Why Do We Still Have Train Engineers?

I was in Israel this week, when I heard about the tragic train derailment just miles from my apartment in New York. The train engineer was literally asleep at the wheel, going 88 miles per hour in a 35 mile hour zone. The result was four dead and over 120 injured.  All of this could have been avoided if we replaced the human with a robot. During the same newscast, the world was a buzz with Jeff Bezos announcement about exploring the use of drones to deliver packages in the future.  Unfortunately, it is popular, very popular, among the uneducated so-called “intellectuals” to criticize anything with the word drone in it. The sad fact is if a drone was at the helm of the Metro-North train, four people would be alive today.

In cities across the globe from Tokyo to Dubai to London, commuter rails and subways are being automated.  Driverless trains work by computer systems located in a remote control room, laser detectors to pick up the smallest movement on tracks, and advanced control algorithms for best performance and this would prevent the recent litany of train accents.  

Automatic train operation (ATO) covers a range of levels of automation and can be widely differentiated in semi-automatic train operation (STO), driverless train operation (DTO) and unattended train operation (UTO).  For example with STO, implemented on the London Victoria and Central line in the UK, the operation of the train’s motors and brakes is automated, allowing a more consistent form of driving. The driver however remains in the front of the train, to operate doors, give start signals when leaving a station and monitor performance of the train and the track ahead.

DTO refers to more sophisticated systems where the driver is free to move away from the front of the train but remains available for customer service. In case of the failure of the ATO, they would take control of the train. The demands on security and platform controls are higher in this case, as the driver is no longer in the cab at the front of the train.

UTO is a driverless ATO without an on-board attendant. In this case, a remote computer system must be able to operate the train in case of a failure of the system.

Once operators have found the right concept for their lines, the benefits of automation are numerous. “Train operations become more exact and timely as the automation system controls the trains according to a schedule split in seconds,” explains Siemens Mass Transit general manager Frank Gerken.

“The frequency of the trains can be enhanced, especially in low traffic hours, as more and shorter trains can be inserted in traffic without the need for more operational staff.”

In addition, automation can reduce the wear-and-tear of train propulsion and braking systems, it can optimize energy consumption and potentially reduce operating costs through more effective and regular train operation, not to mention a safer ride.

“But today, safety improves with increased automation as computerized systems control train movements more precisely and more reliably than humans,” says Gerken,

“The big benefit of having a driverless system is the safety – the element of human error is taken out completely,” said Copenhagen Metro chief executive Piero Marotta already in 2009. The 21km state-of-the-art metro in the Danish capital is one of Europe’s first driverless train systems. All movements and track switches are run from one single control room, which applies one of the most sophisticated railway security systems.

With automated systems not only the safety onboard the train is enhanced. In Copenhagen, it is impossible for someone to be killed by falling or jumping in front of a train. Platform edge doors close every possible way onto the tracks. At the city’s outdoor stations, closely-spaced infra-red rays or a laser beam scanner are connected directly to the control system, reacting immediately if a person falls or walks on to the tracks.

Nonetheless, it will only be a matter of time before the benefits of increased levels of automation on metro systems will be realized on main lines and high-speed railways, as operators are looking to boost safety and security, and enhance the comfort and quality of rail travel.

“Humans are more likely to make errors than technical systems,” says Gerken. And safety is what it is all about. Too bad, the biggest city in America with the most sophisticated financial system in the world failed to update their trains to a technology that has been around since the early 1980s.

Now Bezos, very simply innovators are always a head of the parade it is up to us to catch up.

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