Technology, it is said, can improve the rail industry’s performance and make it more competitive, particularly against the automotive sector, which is pushing hard on autonomous cars, and trucks, which could gobble up more of the freight market. As such, infrastructure managers and train operating companies are looking at technology and automation for clues in how to increase capacity.

On 16 February, representatives from the European Union Agency for Railways, Network Rail’s (NR) Digital Railway programme, Alstom, and DB Cargo, among others, gathered at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers to debate if automatic train operation (ATO) is the future for mainline railways, solving some of the persistent headaches caused by a boom in passenger numbers.

As a term, ATO covers different levels of automation; from the driver still maintaining control of most functions; semi-automatic train operation, also known as GoA 2, where the setting of the train in motion and stopping is automatic, yet the driver is responsible for the closing/opening of doors,  stepping in if the system fails; and GoA 3 and GoA 4, which bolt on more automation, up to the point where there is no train driver or on-board attendant.

To date, the most common use of ATO has been on metro and underground lines. London Underground has used semi-automatic operation for many years on the Central, Northern, Jubilee, and Victoria lines. Then there’s the Docklands Light Railway, which takes it a step further by removing the traditional cab and driver in favour of train attendants.

Getting the backing of the industry

The case studies are there to analyse, but why does the UK’s mainline railway need more automation? Andrew Simmons, chief systems engineer for the Digital Railway– NR’s masterplan for modernising the railway – emphasised growth; specifically that since 1996, passenger numbers have doubled. That has created more pinch points, he said, accelerating the need for greater capacity.

Building a brand new line is highly disruptive, not to mention expensive. The argument, therefore, is look for other ways that increase frequency and cut delays, hence the Digital Railway. It was mentioned more than once at IMechE that ATO has proven its ability on metros – now is the time to migrate this to mainline operations.

The Thameslink upgrade programme will incorporate ATO from 2018 onwards to meet a requirement for 24 trains per hour through the core of the route, while Crossrail trains will also operate in ATO mode.

However, Simmons made an interesting point here; any successful implementation of technology is reliant on industry readiness to welcome and understand the changes. Perhaps wary of the potential fallout of doing too much too soon, the Digital Railway is looking at semi-automated operation.

This point of acceptance was also raised during closing discussions. Govia Thameslink Railway has of course encountered huge resistance from unions over its plans for driver-only operated trains on Southern rail. Indeed, Aslef, which represents train drivers, has announced its members have rejected a proposed agreement with Southern that was viewed as the beginning of the end of the dispute.

Commenting on the result, Paul Plummer, chief executive of the Rail Delivery Group, said: “Where safety, jobs and pay are unaffected, the railway must be able to harness new technology and smarter ways of working to deliver the modern rail service the country needs.”

Supporters of ATO will nod in assent.