental side, ATO is good news thanks to the optimisation of energy consumption. In the Czech Republic, operator AŽD Praha reports its fleet of 83 automatic Class 471 EMUs runs 13 million kilometres and saves 14,000 tonnes of CO2 annually.

    Looking to the future, Pierre Izard, CTO, French Railways (SNCF), suggested the technology could be applied to high density public transport zones, high-speed trains on dedicated lines, and even long-distance corridors for freight. “Rail automation is a major project for the future of Europe, especially in congested areas,” he said. “As such, it must be integrated into the European railway roadmap.”

    Report by Lesley Brown


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