Dutch railway operator ProRail will test self-driving trains on a small set of railroad tracks in the Netherlands to learn if they can be part of the country’s notoriously busy network.
The Dutch railway system is one of the most crowded in the world and, while there are surprisingly few delays in the schedule, it could benefit enormously from autonomous trains.
“There are so many trains on the grid that the distance between them is relatively short,” said Rick van der Mand, project manager of ProRail’s autonomous driving experiment. “It's so busy that congestion is never far away. Automation may prevent that.”
Testing will start later in 2018 on a stretch of railway in the north of the Netherlands, as well as on the infamous Betuweroute that runs from Rotterdam to Germany.
Though the Netherlands privatised the national railway system in 2005, ProRail is solely appointed to maintain the country’s railway infrastructure. Meanwhile, several different train operators drive on the 7,021km of tracks.
That leads to a medley of operators and providers on the grid, with principal railway operator Nederlandse Spoorwegen (NS) controlling the majority of the routes and a handful of smaller operators – including Syntus, Arriva and Connexxion – operating small stretches in mostly rural areas. That fragmentation makes automation an attractive solution.
It’s hoped the two areas reserved for testing will benefit from the experiment, especially the Betuweroute – the special track reserved for cargo transportation coming from and going into the rest of Europe.
“That’s the point where freight trains have to insert themselves into the already busy Dutch rail network,” said van der Mand. “Automatic driving can be a useful alternative to implementing expensive upgrades to infrastructure.”
Grades of automation
ProRail plans to experiment with several ‘grades of automation’ – or GoA – explained Van der Mand.
“Currently, trains in Holland operate at GoA level one, which basically means little to no automation,” he said. “At the next level, trains can automatically accelerate and decelerate based on obstacles on the track or vehicles in front of the train. That’s the one we’re starting with.”
At level three, trains would also come out at exactly the right location on a platform. This would allow for automated doors, which already exist in closed metro systems.
In an ideal world trains would reach GoA 4, which means they are completely automated and do not need a conductor – but Van der Mand said that technology is still far away.
Automatic train operation
Central to the technology is ATO, or automatic train operation – a collective name for a system used to automate train carriages. ATO isn’t new; versions are used in thousands of closed metro systems across the world. However, implementation on an outside track is more difficult.
According to Van der Mand, there are too many variables, including “car crossings, trees that have fallen on the track and damaged overhead lines”. Meanwhile, ProRail recently issued new measures against ‘track walkers’ – people who walk alongside an unprotected stretch of railway.
To account for these variables, ProRail not only has to modify trains but also the tracks. “The variable factors make it difficult to do so, because we’re not sure how to account for those,” said Van der Mand. “That’s something the experiment has to show us.”
Fine-tuning the second level of GoA is the first step, explained the project manager. “Automating a train comes with finding the perfect braking curve, so the train doesn’t decelerate too fast for passenger’s comfort,” he said.
The first tests will try to optimise GoA level two, and “soon after that” ProRail wants to move up to level three, said Van der Mand. In a perfect world, it would then lead to level four, but that remains a long way off.
Freight in the Netherlands
To integrate an ATO system, ProRail needs to cooperate with different train manufacturers. With only few operators for passenger trains (and NS being the largest one at 90% or so in the Netherlands), that's not going to be too difficult.
But the huge number of different freight transporters driving the Betuweroute into Europe from the busy port of Rotterdam might make standardisation difficult. “We have dozens, if not hundreds, of different operators hauling freight into and out of the port,” said Van der Mand.
When the technology is perfect, two things need to happen before implementation.
First, there’s the so-called ‘ATO on board’, an external piece of hardware that can be installed in a locomotive of a train (alternatively, the software can be made compatible with whatever firmware the train uses – but with so many different operators, that presents a huge challenge). And second, ProRail must modify the railway tracks.
“The system needs to communicate with rail traffic control such as the European Rail Traffic Management System,” said Van der Mand. This is the European standard for safety on rail tracks, which is already in effect on the Betuweroute.
“We need to see if we can somehow modify the existing software to be compatible with our new systems, or if we need to start from scratch and use different systems side by side, or integrate them somehow,” added the project manager.
It's going to take a while before the results of the experiments are in. The first trials will start at the end of 2018, using a modified train carriage made by Alstom which has ProRail's custom ATO system installed. ProRail and Alstom recently signed a contract for the implementation.
According to ProRail, it's a myth that self-driving trains will eventually lead to loss of jobs. “That might only happen on GoA level four, but that’s too far away to speculate on now,” said a spokesperson. “And even then, trains will usually need someone to oversee calamities or to intervene in case of an emergency.”