Automation and the Future of Train Driving

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Echo123

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Hi there,

I'm a university student who has been studying the railway industry for quite some time now and have largely focused my knowledge on automation and its application in multiple railways.
Having read a number of the forums on the problems and shortcomings of CBTC (Communications Based Train Control) and ETCS/ERTMS (European Train Control System/European Rail Traffic Management System), I want to understand more how ATO (Automatic Train Operation) trains have changed and shaped the role of the train driver.

Specifically, I'm hoping there are drivers on the forum (preferably the Tube but everyone is welcome of course) who could answer:
  • Who in the railway industry is heading the drive for greater automation?
    • Is it organisations such as TfL, or is it from the public who simply want train to run more efficiently? (I realise a number of people don't agree that ATO increases efficiency)
  • What opinions do railway workers hold regarding their skills and the effect that automation will play on them?
    • Do you see automation to be eroding your skills?
    • Do you feel your skills are no longer being made valuable in the world of work?
  • Where have you first noticed automation throughout your career as a train driver?
    • What is new, what is missing?
  • How do railway workers see themselves maintaining the skills necessary in the face of automation to continue within or beyond the railway sector?
    • What part do you want your employers and/or trade unions to play?
    • Do you think automation is eroding skills (like tacit skills) and if so, who do you think should have responsibility for ensuring skills are upheld?
I've only just recently become a member of this forum but must admit I have been visiting it for quite some time now. Feel like it's time to make a contribution and hear people's opinions!

FYI: I am also doing a university project on this so your thoughts would be really helpful!
:D
 
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JammyJames08

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As a driver I think I’ll be in my grave before any ato can cope with the complicated network I drive over!
 

irish_rail

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Automated train driving will only ever occur on self contained networks like the Tube or PERHAPS Hs2. The rest of the UK rail network just doesn't lend itself to automation, there isn't a great enough pay off for the astronomical investment that would be needed, and indeed, the technology doesn't yet even exist for many of our routes in this country, without still having someone in the cab.
Its science fiction that certain members of the uber right wing like to trott out every now and again to antagonise train drivers. The right wing press then like to bang on about strikes, but then I can not recall more than one strike by non tube drivers in the UK in the past 10 years and that was very localised.
 

387star

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The Tories who some Drivers are stupid enough to vote for would love to automate simply because it removes a heavily unionised workforce in one swoop . Boris is also obsessed by Driverless trains and has s chum working on delivering Driverless .

However it's just been announced for London Underground costs are prohibitive
 

Evolution

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Hi there,

I'm a university student who has been studying the railway industry for quite some time now and have largely focused my knowledge on automation and its application in multiple railways.
Having read a number of the forums on the problems and shortcomings of CBTC (Communications Based Train Control) and ETCS/ERTMS (European Train Control System/European Rail Traffic Management System), I want to understand more how ATO (Automatic Train Operation) trains have changed and shaped the role of the train driver.

Specifically, I'm hoping there are drivers on the forum (preferably the Tube but everyone is welcome of course) who could answer:
  • Who in the railway industry is heading the drive for greater automation?
    • Is it organisations such as TfL, or is it from the public who simply want train to run more efficiently? (I realise a number of people don't agree that ATO increases efficiency)
  • What opinions do railway workers hold regarding their skills and the effect that automation will play on them?
    • Do you see automation to be eroding your skills?
    • Do you feel your skills are no longer being made valuable in the world of work?
  • Where have you first noticed automation throughout your career as a train driver?
    • What is new, what is missing?
  • How do railway workers see themselves maintaining the skills necessary in the face of automation to continue within or beyond the railway sector?
    • What part do you want your employers and/or trade unions to play?
    • Do you think automation is eroding skills (like tacit skills) and if so, who do you think should have responsibility for ensuring skills are upheld?
I've only just recently become a member of this forum but must admit I have been visiting it for quite some time now. Feel like it's time to make a contribution and hear people's opinions!

