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From everywhere to everywhere. The future clock-face schedule in Germany

Every hour, at the same time, all over Germany! People travel more often by train if the service is correct. Key elements are intelligent and coordinated trains connections in train stations.

Half of the long-distance travelers in Germany use local transport on their journey to reach their destination. This means that one should not focus solely on the main lines traffic. What is the point of a trip from Buxtehude to Cottbus, with an ICE between Hamburg and Berlin at 230 km/h, if the traveler must to wait more than three quarters of an hour on the platform for connection? So there would be no clock-face schedule in Germany?

Not the same requirements

In reality, the clock-face schedule is operated on two separate commercial segments. The first concerns long-distance traffic entirely managed by Deutsche Bahn and its many ICEs. Since 1979, Deutsche Bahn has been offering connections every hour between the big German cities, with the success we all know. So far, the idea was that few long-distance travelers would take a local train to continue their journey. This is the principle of air travel.

Long distance customers do not have the same needs as regional commuters (april 2018, Berlin-Hbf, photo

The second segment is the local traffic: it is not the same customers. Deutsche Bahn managed – and still manages – this traffic separately, without paying too much attention to long-distance segment travelers. The main argument that is often defended is that local customers have other expectations compared to long-distance customers. It is therefore necessary to construct timetables adapted to school hours, offices, etc.

The networks that have adopted the clock-face schedule have shown that it favors connections and that it increases traffic, as in the Benelux countries or in Switzerland. The Lander have also built a clock time schedule on the regional segment, adapted to the requests of their customers. What is problematic is the coincidence between the arrival of the long-distance Intercity and the immediate connections with the local trains. In some cases, there is a gap of 20 to 40 minutes, which is dissuasive for the long-distance traveler.

All regional or local lines do not necessarily have one train per hour (photo Schnitzel_bank via license flickr)

From everywhere to everywhere

Associations have taken up this problem of connections between long-distance trains and local traffic. In 2008, the VCD (Verkehrsclub Deutschland), an environmental association, as well as other German associations, founded the “Deutschland-Takt” initiative (literally the “German clock”). The future of transport in Germany is becoming clearer every day: more inhabitants tomorrow means more trips and a carbon footprint that must absolutely be controlled. For this growth of travel to be sustainable, we must move the population as much as possible towards trains services. But the rail network is not able today to absorb this growth.

The concept: adding long-distance traffic (fernverkehr), various regional Lander traffic (nahverkehr) and freight flows (Güterverkehr)

In 2015, the project is taken seriously. A study by the Federal Ministry of Transport concludes that a clock-face schedule in Germany is possible. The report states that this concept will increase the number of connections and reduce the total duration of journeys. The German clock time schedule is to make the railway system more attractive for a large number of people by means of tailor-made synchronization of the network in passenger rail transport. The trains must be running at regular intervals, for example every 30 or 60 minutes, and go to each hub stations in Germany. They leave after a short time to avoid waiting and transfer time too long. This connected network multiplies the connections and therefore the attractiveness of the railways. In rail freight transport, the introduction of an clock time schedule should allow for greater train path availability. Enak Ferlemann, Secretary of State at the Ministry of Transport, conveys the vision of the federal government for the year 2030 and told Die Welt: ‘The railway will have state-of-the-art trains, be on time, will no longer produce greenhouse gas emissions and will offer much better supply than today, especially in metropolitan areas.’ In theory…


Le concept d’horaire cadensé, en graphique…

To take the realities into account

The clock-face schedule is not a miracle pill. Current realities of the infrastructure and the reliability of the trains also count for a lot. At the moment, the German rail network can count on nearly 1000 worksites per day. Punctuality is catastrophic: less than 70% of trains arrive on time while Deutsche Bahn has already set a rate of 85% for years. Only one on six ICE initially works without technical problems (toilets or air conditioning down, no restaurant, missing car, bad maintenance, faulty reservation system, etc.). It is the CEO of the DB, Richard Lutz, who says it. Added to this is a growing number of “non-railway” incidents, such as theft of cables or people along the tracks. Whereas rail traffic is paralyzed, highways do not have these problems. And the citizen knows it: with the Waze app, the citizen is able to bypass incidents and traffic jams…

These negative elements strongly degrade the clock-face schedule, since the schedule is no longer respected. Except in one case: when the local traffic is composed of a train every 15 minutes, the delay of an ICE is “less serious”. But such local traffic only exists on regional high-traffic lines, around big cities like Düsseldorf, Frankfurt, Berlin or Munich. For lower traffic lines, the Lander build generally schedules with one train per hour. In this case, the delay of an ICE is much more problematic. In the best case, the local train is waiting for the latecomer. But it irritates the local commuters who suffer a delay that does not concern them!

