Pepper the Robot wends its way around the Nantes railway station in western France giving passengers information in several languages, while other robots clean the station and keep watch. This rather unusual scenario is an example of how the railway sector is modernising. Data, robots, digital services…digital technology is gradually gaining ground in the entry halls of stations across Europe. But amongst this impressive array of innovation one piece of the puzzle is still missing: the autonomous train. Much ink has already been spilled on the subject of the train’s four-wheeled road-going counterparts – autonomous cars and autonomous trucks – which are already to be seen on the roads in Silicon Valley. Moreover, new competitors such as the Hyperloop are preparing to enter the transport sector, challenging the railways to show greater agility. The idea of a fully autonomous train is however far more recent and much less talked about. Rail sector companies say that driverless mainline trains will appear in France and the Spanish province of Navarre by about 2020. “We’re currently working on autonomous trains and a solution by 2020 looks possible,” reveals Patrice Caine, Chairman and CEO of Thalès, a French multinational company that designs and builds electrical systems and provides services for the aerospace, defence, transportation and security markets. While urban rail networks in the ‘smarter’ cities are now mostly automated, this is not yet the case for long-distance trains. So when are we going to see this new generation of trains and what obstacles are they likely to encounter in the autonomous transportation landscape?

Trains: from automation to full autonomy



In fact trains are, for the most part, already automated – at least in urban areas. However as soon as we venture outside a town on a long-distance rail journey, driver-operated trains are more common because of the varied types of trains using the lines. “Autonomous driving can be difficult in a complex rail network that includes high-speed and regional passenger and goods trains, but it is possible,” underlined Rüdiger Grube, the outgoing Board Chairman of German rail operator Deutsche Bahn, in a press interview. Guillaume Pepy, Chief Executive of France's national state-owned railway company SNCF, agrees: “A priori, it’s feasible, but trains run in an open environment where we’re not in control of everything that happens – a car that ends up across the rails, people on the tracks, etc,” explaining: “The difference between automatic trains and autonomous trains is that for automatic trains, decisions are taken by the external systems. 

What basically happens is that automatic trains send out data and receive instructions. Autonomous vehicles on the other hand are able to take decisions themselves, using geolocation data and sophisticated analysis of the data provided by sensors throughout the journey. The next step – i.e. making the transition from automation to autonomy – will require cameras and sensors to be installed on the train, plus the deployment of a GPS system: “The autonomous train concept will necessarily require a combination of high-performance real-time sensors to detect obstacles on the tracks, plus satellite positioning,” points out Patrice Caine, whose company, Thalès, is the project leader on the European global navigation satellite system, Galileo. “And of course, it will draw on algorithms to take real-time decisions at just the right moment. The next step will be to equip the train with sensors and calculating capacity, like the Google car, so that it can take decisions on its own,” he explains. 

Today they are still only very few such futuristic trains operating on public rails, one of which is a semi-autonomous regional express train that has been undergoing testing this year in the Toulouse area of France. The train can for example pinpoint its exact location, using the Geofer positioning system: “This project will serve as a laboratory at national level”, says Frédéric Adragna, an engineer who is in charge of space applications at the National Centre for Space Studies (CNES) in Toulouse. Outside Europe, one eye-catching project is being run by mining conglomerate Rio Tinto. The multinational firm is deploying autonomous long-distance freight trains for the transportation of iron ore in Pilbara, Western Australia.

Performance versus safety



The fundamental reason for developing autonomous trains is in fact twofold: better performance and increased safety. Reducing delays, lowering maintenance costs, streamlining traffic flow and broadening the range of services available adds up to a competitive advantage, and this is the promise held out by the new generation of trains. “Automation will optimise the speeds at which trains travel. It’s a bit like the motorways. Traffic flows more smoothly when everyone drives at an ideal speed. Autonomous trains will mean more efficient line usage (…). Basically, we should be able to have these trains running by 2022-2024, the same timeframe as for self-driving cars. The advantage will be that more trains will be running on the same line, with a tighter timetable,” points out SNCF’s Guillaume Pepy, adding: “It will also be up to us to make use of the new potential of the industrial Internet. By connecting up our trains, our stations and our rail network, we’ll be able to move from cost-intensive remedial maintenance to far more efficient predictive maintenance.” Laurent Fortune, who is in charge of automation on Line 1 and Line 14 of the Paris metro, believes the benefits justify the investment. He has seen a 30% increase in service levels due to automation. And one would suppose that this would also hold true for France's intercity high-speed rail service, the TGV.

