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Automated vehicles are a major trend in transportation. While autonomous cars are still a rather juvenile technology, automatic operation of trains just celebrated its 50-year anniversary. The evolving adoption of Automatic Train Operation (ATO) for mainline rail systems coincides with the modernisation plans for numerous rail signalling systems across Australia, which now seems to become all but a showcase of automated railways.
The automatic operation of trains is far from a novel concept. The Victoria line of the London Underground went into service in 1968 – with automatic trains. Other applications followed in Philadelphia in 1969, San Francisco in 1972, Washington DC in 1976 and Atlanta in 1979. From the mid-1980’s, Automatic Train Operation became more widespread as a key feature of the Communications-Based Train Control (CBTC) technology. Today, CBTC is the de-facto standard for control of high-performance metro railways with automatic train services in far over 100 cities around the world.
Automation pedigree in city metros
Those automated rail systems share certain characteristics which make them suitable for automation. The ideal application is a new-built end-to-end railway without interference with the outside world, like in underground tunnels or on elevated skyways. Station platforms are often secured from the railway tracks by platform gates or screens, and road-rail crossings are usually avoided altogether. A finite number of trains to be automated and very high requirements for capacity and efficiency help justifying the substantial investment in automation.
All these characteristics of ideal automated rail systems fit much better for city metro railways or people-mover systems than for complex overground ‘mainline’ railways. Two reasons why automated mainline railways are uncommon are the enormous costs of migrating a widespread railway operation with several thousands of track kilometres and hundreds of trains to be fitted, and the perceived safety risk from trespassing cars or pedestrians onto an automated railway line where “ghost trains” run without drivers.
This article first appeared on infrastructuremagazine.com.au
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