In large cities, the amount of S-Bahn does not pose a problem of connections (Berlin-Hbf, photo

At the political level, the Lander are responsible – and pay – for local train traffic. They are very attentive to the quality of the service and the punctuality provided by their operators. They do not intend to “pay” for the setbacks of the national DB by delaying “the trains of their own voters”, as recalled by a fiery regional minister.

Moreover, the question arises of which compensation that should be paid when local operators, ready to leave and perfectly on time, are ordered to wait for an Intercity late. These details are not regulated everywhere in the same manner. It is true that the question also arises in the opposite direction. Should an Intercity wait for a local train late? On another scale, we know that buses often wait for trains, but that trains never wait for buses late because they paralyze the tracks …

Upcoming improvements

Improvements for a clock-face schedule involve infrastructure solutions and the adoption of digital tools. This is what Enak Ferlemann recalls: ‘The construction of new tracks is expensive, the approval process is long and faces fierce resistance from the inhabitants.’ Putting more trains on existing tracks ‘means that current control and safety technology of signalization needs to be replaced by electronic systems, which means that trains can travel at shorter intervals, allowing for more dense traffics. Therefore, the railways must be digitized section per section. It is expected that it will increase rail capacity by 20%. I think it’s too optimistic. If we reach 10%, it would be good.’ says the Secretary of State.

The other part is the reliability of the trains, denounced by the CEO of the DB. Digital tools can help. But they cannot solve all problems encountering either. Team management in the workshops will have to be adapted, which is often a problem at the social level.

The clock-face schedule can obviously extend to urban transport and local buses. That becomes a large public transport organized and connected. But how to deal with incidents of only one operator of the chain? That’s the whole question. The concept of Mobility As A Service (MaaS) should be an help. But the MaaS presents in real time only what is actually operational and available. This is not a problem around the big cities, where service offers are plentiful. In case of incident, we can fall back on other choices. This is not the case in less urbanized areas, where the offers would remain weaker, MaaS or not.

The clock-face schedule is in any case part of the BVWP 2030 government plan. 41.3% of the projects are for rail transport and alone represent around € 109.3 billion. Which is considerable. It is no longer a question of engaging in sumptuary spending, but to upgrade the rail network.

The rail part of the BVWP 2030 plan. In red, urgent needs in infrastructure rehabilitation… (photo BMVI)

Deutsche Bahn, meanwhile, must put pressure on quality and operating costs. It has lost 27% of regional traffic over the last decade, to other companies that can make the train cheaper and more efficient. The DB faces a vast shortage of train drivers. The job maybe have to be upgraded but without creating billionaire employees, which would have an impact on the ticket prices. Digital tools will also be able to evolve the whole sector, such as semi-automated driving, predictive maintenance, traveler orientation and mobile service offerings.

Regarding the latter theme, Secretary of State Enak Ferlemann wonders: ‘Of course, passengers want a door-to-door service, so a complete chain of transport. The question is whether Deutsche Bahn has to offer a complete offer, from the train to the bike and the rental car. Or if the company should focus only on its core business and if other operators could take over the last few miles.’ The federal government’s job will be to ensure that the interfaces work perfectly when changing means of transport. A huge challenge …



Die Welt : Jetzt soll der „Deutschland-Takt“ die Bahn retten

The BVWP 2030 plan

Deutschland-Takt – Immer gut verbunden

Infrastruktur für einen Deutschland-Takt im Schienenverkehr

VVO online


Trieste harbour : an example of intermodal transport

(version en français)

