Alstom train

Self-driving freight train to be tested in Netherlands

Image credit: Dreamstime

Alstom, the French rail transport giant, is to begin trialling automated freight trains on a track in the Netherlands this year.

A prototype self-driving freight train has been developed that is capable of travelling over medium distances - approximately 100km - without the intervention of a driver. These trains would still employ a driver, who will be able to concentrate on supervising the progress of the train, rather than the driving itself.

Alstom will carry out trials on the Betuweroute in the Netherlands - a 150km double track line linking Rotterdam and Germany - by the end of 2018, having signed a contract with ProRail, the Dutch infrastructure operator, and Rotterdam Rail Feeding. Through these trials, Alstom hopes to demonstrate that the train and signal systems are capable of communicating, allowing the train to travel safely without constant human supervision.

Automating the operation of trains can help cut energy consumption by making trains run more uniformly and at closer intervals, Alstom has said. This can also increase the capacity of the rail network.

“Automated trains are on the innovation agenda of several countries”, said Gian-Luca Erbacci, senior vice president for Alstom in Europe.

“Alstom’s close collaboration with ProRail and [Rotterdam Rail Feeding] will contribute to support the progress of new technology and create a more attractive, more competitive and more sustainable rail system.”

Alstom is not the first company to test automated trains; in October 2017, Rio Tinto, an Australian-British mining company which already operates dozens of autonomous trucks in its operations, performed a fully automated freight train journey of nearly 100km in the Western Australian desert. A human team monitored the test journey from a distance.

Many railway networks – particularly city metros – are already partially autonomous, including the Paris Metro, Seoul Metropolitan Subway and some parts of the London Underground. However, even on these networks, drivers tend to be employed to perform other duties on board, such as opening and closing doors, addressing passengers and taking control of the train in emergencies and other unpredictable situations.

A number of obstacles stand in the way of driverless trains replacing conventional trains on a large scale. In particular, much of the existing rail infrastructure in Europe is very old and therefore not built to communicate with automated trains, which perform best on uniform and clearly signalled tracks.

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