Autonomous Tech: Where Roads Meet Rail

Technology and Business

Alice Salter

Alice Salter



In this article, we ask:

  • Where in the world can we already see automation in travel?
  • Are there levels of autonomy for trains as there are for road vehicles?
  • How does autonomous rail travel compare to autonomous driving?


Though we’re still waiting for our driverless cars to arrive, autonomous trains have been around for some time now. The world’s first automated, unmanned railway commenced operation in 1981 and the Japanese line has since become an inspiration around the world. Now, almost 50 cities run fully automated lines, with more under construction.



Automation is already here

For many, automation still feels like the technology which defines our future, but it has a big role in our past and present too. While we’ve been waiting for AVs to arrive, we’ve been using elevators and riding in airplanes which already operate independently of human control. In fact, elevators have offered us driverless travel since the 1920s and the majority of time spent flying is under the control of a machine.

Autonomous planes 2025AD

Though the very basics of autonomous tech are similar across planes, trains and road vehicles – in that they all sense, plan and act – their environments couldn’t be more different. That is why autonomous trains provide such a good opportunity for driverless tech, as the environments in which they operate can be controlled.


Firstly, trains run on tracks which means their routes are pre-determined. Obstacles may still pose a problem, but most autonomous lines remove these by ensuring access to the track itself is limited. The Chuo Shinkansen line in Japan, for example, incorporates screens designed to keep people and obstacles away from tracks. When it opens in 2027, it will be the world’s fastest unmanned railway and so such preventative measures are of vital importance – should something go wrong, there is very little time to correct it.


However, not all autonomous lines are being newly built. Adapting older stations is a must, echoing the idea that AVs will drive alongside human-driven vehicles on our roads. In Paris, on metro lines which are over 100 years old in places, this process is already well underway with over half of all stations now ready for the anticipated arrival of autonomous trains later this year. But what level of autonomy can we expect on the railway?



Grades of automation (GoA) in trains

Much as we can categorise driverless cars by their  , the International Association of Public Transport measures the capabilities of driverless trains in a graded system ranging from GoA 0 (with no automation) to GoA 4 (fully autonomous). These can be broken down as:


GoA 0: Trains have no automatic functionalities and are manually operated at all times, relying on a driver to interpret visual cues in order to run safely.


GoA 1: Drivers are still responsible for functions like starting, stopping and operating doors, and must take over in case of emergency, but automatic functions can control speed and signals.


GoA 2: At this grade, we see the beginnings of autonomy. A driver sits in the cab and is responsible for door operation and obstacle detection, but the train can move from station to station without intervention.


GoA 3: Trains can run between stations and operate doors autonomously. The ‘driver’, much like the stewards who are present in almost all autonomous cabs, is only needed to take over in emergency situations – a good example of this is London’s Docklands Light Railway.


GoA 4: At the top grade, trains operate independently, even in emergencies. This is a common set-up for automated metro lines like the ones in Paris, Sydney and Barcelona.



How does autonomous rail travel compare to autonomous driving?

Among the higher levels of automation, there are benefits for both individuals and businesses when using autonomous trains. Passengers can experience faster journeys thanks to the increased efficiency of trains which can react to change at speed, travel closer together and operate 24/7. Cost of travel could also decrease as autonomous trains can operate for 70% less than the cost of human-driven ones. Even if staff remain on board and in stations, operation costs drop by an impressive 30%.


This is perhaps where trains and road vehicles differ most. Though similar savings, which range from a 29-45% reduction in cost, have been predicted for autonomous haulage vehicles, driverless passenger vehicles cannot boast such benefits. However, the real value for private users comes with having free time during the rather comfortable ride.  


It is therefore in the industrial movement of goods that autonomy has most benefits. Technology giant GE agree that when it comes to automation, the money’s in freight and mass transportation including trucks, trains and ships, not personal vehicles.

Benefits of autonomous trains 2025AD

Autonomous haulage vehicles are starting to take huge steps forward. Recently, American company TuSimple has expanded operations and hopes to be shipping across the US in autonomous trucks by 2024. In Germany, Continental has already launched trials of trucks with level 4 autonomy and we’re seeing the same pattern on railways too.


Australia was the first when in 2018, the first heavy freight rail run carried 28,000 tonnes of iron ore over 280km from mine to port. Similar systems have since been trialled in the US, the UK, France, the Czech Republic and more, with many hoping to see some automation in action for heavy industry as soon as 2023.


So though autonomous tech is already common in rail travel, it is only recently that we’ve begun to see mass expansion across both passenger and industrial systems. This, perhaps, teaches a valuable lesson for the progression of autonomous road vehicles. AVs may be on their way, but it could be some time before we find their most beneficial uses and it’s likely these won’t be in passenger transport.


We’re always eager to hear what you think. Have you ridden in an autonomous train? Do you get an eerie feeling in a driverless train or do you actually feel safer? Let us know in the comments below.


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