The port of Trieste is not so far from the border with Slovenia. As such, it has had a strategic position from the 18th century onward, when it was occupied from the Venetian Republic by the Austrian Empire. At first, it was not destined to become a gateway to central and northern Europe, a good third of the continent of Europe. This rise in strength of the fourteenth European port – the first port of Italy – shows a strong dynamism. The Republicca masterfully described in 2001 the political culture of this corner of Italy: “What is happening at the port of Maria Theresa of Austria? (…) Strange city of Trieste. It is on the margins of the economy and the national system, and when public affairs are at stake, [there are] plenty of industrialists (…) Trieste is another thing. Right and left mobilize the lords of the economy, mobilize the masters of small empires.” Since the fall of the Iron Curtain and the dramatic end of Yugoslavia, the newspaper observed a new climate of openness with Slovenia and Friuli’s cousins, a takeoff of tourism, the landing of private entrepreneurs, the rescue or the creation of two thousand workplaces for an income of one hundred billion lire per year. “Today, the small Trieste takes quotas, becomes an object of desire, starts to make children again, takes the first place in Italy as GDP growth per capita.” In a nutshell, a vast public / private movement that went back to a once-promised city of decline.

Trieste, a tax haven?
Not really. The free port of Trieste was created by the Austrian Emperor Charles VI in 1719. The Paris Peace Treaty of 1947 and the London Memorandum of 1954 maintained the legal and fiscal regime of the free port of Trieste, thus giving it a status extraterritorial. Since then, customers can benefit from special conditions for import, export, transit, customs procedures and tax treatment. Porto Franco or Port Libre has 5 “free ports” (Punto Franco Vecchio, Punto Franco Nuovo, Punto Franco Scalo Legnami, Punto Franco Oli Minerali and Punto Franco Industriali). In July 2017, a government decree regulated the port as a free zone coordinated by the port authority.

Maritime consolidation
Trieste is at the intersection of the TEN-T Adriatic-Baltic and Mediterranean corridors. Thanks to its naturally deep sea floor (18 m), it can host ocean liners from the Far East, and it has railway links to all of Europe. As such, it is the natural European terminal for the Maritime Silk Road initiative, which include Turkey.

A profitable commercial policy
Our goal is to build the largest intermodal hub in Europe in Trieste’. These 2017 declarations are not those of the Port Authority, but of Sedat Gumusoglu, the CEO of UN Ro-Ro, a large Turkish maritime operator, which operates its ro-ro ships throughout the Mediterranean. (Photo). Yes, it’s a Turk who gives us a lesson in ecological intermodal transport. Gumusoglu points out that half of Turkish commercial traffic is destined for Europe and more particularly for Germany, Austria, France, Italy, Benelux and the United Kingdom. “When we build this intermodal hub, we will add new rail lines. Today, 50% of the traffic that we manage with our ships [Ed: to Europe] is by road and the remaining 50% by rail. With our services, our goal is to further reduce road trips by 50% and to make the rail to operate a greener, faster and more efficient transport “. So go to a 25% fork on the road – 75% on rail.

In April 2018, the Danish shipping group DFDS – another ro-ro giant in the North Sea – signed an agreement to acquire 98.8% of the shares of the Turkish shipping company UN Ro-Ro. The Turkish company operates five routes linking Turkey to Italy and France (Toulon). It now operates 12 ro-ro ships (120 meters long) and employs 500 people. UN Ro-Ro / DFDS is the first Turkish ship owner to build the motorways of the sea between Turkey and Trieste. The change of ownership does not jeopardize this network, far from it. UN Ro-Ro maintains close cooperation with rail operators, offers intermodal transport to and from EU ports and key markets. However, a good part of the cargo is destined for the ports of the Baltic, the same ones where is implanted …. DFDS.

The audacity of entrepreneurs
Other benefits of the free port include simplified transit for commercial vehicles directed abroad, and vehicle tax exemption for international vehicles. Hence the strong expansion of Ro-Ro traffic (Roll on – Roll off), the ferry system that embarks and unloads trucks. Freight forwarders – also Turkish – then largely benefited from Ro-Ro services, starting with logisticians Ekol and Mars. UN Ro-ro, now under DFDS banner, has been a major player in the development of the intermodal industry, even causing traffic shifts back to the Italian port to reach Turkey, rather than through Romania and Bulgaria.

