Can Autonomous Freight Trains Compete with the Efficient Road Freight Network?

Alstom Tests Could Be a Step Towards and Autonomous Future

The European rail network is in need of some good news. New self-driving trains could spell an exciting, albeit distant, future.

Automation is a cornerstone of development and innovation. We saw it in the agricultural industry at the time of the industrial revolution, and we have seen it in numerous manufacturing sectors, where robots have taken over from humans in the manufacture of everything from motor cars to bars of chocolate.

More recently, automation has made its presence felt in service sectors, with artificial intelligence and chatbots being used to replace data administrators and call centre staff. Yet the automation could still be in its infancy.

Self-driving cars and trucks have been attracting no shortage of media attention, and the speed of development leaves little doubt that it is a question of when, not if, they will be introduced. While that is conceivable on the smart motorways of the UK and western Europe, anyone who sends road freight to Romania or other parts of Eastern Europe will be certain that we will still need our trusty truckers for the foreseeable future.

But how about autonomous trains? After all, there are far fewer variables to consider when the vehicle is already running on tracks, and every train is scheduled and accounted for. The latest research by Alstom might give a glimpse of the future.

Self driving trains

Conceptually, self driving trains are nothing new. We see them ferrying passengers between airports, and the Docklands Light Railway has been using them for the past 30 years. But the autonomous freight trains being tested by Alstom take things to the next level.

Automatic Train Operations (ATO) are not fully autonomous, in as much as they still require a driver to be present. However, by having the train’s operation governed by artificial intelligence that has real time visibility of signals, other traffic and environmental factors, the operators believe trains can run with greater energy efficiency and closer together.

Alstom is piloting the innovation with Dutch operator Rotterdam Rail Feeding (RRF), and will run the trains without driver intervention over a 60-mile test route between the Port of Rotterdam and the eastern Netherlands.

Building on success

The trial is aiming to build on the success of the first autonomous train journey, carried out in Australia. Rio Tinto’s ground breaking voyage saw their train complete a 62 mile journey, using only its sensors and the data at its disposal.

Where these achievements differ from the autonomous trains seen at Heathrow or on the DLR is that there is no input from remote operators, and they really are “driving themselves.”

Transport of the future?

Autonomous trains could bring better efficiency and increased capacity to a European rail freight network that is bursting. However, the improvements that it will bring are a relative drop in the ocean.

For even a tenth of the freight currently transported by road to go by rail, there would have to be billions invested to improve the underlying rail infrastructure. In reality, the only thing that is likely to replace the truckers will be those autonomous trucks – and as far as the long-haul European routes are concerned, those are still a long, long way off.

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