FYI: I am also doing a university project on this so your thoughts would be really helpful!
:D
Call me cynical but there’s been quite a few threads of a similar nature from “University students” with new accounts. You may, of course, be a university student or you may well be working for a spurious “think tank” and doing some groundwork and/or a right wing journalist ;)

Short answer; automation won’t happen on the mainline anytime soon, not whilst we still have absolute block in quite a few areas.
 
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Bletchleyite

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Short answer; automation won’t happen on the mainline anytime soon, not whilst we still have absolute block in quite a few areas.

I'd not be so sure. When we reach the point that we can automate road cars effectively, a railway, even one using AB, is a much simpler proposition.
 

Dai Corner

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I'd not be so sure. When we reach the point that we can automate road cars effectively, a railway, even one using AB, is a much simpler proposition.
If the signalling system can determine the correct speed and acceleration at any point and the train set the controls accordingly what does the biological interface between them do that an electronic one couldn't?
 

Mattydo

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I’ve just left one industry (Aviation) where the effective use of automation enables a continued operation in degraded weather conditions and, for the automation to increase accuracy in more monotonous/repetitive tasks.

Modern aircraft for all intents and purposes can fly themselves from about 100 feet after take off, through climb, cruise and descent and depending on the airport, aircraft and crew even land themselves (although due to the need to protect the landing system signals, automated landings result in a massive decrease in an airports capacity so it isn’t yet a system that can be used all the time).

There still are, however, situations for which automation is not suited, certain weather conditions, systems failures, unusual situations essentially, still require human intervention. Not to mention less developed airfields and areas of airspace.

I imagine the same is true of the railway and rail traffic.

Aviation has also learnt that over reliance on automation has led to degradation in skills and a loss of awareness both for pilots and other stake holders. “Why is is doing that?” Is the dreaded phrase that begins many an air crash investigation episode.

Whilst the environment in which a train works is fundamentally less dangerous than that of an aircraft, I’d say similarities still exist.

I do however see that technology will eventually outgrow those issues and is doing so rapidly but I can’t envisage the required investment being as swift. Ultimately some human interface will likely always be required even if it’s just to monitor a computer.

Philosophically speaking, I fear that (to borrow a phrase from a famous movie), engineers spend a lot of time wondering whether they can do something they don’t often think about whether they should. The only real benefits felt by engineering humans out of any industry seems to be for the share holders and, let’s be honest, we already live in an unequal society. There’s always talk of “upskilling” society to counteract that effect but I’m not sure anyone is realistically doing so.
 

Evolution

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I'd not be so sure. When we reach the point that we can automate road cars effectively, a railway, even one using AB, is a much simpler proposition.
I would. Automated road cars and heavy rail have zero correlation and we know how that has gone with Tesla’s trials anyhow. The technology is there, the investment isn’t AND should it ever happen you would still need someone upfront ‘monitoring’ systems, examine the line, identify tresspassers (are they on or near the line or within a railway boundary, descriptions etc). I’d like to see how this would be automated?

It would cost billions and take years and for what advantage really? You’d still have someone on a reduced salary at the pointy end so not eliminating costs entirely.

It won’t happen in my lifetime (I’m not in the slightest bit worried either with 25+ years till retirement). I’d place money on it, planes are automated pretty much but you still have 2 pilots, 1 of which is monitoring. More likely to have pilotless planes first.
 
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Horizon22

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This might actually be worth placing in the London Underground section of the forum as its specifically asking about ATO and Tube operations which might get more replies (as well as from LU staff not drivers but aware of the system).

As for the mainline - it sure seems like an easy proposition from an outside perspective. However this would necessitate pretty much changing every signal, and every train in this country. Not to mention automatic and connecting some of the systems in the background - isolated signal boxes would probably need to go. I can't imagine this going anywhere until 2050 at the earliest. ETCS is a start, but that still includes manual response to in-cab requests.

Many modern trains are more automated anyway with computerised systems driving things that previously would have been mechanical. Interestingly (although slightly off-topic) this has required a different driver mindset on TOCs that have introduced things like class 80x. Many of these drivers have been used to HSTs for decades and now have a new system that requires more technological know-how. That's not easy and sometimes you'll never get to the same standard as again, a different mindset is required which you can't always just learn.
 