Ekol Logistics has started operating its own Ro-Ro service on Trieste. This company – supported by the local partner Parisi – has strengthened its position by launching its Ro-Ro service via Alternative Transport Line and now has the largest number of semi-trailers on the Turkey-Europe line, carrying more than 50,000 units intermodal network. In 2012, another Turkish, Mars Lojistik, started a tri-weekly train between Trieste and Bettembourg in the Grand Duchy. ‘This new train allows MARS Logistics to develop its activities in Europe. By consolidating our freight flows on a shuttle train from Trieste to Bettembourg, we are increasing the efficiency of our distribution in Europe while reducing CO2 emissions.‘  Said Garip Sahillioglu, CEO of MARS Logistics.

The role of Europe
We must also look behind the scenes: it is Europe, so much criticized, which is at the base of this dynamism. The Mars train was co-financed by the European Marco Polo program. Thanks to various aids, both Ekol and Mars, and other freight forwarders, were able to rely on the Ro-Ro services linking Trieste to Turkey.

Many rail carriers
With its free port status and the various aids available, Trieste has a network of intermodal trains that any port could dream of. The big port remains a privileged door for Turkish traffic in Europe: the Ro-Ro segment continues to grow with 314,705 vehicles in 2017. The port director, Zeno D’Agostino, does not hesitate to affirm that the element that makes Trieste “unique on the Italian scene” is the presence of different players in the railway market. In addition to the FS group, major private Italian railway companies (CFI and Inrail) and some owners (Rail Cargo Carrier Italy, Rail Traction Company, CapTrain Italy), owned by major European operators (Rail Cargo Austria, DB Schenker, SNCF) , are also active. The fundamental role of Adriafer (100% owned by the Giulian AdSP) should not be underestimated. Since July 2017, this operator has obtained the certification enabling it to operate on the complete rail network and no longer solely as a port operator.

Among the major operators, Rail Cargo Austria holds a 28% share of the market. Back to the old empire of Austria? Not really, but the fact remains that the ÖBB freight subsidiary, which is commercially aggressive, has just opened a permanent office in the Italian port.

The multiplication of operators – unlike the state monopoly – has resulted in large traffic and direct relationships. The extensive Trieste internal rail network (70 km of track) makes it possible to serve all quays by rail, with the possibility of assembling freight trains directly to various terminals and to be connected to the national and international network. 8,680 trains used the port in 2017. In the first quarter of 2018, the port was already handling 4,816 freight trains, an increase of 18% compared to the same quarter of last year. The port authority estimates that 10,000 trains will be registered for 2018, almost twice as many as in 2016 (5,600 trains).

Toward the North, it is the private company Ekol which “created” a direct traffic, thanks to its trains Trieste-Kiel (DE) to join Scandinavia, and the Trieste-Zeebrugge (BE) for the road to the Britain. Ekol Logistics significantly increased its rail freight capacity at the port of Trieste in 2016 after acquiring 65% of Europa Multipurpose Terminals. Ekol, which currently provides services to Turkish and Greek destinations, expects to add countries such as Israel and Egypt to its portfolio in the coming years.

Hungary is becoming Trieste’s first reference market, as for its Port’s railway container traffic. The link with Budapest was established in 2015 and it originally included two round-trips per week, leaving Trieste Marine Terminal in the early afternoon to reach Budapest-Mahart at 10 a.m. the following day. Since then, it has rapidly enjoyed a boom quickly leading to four – now seven – pairs of trains per week. The German operator Kombiverkehr has transferred its trains to Trieste, in correspondence with Munich, Ludwigshafen, Cologne, Duisburg, Hamburg and Leipzig. Today, Kombiverkehr probably manages the most trains coming from Trieste. Rail Cargo Austria has also developed its “Julia” network to five Austrian destinations and is successfully cooperating in Italy with companies such as Alpe Adria SpA, TO Delta and UN Ro-Ro.

The other advantage is that Trieste has access over 500 km to a large consumption area favoring mass consumption: Milan, Verona, Bologna, Munich / Salzburg, Vienna, Graz, Budapest, Ljubljana, all this very active Europe is at a stone’s throw from the Italian port.

