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Looking Into the Feasibility of Self-Driving Trains

Process Automation on the Gears.

If you have spent any time in San Francisco recently, chances are you have seen one of Google’s most famous projects petering around town: a self-driving car. The railway industry is primed for something similar: a crewless train. But are trains driven solely using the power of technology actually feasible? Consider some of the following issues surrounding autonomous locomotives.

Rethinking the Crewless Train 

The idea of an autonomous train has been prevalent since the 1960s. In 1962, the assistant to the president at Westinghouse wrote an article addressing self-driving trains in the Financial Analysts Journal. In it, he writes:

“… let us direct our thoughts toward what would be required in the way of equipment or system for the safe operation of a train with no person at the controls. It is obvious that such a step must be made if we are to approach crewless train operation. It is equally obvious that the crewless train would have no one to look at wayside signals and therefore we should begin thinking in terms of an overall system that does not require wayside signals.”

In this time, crewless trains were an entertaining possibility, but engineers were limited by technology. In recent years, the idea of autonomous locomotives has been gaining steam thanks to our technological capabilities. In June of 2011, Union Pacific announced that it had begun implementing a Positive Train Control (PTC) line between Spokane, WA and Eastpoint, ID.

Unmanned long-haul freight is becoming more than just a pipe dream. In Western Australia, the Rio Tinto line has been hauling iron ore on crewless trains using its patented Autohaul technology. Following this development, domestic train companies are looking more closely at the feasibility of such technology stateside.

Addressing Safety Concerns

One of the main roadblocks in crewless trains is the potential safety concerns they pose. For completely crewless vehicles, the biggest issue is relying on technology without the possibility of a human override. While companies like Rio Tinto envision the possibility of trains being controlled remotely via joystick, some feel that relying heavily on technology creates unnecessary risk.

Another issue affecting autonomous vehicles in general is that of liability. In a crossing accident, who is responsible for any damages? Is it the company who owns the train, or the enterprises that produced the technology? For these reasons, insuring crewless trains can be a logistical problem. These are questions that will have to be answered before autonomous vehicles go mainstream.

Lastly, experts wonder about the feasibility of a complete infrastructure overhaul. As the article in the Financial Analysts Journal noted, there will be no need for wayside signals in the event that crewless trains become the norm. As a result, the existing railway infrastructure will have to be reimagined. The question remains if the benefits of operating crewless trains will outweigh the cost of such an overhaul.

When it comes to autonomous transportation technology, the world seems primed to embrace the convenience driverless vehicles can bring. However, there are still some logistical issues that need to be addressed before we see such initiatives become popular throughout the country.




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