Dutch railways fully focus on self-driving train
Dutch railway network company, ProRail, hopes to start the first live tests with a self-driving freight train on the Betuwe line at the end of this year. As soon as the Environment and Transport Inspectorate gives the go-ahead, expected within a few weeks, the tests that were announced earlier will start. The driver will eventually become redundant.
50% more passengers
Next year, tests with passenger trains will be carried out on the Groningen-Leeuwarden section. The expectation is that these ‘autonomous’ trains will be in the timetable after 2023.
“They can run faster, safer and closer together”, says ProRail’s top man, Pier Eringa. “As a result, capacity on the already congested tracks in the Netherlands can increase with 50%, because autonomous trains can run much faster and closer to each other. This means a lot of extra passengers.”
Robots on the rails
Other plus points of the so-called Automatic Train Operation: smart ‘ATO trains’ can also drive much more economically and on time. Because human errors are eliminated, accidents will decrease considerably.
Of course, the driverless train will only be introduced if there is a watertight safety system. “We are working hard on this”, says Eringa. “If you take all these factors into account, the conclusion is that ‘Robots on the rails’ are the most suitable for best coping with this increase of the number of passengers.”
Trade unions of train drivers, on the other hand, are watching with suspicion whether they will be able to keep enough work in the future. According to ProRail and the transport operators, this is still the case. “The ATO has five phases”, says Eringa. “In the first phases, the driver, as a supervisor, is still present in the seat in front of the cab. Only in the final phase can the driver’s cabin remain empty.”
At the forefront
Self-propelled public transport is gaining momentum. Everywhere in Europe tests are done with ‘autonomous’ trains, trams and city buses. Subways in closed systems often already drive automatically without a driver, for example at airports.
The Netherlands are at the forefront in this. Regional transport operator, Arriva, subsidiary of Deutsche Bahn, is involved in the Betuwe line project. The French train builder Alstom is also participating and the Netherlands Organization for Applied Scientific Research (TNO) is doing intensive research on it.
Road transport can’t compete with railways in the end
Yet there is a good chance that the first of driverless transport will be ‘stolen’ from the railways by road transport.
Mercedes-Benz has launched a new mobility plan for city robotic buses for both passengers and freight. This ‘Vision Urbanetic’ includes electric vehicles without a driver that can be ordered on demand: for people during the day and in the evening, for goods at night. Linked to an app and high-tech platform, supply and demand are seamlessly matched.
This week Siemens Mobility introduced the world’s first 100% self-propelled tram at an innovation fair in Berlin (for the time being, in test phase). Tests with ‘truck platooning’, trucks in a row on the motorway, have also started. Buses are the next step.
“However, it is precisely the train that can handle much more freight and passengers”, explains Eringa. “Road traffic can never compete with that. It is therefore logical that this means of transport should be given priority. We must continue to lead the way in Europe.”