Faraway lands
The key maritime player of containers traffic today is the giant MSC, world second. If the main hub of the Geneva-based company is Antwerp, the “Phoenix” route calls Trieste (as well as neighboring Koper), to reach distant destinations in Asia, such as Tanjung Pelapas (Malaysia), Vung Tau (Viet-Nam) as well as Shekou, Yantian or Shanghai (China). The container flow is impressive and also uses the train. For example, a shuttle train “MSC Graz-Trieste Runner”, operated in partnership with Cargo Center Graz (Rail Cargo Austria, ÖBB subsidiary), provides weekly service to Werndorf, Austria, which demonstrates that combined transport is possible on short distances.

The program has been precisely coordinated with MSC’s Phoenix long-haul line service to ensure optimal timing for intercontinental freight delivery, as well as other ocean freight services making direct calls to Trieste. MSC is working with one of its key customers, Lidl, a key partner in the region, to design a tailor-made transport solution for containers from Asia to the logistics center in Lidl Austria near Graz.

Strong growth
All of the above shows the growth of traffic in 2017, as evidenced by some remarkable figures: the containers handled reached 616,156 TEU (+ 26.7%). If we add the traffic of semi-trailers and swap bodies, the total global traffic will have been 1.314 953 TEUs (+ 13.5%), of which 314.705 trucks (+ 3.99%) on the only Turkish sea route, while that trains accounted for an increase of + 13.8% compared to 2016. The total number of trains carrying only Turkish exports through Trieste exceeds 60 trains per week (approximately 1,800 semi-trailers and containers).

The port manager, Zeno D’Agostino, is very satisfied: ‘It is very positive in quantitative terms, but above all qualitative. Just look at the number of full containers on the total processed: 89%. (…) this is an exemplary data compared to the normal performance of a container terminal. In Trieste, not only are the flow of containers growing, but they are developing in a healthy way: they are goods passing here, not empty boxes.’

We can conclude with this approach of the port management, concerning growth, reported by the website Espo: ‘We believe that the performance of a port cannot be measured solely in terms of TEUs or tonnage. A modern port should also be evaluated in terms of its train handling and rail links. Furthermore, we believe that measuring performance should also take into account the port’s ability to create value for the local area. In two years, we hired over 220 people. For us, human resources – our port workers – come before numbers. These are our core values: not so much how many more TEUs we transport, but the jobs generated by the port in the local area.

Beautiful conclusion …



ESPO – Le port de Trieste (2017, en anglais)

Rail origins and destinations to/from Trieste

Trieste, porto intermodale che fa della ferrovia un punto di forza

Trieste regge bene all’urto dell’ambizioso traffico intermodale turco

Autonomous trains: a brief review

(version en français)

Innotrans is off. The next edition will take place in 2020, in Berlin. At this date, will we talk more about the autonomous train that is announced everywhere? We are going to peruse the latest innovations on this theme.

Automatic metros have been around for a long time. There are some examples in London with the Jubilee Line and the Dockland Railway, as well as Paris on line 14 or Lille with VAL. By the end of 2013, there were 48 fully automated public metro systems in use in 32 countries, according UITP. The major innovation is the autonomous car. Why ?

Because the examples of automatic metros show that they work in fact in closed loops.‘All these systems have no obstacle detection and assume a free line’ explains Burkhard Stadlmann, a professor of at the U​niversity of Applied Sciences Upper Austria. When the trains are the same length, run all day long according to repetitive criteria and stop at all stations that have the same length of perron, then the automation becomes relatively “easy”. But none of this exists with the concept of autonomous cars. Indeed, the ability to drive autonomously in heterogeneous environments without GPS, pattern identification (e.g. road following), or artificial landmarks is key to field robotics. To address this challenge, it is necessary to use technological building blocks in the form of GPS, radar/LiDAR, infrared and ultrasonic sensors, cameras, inertial systems and more. Automation software must be developed for autonomous vehicle process flows.

