The Robotic Future of Trains
The advent of artificial intelligence in all areas of the economy has led businesses in every sector to pursue automation in order to lower operating costs. One such area is the transportation industry, where technology is being developed to revolutionize the way we move around.
The most widely publicized movement in this area is in regards to driverless cars, which promise to replace every human driver in order to improve efficiency and safety on the road. However, even though driverless cars are in constant development, they are still years away. On the other hand, in the freight and passenger railroad industries, great strides are being made towards complete autonomy.
When fully implemented, autonomous rail systems will be able to improve efficiency and safety while lowering costs in all areas of operation.
The first completely autonomous freight line was opened last year, on June 14, 2019. Rio Tinto, a mining company, invested over $900 million dollars in a system called AutoHaul, which designed and built a completely autonomous rail system in the remote Pilbara region of Australia, where freight trains transport large amounts of ore from mines to trading ports, sometimes over forty hours away.
According to the International Railway Journal, the AutoHaul system operates up to fifty unmanned trains at a time, each transporting up to 28,000 tons of ore from the company's mine system to their final destination over 800 miles away. (Smith) This system has demonstrated incredible efficiency in transporting materials.
Rio Tinto says transportation speeds have increased by more than 6%, and cutting down on driver’s shift changes has decreased the average trip time by over an hour. In addition, the section run time variation, which measures the amount of time between two trains, has been lowered from five minutes with drivers to 30 seconds with AutoHaul, reducing train bottlenecks and increasing overall productivity. (Briginshaw)
These results exemplify the potential savings that can be accomplished in the rail industry through autonomous rail systems, especially those in freight industries in which margins can be very small.
However, Rio Tinto is in a very advantageous position for the adoption of this technology, as their railway network is a closed private network with no other traffic. While the economic benefit for fully autonomous trains cannot be denied, the difficulty of implementing these systems in populated areas with dense rail traffic has slowed down adoption.
Other companies are following in Rio Tinto’s footsteps, but they are mostly implementing them in private rail networks.
While traveling through densely populated areas with a higher likelihood of emergency may be difficult, fully automated metro lines through urban centers have existed since the city of Kobe, Japan implemented one in 1981. Today there are at least 64 fully-automated metro lines in 42 cities around the world.
However, certain challenges stand in the way of full automation in North America, where freight and passenger trains of different weights all travel on railways with numerous junctions that would be difficult to automate safely. (Briginshaw)
An additional hurdle in the United States comes in the form of railroad labor unions. Union leaders insist that passenger trains moving through cities must always have someone on board for emergencies, arguing that driverless rails in Australia are only feasible because they travel through remote areas.
Because of this, there are no fully autonomous rail systems in the United States, but this technology has been implemented in conjunction with human conductors to increase safety and efficiency. For example, by the end of this year, federal law will require trains to have Positive Train Control, a system that prevents derailment and train-on-train collisions, an important building block toward full automation. (Franz)
While similar challenges exist in European urban centers, the French National Railway system recently completed their first remotely-controlled autonomous train as part of a project looking to develop driverless freight and passenger trains by 2022.
Remote-operated systems will likely be a future step in the United States as well, a compromise that could address immedim MN ate safety concerns while further developing driverless technology. In addition to cutting labor costs, fully automated trains can perform predictive maintenance, reducing the likelihood of a serious malfunctionss that costs railroad companies time and money to rectify. (Briginshaw)
Advanced technology powered by artificial intelligence has already been adopted by certain companies in the freight and passenger rail industries, leading to an increase in safety, efficiency and profit. Although there are some logistical hurdles to all train traffic becoming fully autonomous, it is clear that the entire industry is looking at how this type of technology can best help their operation.
Written by Derek Chiang
Edited by Jack Argiro, Calvin Ma, Gihyen Eom, Alexander Fleiss & Michael Ding
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