In yesterday’s first part of the discussion about automated operation of high-speed rail, commentators considered some of the technical issues around introducing the technology, and Bombardier Transportation Manager for Functional Integration Despina Ziaka calls for “a more consolidated international ‘Concept of Operation’ for fully automated metros, high-speed rail, and other operations.” The argument is that with a set of globally defined criteria the possibilities of widespread ATO would have a clear picture.
Nick Fotis, a regular commentator on Railgroup, highlighted some potential technical pitfalls which could handicap ATO on high-seed rail: “A HSR system is not as well isolated from environmental intrusions as an underground and isolated Metro system. Even worse, it may connect to the conventional rail system. Also, you cannot transfer quickly and reliably the situation to a central console from a 300+ km/h train. Have you attempted to transfer video via wireless from such a quick-moving train (which may lose the signal due to tunnels, bridges and whatnot) to a control station 500+ km away?”
Phillip Barker, meanwhile, pondered the commercial and societal aspects: “While technically possible, it comes down to a commercial requirement. One is improving availability of the assets – you can run the trains when needed not based on driver availability, as in Singapore. Reliability of services also increases – drivers are subject to fatigue, boredom, and inconsistent application of skills especially in close headway operations.
“On passenger acceptance of an empty driving cab at high speed, I think we too quickly assume that it wouldn’t be accepted. There are enough driverless operations around the world now that show passengers are happy to sit up front and enjoy the view where a driving cab should be – look at Kualar Lumpur, London’s Docklands Light Railway etc. Even the terminal people mover at Hong Kong airport can be concerning to some but acceptable as it hurtles along and seems to leave braking to the last moment even as the dead end platform looms into view. But drivers do have a place as they offer the flexibility that machines may not offer. System failures occur and a train driver one of the better forms of redundancy ensuring a train can at least continue to its destination in a degraded mode.”
The final word, however goes to Hendrik Kassebohm, Managing Director & Chief Consultant at HK Railconsult CC, who had followed the discussion for almost two weeks before concluding his considered response with something all rail professionals hold dear: “What is the purpose of full automation, and does it have the best interests of the paying customers in mind?”
And with that, for the moment at least, we’re going to close the debate on automation. Next week we’ll take a slightly different tack and examine some of the challenges metro operators face, and how developments in signalling and train control systems might be able to help them.