We are running here to more complexity field than an ‘simple’ automatic metro. Autonomy means indeed instantly recognize its environment, which changes every meter, that the computer must translate to take a decision immediately. So, thousands of data must be captured, assembled and decoded in a few seconds. The main challenge is to recognize if there is an obstacle in front of you, and what decision you must take. When there is a vehicle in front of you, either it rolls at the same speed as you, and just follow it, or it brakes, and you also immediately have to break to avoid a collision. Currently, the only signal available that shows a vehicle braking in front of you are the rear red headlights, and it’s only your eyes that “grab the message”. With the autonomous vehicle, the rear red headlights are of no use. So something else was needed. This “thing”, that’s a permanent calculation of distance and approach between the vehicles. It is therefore necessary to answer in thousandths of a second so that, as soon as the vehicle detected in front of you brakes, immediately your autonomous vehicle brakes too. Unfortunately, this is not possible with trains! Why ?

Because trains have a much higher distance between them than in road vehicle flows. No LIDAR or sensors can measure the train that is far ahead of you. Currently, trains run through blocks (2 km or more), in which they are alone. Once a block is free, the next train can enter. Each block is protected by a lineside signal. This system is still in effect, even with visual signaling is available in the driver’s cab, as on high-speed trains or in ETCS level 2: one train per block. As long as the block in front of you is busy, you do not enter, the signal is red and the speedometer shows you a speed of “zero”. You are stopped until the ‘freedom’ of the block. The information that tells you that the block is free is delivered by a track circuit in the rails. When it no longer detects metal masses in the rails, it means that there is no train in the block, with a certainty of almost 100%. So you can enter the next block, its signal is green or yellow, and the ETCS level 2 speedometer tells you with which speed you can enter.

At most the blocks have a small length, at most you can send trains on a line, generally between 8 and 12 trains per hour and per direction. On small local lines, some blocks have a very large length, which means that the flow is much lower, for example 2 to 3 trains per hour.

What conclusions can be drawn from this ?

The first element is that train detection means a lot of on-line equipment and cables to lay along the track. This requires maintenance and major purchases. Everyone knows that electrical and electronic equipment are very expensive, even when you buy a high quantity. The electronics and electricity sector is very lucrative. As a result, a railway line is de facto very expensive, and even more so if it is electrified. Of course, these investments are designed for the long term.

The second element is that the strict obedience to the signaling is fully supported by the human factor, even in case of ETCS level 2. Of course, the current equipment can detect some faults. If you do not brake within 3-4 seconds when your ETCS speedometer requires it, the computer will engage the emergency brake until the train stops. But it’s not enough. And often it’s too late. « Train drivers have little room for decision-making, » says Jürgen Siegmann, professor of rail transport and railway operations at the Technical University of Berlin.

The third element is obviously the factor ‘cost of railway workers’, which is combined with operational factors. The railroad is known for its large labours needs, while for other transport, one man is sometimes enough. We are thinking of maneuvers in industrial installations or in marshalling yards. In some rail public services, wages eat more than half of the turnover. Financial aspects should not be underestimated. According to some experts, the cost coverage of an autonomous regional train could increase by 60%, which obviously interests the transport authorities and the State. This is unfortunately not verifiable at the moment.

The conclusion is that the railways are looking for a reduction in operational costs, through new signaling with less equipment, and reduction of the human factor, where is possible. In Germany, an expert report at the end of September 2018 showed that to absorb the growth and the modal-shift expected of in the future by a greater number of trains on the network, it would be necessary to multiply the tracks on the congested railway lines. This solution would cost almost twice as much as digitization, taken in all its components, not only by the autonomous train. One point on which they will not procrastinate: the security. Let’s take a look at what’s going on with the autonomous train.

Rio Tinto

Rio Tinto operates about 200 locomotives on over 1,700km of track in the Pilbara, in Australia, allowing it to transport ore from 16 mines to four port terminals. On July 10, a train, consisting of three locomotives and described by Rio Tinto as ‘the world’s largest robot’, travelled over 280km from the company’s mining operations in Tom Price to the port of Cape Lambert. The train was remotely monitored by Rio Tinto’s Operations Centre in Perth more than 1,500km away. The locomotives are equipped with AutoHaul software and are fitted with on-board cameras for monitoring from the centre. Of course, this train only ran alone on a single-track line in a desert region, where the probability of an obstacle was certainly low, despite the presence of some crossing-levels.

