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In a world of autonomous vehicles, how do future trains stay relevant?

Dean Evans Technology Writer Twitter

According to a report by BCG Perspectives, driverless cars could threaten the future of passenger rail services. It warns that: “the advent of autonomous vehicles (AVs) could well affect passenger rail travel as profoundly as did the automobile 125 years ago.”

It’s a bold claim, but consider this: once fully autonomous vehicles become commonplace on our streets, on demand ride sharing could provide a compelling alternative to today’s rigidly timetabled public transport services.

Future trains vs. autonomous vehicles

“AVs will typically be more available than trains,” suggests BCG Perspectives, and “taking an AV will be faster door-to-door.” Crucially, says the report, with the availability of autonomous vehicles “highway travel will no longer represent downtime because passengers can use the time to work, read, or sleep, as they would on a train.”

Future trains need to fight back if they want to stay relevant.

Ansaldo STS worked on the Copenhagen underground with driverless trains and 24/7 coverage.
Ansaldo STS worked on the Copenhagen underground which runs driverless trains with 24/7 coverage.

First, they need to get smarter. Driverless trains are already a reality in cities across the world. Just like self-driving cars, there are several grades of automation (GoA). The highest of these is GoA 4, where starting and stopping, door operation and emergencies are fully automated.

GoA 4 metro services already operate in Copenhagen, Barcelona, Rome and Paris. The UK lags behind, with only the inter-terminal trains at Gatwick and Stansted considered to be fully automated to GoA 4 standards. The Docklands Light Railway, meanwhile, is a GoA 3 system, with some tasks (like the opening and closing of its carriage doors) requiring the presence of a human operator.

Smart trains with superbrains

Second, trains need to become more efficient. Intel is working with GE to create a ‘superbrain’ platform for locomotives, a mobile data centre that is a combination of GE’s GoLINC network, communication, and application management platform and an Intel Core i7 processor.

What does this superbrain do? According to TechWeek Europe, it offers “a way for trains to better manage their horsepower and the amount of harmful emissions they give off, as well as improve their operational efficiency.”

Third, trains need to be faster. Not Hyperloop fast. That technology is still a way off. But if you look at a list of the world’s fastest trains, the 186mph Eurostar pales in comparison to China’s 267mph Shanghai Maglev and Italy’s 220mph Trenitalia Frecciarossa 1000.

Make it worth the effort

Fourth, to compete against fleets of autonomous vehicles, future trains need to be worth travelling on. Today’s passenger services are often criticised for being overcrowded, poor value for money and dirty, while commuters regularly suffer cancellations and delays.

Self-Driving-Uber
Uber’s self-driving cars offer a glimpse into an on demand, ride-sharing future.

We’re not expecting Venice Simplon-Orient-Express luxury — restored 1920s carriages, crystal glasses and polished wood cabins. But future trains will need to be clean, spacious and comfortable. India’s newest Delhi Metro trains aren’t just driverless, they feature dynamic route maps in the doors, USB slots for mobile charging, LED lighting and air conditioning.

“We expect AVs to constitute a tangible threat to passenger rail within the next one or two decades regardless of the rate of adoption,” says the BCG Perspectives report.

But in the meantime, perhaps driverless cars and the railways can work together. In Germany, rail operator Deutsche Bahn is working on a service that will offer autonomous vehicles to ferry passengers to and from its stations. Quick local journeys by car and speedy regional trips by rail might be the best of both worlds.

Main image copyright: Shutterstock/dani3315

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