What a wonderful response to the question we posed in our recent Automation Week – can ETCS deliver automated high-speed rail? The piece provoked a fascinating debate on LinkedIn’s Railgroup, with rail experts keen to share their views. So numerous and good were the responses that we’ve split the report into two parts, running today and tomorrow.
Starting the debate, Nick Fotis asked very simply: “Would you embark on a 300km/h train without a driver?”
He garnered an immediate response from Mike Blaszak, Senior Counsel-North America Business Lines at AECOM, US, who argued that as trains operate at increasing speeds automation was “inevitable,” adding: “You’re always going to staff passenger trains for ticket collection (or enforcement of honour systems), mediation of disputes and passenger assistance, particularly in the case of emergencies. But there’s no reason (other than tradition and labour agreement rules) why these people couldn’t also be trained to recognise and possibly address simple mechanical problems, as they already do with HVAC and toilets.”
ETCS is not designed to provide automation for high-speed rail, but could it develop in the future?
Rick Valero, Manager Rolling Stock at Metra, Milwaukee, United States posed a telling challenge to the US passenger railway: “If US train travel wants to rival the airline industry automated control will be needed. The question is at what cost? Maintenance of the systems in place now is high and [the systems] are not reliable. Then there are the different systems that “host” railroads use and commuter equipment using their rail must comply with will be difficult to standardise. There may not be an easy way other than to standardise the systems and mandate it’s use. Then MAKE it work.”
Hans Wyss, Head of Projects with Crossrail AG Zurich, drew on Switzerland’s eight-year experience with ETCS: “ETCS is not suitable for a driverless train. ETCS – in the current and next version – cannot actively control the speed of the train (such as LZB in Germany). ETCS “only” monitors compliance with the maximum speed and braking curves… In summary – ETCS with no driver on the locomotive does not work.”
V.G. Ramesh Kumar Rail Transportation Systems – Director and KAM – Railways at Thales India Pvt Ltd, agrees that ETCS was never designed with ATO in mind, but concludes that a workable system should be built with established components of ETCS such as odometers, brake interfaces, speed curve estimation and so on.
A perspective from Australia’s experience with heavy haul freight came from Phillip Barker, Director of Rail Safety Consulting Australia: “While driverless operation is almost exclusively confined to the metro type of operation in a controlled environment, there have been driverless freight trains but limited in operation. An iron ore railroad in Australia however has embarked on driverless heavy haul operations on its network which includes some public road level crossings.”
Tomorrow we’ll continue the report, with experts discussing the need for open standards, and whether commercial imperatives really justify greater automation.