Eebbs1912

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There are too many variables, track conditions/blockages/landslips/mechanical, electrical, coms, measurement and control system failures etc for it to be viable on mainline. Glasgow subway is years behind already for going semi-driverless and that's basically just two separate circles that only has about 4 crossings at the single turnout. Even then they are still on about drivers required in the yard/sidings.
 

Echo123

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Call me cynical but there’s been quite a few threads of a similar nature from “University students” with new accounts. You may, of course, be a university student or you may well be working for a spurious “think tank” and doing some groundwork and/or a right wing journalist ;)

Short answer; automation won’t happen on the mainline anytime soon, not whilst we still have absolute block in quite a few areas.
I had a feeling someone might be cynical hehe; I am indeed a student who is focusing their entire university dissertation on this topic!
 

Efini92

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ATO works on the underground because it’s self contained and because it allows TFL to maximise the number of trains on the network, therefore they will justify the investment.
The cost would be too high on the national network.
 

4F89

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To compare to tesla, 1 car can be automated easily enough, but to automate every vehicle on British roads? Not a hope this century. Same with the rails. A few enclosed systems, from scratch, easy enough. To retro fit to the whole system, impossible.
 

Efini92

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It’s not impossible, the technology is there. It’s the cost. I’d guess it would be into a trillion.
 

irish_rail

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I'd love to know how the magic automated computer train driver can differentiate between a person on the track and say a deer. Or will it just stick the emergency brake in regardless everytime it detects something on the line in front of it. If so, expect a very very stop start journey, and a bloke sitting in the front who can restart said train. You could even call the bloke a driver!!??
 

Efini92

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I'd love to know how the magic automated computer train driver can differentiate between a person on the track and say a deer. Or will it just stick the emergency brake in regardless everytime it detects something on the line in front of it. If so, expect a very very stop start journey, and a bloke sitting in the front who can restart said train. You could even call the bloke a driver!!??
It could go rogue like HAL3000 and just keep going.
 

DanDanPlym

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Interesting proposition auto trains. Aviation industry has seen colossal automation to the extent, as posted above, planes now land themselves with such accuracy, the landing strips are having to be resurfaced more regularly due to them landing on the same spot causing quicker wear and tear. If you can do that with a plane, imagine what you could do with the rail network.

However, the cost of train network being upgraded will be immense and will take decades investment. Autonomous trains are coming, but perhaps not in my lifetime. Can't imagine there's currently enough political, regulatory or industry impetus to sink hundreds of billions into the network, especially with re-nationalisation on the cards and a Tory administration more concerned with grappling with deficits and Covid costs.

Also, how long will it take to convince the public that the computers are safer than the human brain given we're not even close to constructing AI systems that can compete with the overall functionality of the mind. I appreciate certain computer functions can operate to enhanced human ability, but not in an overall sense.

There's the inherent risk of design flaws being built into the systems due to human error which might take decades to iron out, through bitter experience. One serious mishap, loss of life caused by computer error and peoples enthusiasm for the tech might quickly subside. Driverless car surveys carried out in America showed some interesting results in that most people won't, at present, set foot in a driverless car on the open highways for fear of dying. However, the statistical data is already quite clear in that driverless tech is less likely to kill you, but is not without risk. 36000 American citizens were killed last year due to RTA's. If that death rate could be reduced to 6000 people per annum, due to driverless car technology, surely the public would rejoice in the 30000 lives spared. Well, the studies carried out suggest not so. Peoples irrationalaty appears to kick in and the public would likely dwell on the tech failures, the 6000 lives lost and not the 30000 lives saved and would almost certainly rather drive themselves even if this meant a greater probability of death. And that is a interesting mindset to have to overcome, as I believe the same principles would apply to the average rail user. Not all passengers, but a significant number.