We are working closely with drivers during this transition period as we prepare our employees for new ways of working as a result of automation’ explains Ivan Vella, Rio Tinto Iron Ore managing director for Rail, Port and Core Services. According another director of Rio Tinto ‘AutoHaul has shown in trials that the autonomous trains delivered the product to the port nearly 20% faster than a manned train.’ The proof that all of this is taken seriously is that the Office of the National Rail Safety Regulator (ONRSR), in Australia, has fully approved the technology which underpins the entire system, AutoHaul.

ProRail and Rotterdam Rail Feeding (RRF)

The Dutch railway infrastructure manager ProRail announced on TEN-T days in Rotterdam that it wanted to create the conditions to test the automated operation of freight trains on the Betuwe Line connection, a railway line reserved for freight traffic between Rotterdam and Germany, which operates only with ETCS level 2 (cab signaling).

As part of the ERTMS Corridor A, this line is fully equipped with ETCS 2 (SRS 2.3.0), so without lineside signals, like high speed lines. This is a minimal requirement for an automated operation, even though originally, ETCS was specified for manual mode operation. Alstom signed an agreement with ProRail and Rotterdam Rail Feeding (RRF) to carry out the tests. It is planned that an RRF locomotive will run approximately 100 km from the port of Rotterdam to the CUP Valburg freight terminal using ATO on the sections of the route which Alstom has previously equipped with ETCS Levels 1 and 2. Here, the train is controlled by computer, but the driver is always on board, operates the doors, starts the train and can take control if necessary.

Rio Tinto and Pro Rail tests are only for freight trains only. What about passenger trains? As in the case of cars, there is also an international classification of levels of automation in public transport, or “automation levels” (GoA). Four levels of automation are available, and the tests are initially oriented on levels 2 and 3. For level 2, the system supports the journey from start to finish, but the driver is still responsible for the operation of the doors and the starting of the vehicle. For level 3, the train operates without a driver, but an onboard attendant always checks the doors and can move the train via an emergency system if necessary.

Deutsche Bahn

The European rail champion is currently transforming a section of several kilometers near Chemnitz into an trial site for autonomous train. DB Regio, a subsidiary of the DB, has upgraded a self-propelled train, with cameras and sensors in its Chemnitz workshop. The system must detect obstacles and stop the train if problems. By autumn 2018, this train should be operated in part automatically. Only the approval of the German federal railway authority (EBA) is still lacking.

Autonomous driving is complex. The rail system, where fast and slow passenger trains and freight trains run and are mixed, is more difficult than a metro – but it is possible. The first pilot projects are underway, and we have set up a test area on the Erzgebirgsbahn. Fully automatic rail driving is the next big step in development and a matter of time.’ explained former CEO Rüdiger Grube in 2016. Since then, the DB has signed an agreement with SNCF concerning the autonomous train.

In 2015, however, after a bad year with strikes, the DB stressed that ‘In our safety philosophy, train drivers remain a strong pillar.’ Customer surveys have shown that passengers do not want to abandon train drivers. Three years later, is it still the case?

SBB (public railways in Switzerland)

What might surprise you is that we are also a big software company,’ said Erik Nygren, a business analysis and AI researcher at the company. Switzerland also studies on the autonomous train. On the night of 5 December 2017, SBB tested for the first time an autonomous train on the Bern-Olten line. This train has braked and accelerated independently from any action of the driver. The driver only controls the processes and function of the systems, just like pilots in an airplane cockpit. The constructor Stadler Rail also sees it as a huge advantage: “This trip was a first and it is proof that you must continue to compete in the highly competitive rail market,” explains Peter Spuhler, CEO of Stadler. In other words, it is a question of guarding against competition (Chinese?) and, for Switzerland, the autonomous train is part of a broader strategy for exporting technologies of the country. The Confederation is in the top 5 countries relying on artificial intelligence, and this also explains this policy.

Contrary to Germany’s caution, SBB’s plans for the future “SmartRail 4.0” strategy show that the partial automation of trains would be planned for “the coming years” and that operation of fully automated trains would start in the period after 2025. Optimistic? We’ll see.