The other great advantage of autonomous trains is that they are likely to be as safe as the automatic metro trains. Skytrain, the first automated metro, which began service in Vancouver, Canada, in the 1980, has been running for close to 30 years without suffering any fatal accidents. Traditional trains do not have such a good record, as accidents involving mainline trains are frequently due to human error: the train is travelling too fast, the points are not set properly, and so on. The fatal derailment of a TGV near Strasbourg in 2015, the worst accident in France for 25 years, is a salutary reminder. The accident happened when the train exceeded the speed limit on a hazardous section of the track.  


Accident train

Obstacles on the tracks



150 million Euros

Nevertheless, before the autonomous train can finally leave the station, there are still some quite substantial obstacles in its path, not least the cost of installation. Automating Line 1 of the Paris metro over a short distance – just 16.6 kilometres – cost around €150 million. One might therefore expect the bill for equipping a minimum of 30,000 kilometres of rail track to an even higher standard to be so enormous that in the near future the upgrade might only be undertaken on certain strategic parts of the network. However, the economic angle is not the only consideration.

Standardisation of rail tracks across Europe is a major goal. In fact work is already underway on this. “With level 3 of the European Train Control System (ETCS), Europe is now working on standards similar to those required by autonomous trains. The EU is putting a lot of effort into standardisation and may well constitute a single market just like the Asian countries or China”, predicts Patrice Caine. In addition, the whole issue of cybersecurity will be crucial for this ultra-connected system. Caine underlines: “There are a lot of questions to answer before they can ensure cyber-security in their signaling, supervision, command and control systems. You can imagine the potential consequences of a cyberattack on this type of system.” 

But the hurdle that will certainly be the most difficult to surmount is the psychological, human one – i.e. gaining the trust of the passengers. Will we agree to travel on driverless trains? At one of Paris’s mainline stations, the Gare du Nord, l’Atelier BNP Paribas staff talked to a woman who travels by train on a regular basis. Lucie, a 22-year-old student, told us: “When I take Line 1 I’m fully aware that the metro is automated. But I’m not sure I want to travel in a high-speed train run by an artificial intelligence system because I’m worried about the irreversible consequences of a miscalculation or programming error. But then I think that, as with every other innovation, we need time to adapt before this one becomes part of our everyday lives.”

Airbus - Pop Up

We might therefore conclude that the first autonomous trains are likely to be freight carriers. Nevertheless, what makes the future of the autonomous train highly uncertain is that there is a great deal of competition in the transport industry. Just think of Elon Musk’s Hyperloop, with an estimated 1100 km/h speed, which promises to link Paris and Marseille in around thirty minutes. It remains to be seen whether the two approaches will be able to co-exist or whether Hyperloop technology will simply render autonomous trains obsolete. Meanwhile, Airbus seems to be getting in step with the Hyperloop. Its new Pop-Up concept for a multi-modal ground and air passenger concept vehicle system uses capsules that are compatible with the Hyperloop. In just a few years monomodal transport systems may already be a thing of the past.

“Since pedestrians can get on to the railway tracks, not being able to warn a person in the driver’s cabin is a sensitive matter.  Only a human driver can really understand the difference between hitting a wild animal and causing a human tragedy.” 
Anne Froger

Anne Froger


In addition, the prospect of fully autonomous trains is rekindling the debate over the future of train drivers’ jobs. Guillaume Pepy is adamant that drivers will always have a role to play, insisting: “The primary goal is to increase line capacity, not to get rid of the drivers.” Meanwhile, Anne Froger, Communications Director for France & Benelux at Bombardier Transportation, argues that “you cannot do away with human intelligence and human sensitivity; they’ll be needed to ensure that all situations are properly handled.” Laurent Fortune agrees, pointing out: “Automating Metro Lines 1 and 14 has not resulted in any job losses. The train drivers were either promoted to supervisors or transferred to other sites where trains still need drivers. There will always be people working on the train networks.”

Yoni Abittan a PhD who works as a Digital Strategic Analyst at l’Atelier BNP Paribas, shares this view. “The value of artificial intelligence (AI) lies in Man-Machine interaction. Machines without people or a chatbot like Alexa need to digest large volumes of data if they’re going to become ‘smart’ and that data will be fed to them by human beings. Anyone who thinks that AI is synonymous with job losses is mistaken,” he argues.

In the meantime, there will be many challenges to address before that famous streetcar named Desire is matched by a self-driving train called Reality.

By Laura Frémy