The network has proven (massive touch of wood) safe for the last 15-17 years. One of safest in the world now I believe. We're at the stage where 30-yrs hard work to change safety attitudes and processes through the introduction of Health & Safety legislation and the Corporate Manslaughter Act means the vast majority of risks have extensive control measures imbedded to greatly mitigate danger.

I believe the plan will be to gradually integrate ever more driver monitoring technology, which is already happening. The tipping point will occur when drivers are monitoring the computers for errors more than they are driving. That's when we're on the path towards physically no driver at the front of the train. Gotta be 30-40 years away surely?? Let's hope so anyway
 

Echo123

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Many modern trains are more automated anyway with computerised systems driving things that previously would have been mechanical. Interestingly (although slightly off-topic) this has required a different driver mindset on TOCs that have introduced things like class 80x. Many of these drivers have been used to HSTs for decades and now have a new system that requires more technological know-how. That's not easy and sometimes you'll never get to the same standard as again, a different mindset is required which you can't always just learn.
Not off topic at all! In fact I'm quite interested in how the transition from driving older to new rolling stock feels for drivers.

Would you say that, given all the computerised equipment that is now present on trains, drivers can somewhat feel detached from the very vehicle that they are operating?
I ask this because interviews with Tube drivers on Geoff Marshall's videos discussing the end of old sub-surface rolling stock shows the drivers somewhat upset at having computers almost make the tacit feeling of driving a train become almost artificial.

Having talked with my dissertation supervisor, the term we've adopted is 'gamification' - instead of drivers using their senses and skills to identify faults, these faults are now fed directly to them through the Train Management System.
 

16.19

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Hi there,

I'm a university student who has been studying the railway industry for quite some time now and have largely focused my knowledge on automation and its application in multiple railways.
Having read a number of the forums on the problems and shortcomings of CBTC (Communications Based Train Control) and ETCS/ERTMS (European Train Control System/European Rail Traffic Management System), I want to understand more how ATO (Automatic Train Operation) trains have changed and shaped the role of the train driver.

Specifically, I'm hoping there are drivers on the forum (preferably the Tube but everyone is welcome of course) who could answer:
  • Who in the railway industry is heading the drive for greater automation?
    • Is it organisations such as TfL, or is it from the public who simply want train to run more efficiently? (I realise a number of people don't agree that ATO increases efficiency)
  • What opinions do railway workers hold regarding their skills and the effect that automation will play on them?
    • Do you see automation to be eroding your skills?
    • Do you feel your skills are no longer being made valuable in the world of work?
  • Where have you first noticed automation throughout your career as a train driver?
    • What is new, what is missing?
  • How do railway workers see themselves maintaining the skills necessary in the face of automation to continue within or beyond the railway sector?
    • What part do you want your employers and/or trade unions to play?
    • Do you think automation is eroding skills (like tacit skills) and if so, who do you think should have responsibility for ensuring skills are upheld?
I've only just recently become a member of this forum but must admit I have been visiting it for quite some time now. Feel like it's time to make a contribution and hear people's opinions!

FYI: I am also doing a university project on this so your thoughts would be really helpful!
:D
Put it this way; for the Mainline you’ll be long dead before it happens.
 

Andrew S

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I don't work in the rail industry so this is just an observer's view. I think the big factor to consider in a study of automation is what the driving force is (pardon the pun). On the tube, the main thing seems to be enhancing capacity, eg the Victoria line re-signalling was about pushing up the number of trains per hour, as that was the only real way of carrying more passengers. The role of the driver will certainly change as new trains and systems are rolled out, but drivers will still exist for a long time. Centralised control centres seems to be a good secondary benefit too.

However some political characters seem to be keen on suggesting automation being the way towards reducing staffing levels, or downgrading the role of the staff member at the front of a train. The two aims seem mutually incompatible.

As an aside, is the Elizabeth Line due to run with full ATO on the core sections? I have a feeling it is. I'm sure the people employed to operate the trains will be trained and paid as drivers, as they will be driving manually on the other parts.
 