Austria is also at the forefront of progress. With its Swiss and German neighbors, we can see that it’s the whole German-Alpine region is embarking to the digital rail technology. The line is situated between Oberwart in the Austrian state of Burgenland and Friedberg in Stiermarken. It passes eight stations, twelve railway crossings and a 524-meter long tunnel. This variety of environmental factors make it possible to test different situations that can occur during a train journey, in the context of a project of autonomous train made by ÖBB, the Federal railways.

A old Emu from the Traunseebahn operated by Stern & Hafferl Verkehrsgesellschaft was rebuilt and equipped with various sensors (laser scanner, mono and stereo video, radar, infrared and ultrasound as well as location sensor technology in conjunction with algorithms) for obstacle detection and an automatic control system. With the help of the developed software system, the railcar can drive completely autonomously, can control breakpoints and brake before many obstacles. The system is based on a digital train protection and control solution that Siemens Austria has developed together with the FH Upper Austria (University of Wels, Research Group Rail Automation).

The current project called “autoBAHN2020” aims at a demonstrator system and associated simulation environment that can serve as a basis for future concrete product and approved developments for the public transport in order to facilitate the autonomous trains on secondary railway lines. Siemens Austria is involved in the project in questions of system approval as well as driving and braking control..

In France ?

Shortly before Innotrans 2018, France’s national railway operator SNCF has announced plans to introduce prototypes of driverless mainline trains for passengers and freight by 2023. SNCF will be partnering up with rolling stock specialists Alstom and Bombardier who will be heading up consortia for freight and passenger traffic, respectively. According the CEO Guillaume Pepy : ‘With autonomous trains, all the trains will run in a harmonised way and at the same speed. The train system will become more fluid.’ It is difficult to know where this statement comes from, which remains to this day unverified and unverifiable. One can understand indirectly that the second European railway carrier does not want to be left behind by its neighbors. The French rail operator said it was talking to German operator Deutsche Bahn about promoting a European standard for driverless trains.

Thameslink (London)

Let’s end with a real test in real conditions. Govia Thameslink Railway, which owns the Thameslink franchise, a north-south line running through London, started a first test in March 2018. After almost 18 months of testing, the first commuter train in automatic operation was Monday’s 9.46am Thameslink service from Peterborough to Horsham. Shortly after 11.08am, the driver, Howard Weir, pressed the yellow button in the cab that allowed the train’s computer to do the driving between St Pancras and Blackfriars.

Gerry McFadden, directeur technique de la société mère de Thameslink, rassure tout le monde : ‘Nous aurons toujours besoin d’un chauffeur dans la cabine, mais cette technologie nous permet de faire circuler plus de trains, plus souvent que nous ne pourrions le faire manuellement. Pour les voyageurs, les trajets n’auront jamais été aussi fluide.’ Avec 24 trains par heure en heure de pointe, Thameslink n’a aucun intérêt à se tromper. Nous sommes à Londres, sur l’un des réseaux ferroviaires les plus encombrés du monde. Et dernièrement, de nombreux couacs sont venus perturber le quotidien des navetteurs de la capitale britannique, pour d’autres raisons. L’heure n’est donc plus aux tergiversations : il faut que cela fonctionne !

Gerry McFadden, Technical Director of Thameslink parent company, reassures everyone: « We’ll always need a driver in the cab, but this technology allows us to run more trains, more frequently than we could by driving the trains manually. For passengers, the trip will be as smooth as ever. » With 24 trains per hour in peak, Thameslink has no interest in making a mistake. We are in London, on one of the most congested rail networks in the world. And lately, many problems have come to disrupt the daily lives of commuters in the British capital, for other reasons. The time for procrastination is now over : it must work!


We are only at the beginning. Autonomous trains concern two separate branches of the railways: freight on the one hand, and passengers on the other. We are pretty sure that under certain conditions, like in Australia, the freight train will benefit first from the autonomous locomotive. With these recent developments, one might wonder if it is easier to bring autonomous passenger trains to the mainstream before self-driving cars could make it to the traffic. But that’s not going to happen anytime soon. Achieving full automation would require advanced image processing technology relaying information at high speeds to the control units at all times. These systems must also be constantly maintained by highly trained personnel, adding more costs to the implementation.

Those who say that would perhaps do well to reread Schumpeter ….



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