Echo123

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I would. Automated road cars and heavy rail have zero correlation and we know how that has gone with Tesla’s trials anyhow. The technology is there, the investment isn’t AND should it ever happen you would still need someone upfront ‘monitoring’ systems, examine the line, identify tresspassers (are they on or near the line or within a railway boundary, descriptions etc). I’d like to see how this would be automated?
Very interesting point you state about monitoring systems. The literature I have read on automating transport states that automation needs to be 'taught' (Machine learning etc.) by us humans how to handle erroneous situations such as those that you (and @irish_rail) have mentioned. This would suggest that fully automating the railway requires more than procedural programming (be that simply responding to signal waves the 68 stock on the Victoria line used) and needs a serious ability to adequately mitigate abnormal circumstances.
Funnily enough, Elon Musk is quoted saying that Tesla's autopilot system will 'never be perfect', which if we were to apply to the railway context, would mean that automated trains wouldn't be perfect either. Do you think this would a strong argument to state that automation shouldn't be absolute?

I 'think' I've read somewhere that the DLR uses some sort of obstacle detection system in order to initiate an emergency stop should someone fall in the way of the train. Nonetheless, I don't think this system is capable of distinguishing random foreign debris from a person on the tracks. @irish_rail I guess this would be a good point with which to back the argument of keeping a driver in place?
 

Joliver

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I don't work in the rail industry so this is just an observer's view. I think the big factor to consider in a study of automation is what the driving force is (pardon the pun). On the tube, the main thing seems to be enhancing capacity, eg the Victoria line re-signalling was about pushing up the number of trains per hour, as that was the only real way of carrying more passengers. The role of the driver will certainly change as new trains and systems are rolled out, but drivers will still exist for a long time. Centralised control centres seems to be a good secondary benefit too.

However some political characters seem to be keen on suggesting automation being the way towards reducing staffing levels, or downgrading the role of the staff member at the front of a train. The two aims seem mutually incompatible.

As an aside, is the Elizabeth Line due to run with full ATO on the core sections? I have a feeling it is. I'm sure the people employed to operate the trains will be trained and paid as drivers, as they will be driving manually on the other parts.
Correct.

Central section will be CBTC driven in ATO (manually driven in degraded working) East/West manually driven in TPWS and ETCS.
 

Echo123

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There still are, however, situations for which automation is not suited, certain weather conditions, systems failures, unusual situations essentially, still require human intervention. Not to mention less developed airfields and areas of airspace.

I imagine the same is true of the railway and rail traffic.

Aviation has also learnt that over reliance on automation has led to degradation in skills and a loss of awareness both for pilots and other stake holders. “Why is is doing that?” Is the dreaded phrase that begins many an air crash investigation episode.

Whilst the environment in which a train works is fundamentally less dangerous than that of an aircraft, I’d say similarities still exist.

I do however see that technology will eventually outgrow those issues and is doing so rapidly but I can’t envisage the required investment being as swift. Ultimately some human interface will likely always be required even if it’s just to monitor a computer.

Philosophically speaking, I fear that (to borrow a phrase from a famous movie), engineers spend a lot of time wondering whether they can do something they don’t often think about whether they should. The only real benefits felt by engineering humans out of any industry seems to be for the share holders and, let’s be honest, we already live in an unequal society. There’s always talk of “upskilling” society to counteract that effect but I’m not sure anyone is realistically doing so.
Very glad to hear from someone who came from the aviation industry! I happen to be an aviation enthusiast myself and have studied the way that the Instrument Landing System (ILS) operates (Glideslope, Localiser etc. etc.)

Having watched numerous Air Crash Investigation episodes with my father, one of the points that we always speak about is the gradual overreliance on automation, which I'm very interested to see that you have mentioned. Would you say that the gradual implementation of automation (both railway and aviation) has resulted in pilots and drivers alike sometimes being robbed of the knowledge and skills the job requires of them? (The second Airbus Golden Rule is to 'Use the appropriate level of automation at all times', which can be viewed in both polar opposites, one telling pilots to heavily focus on the use of automation, and the other telling them to use it less so when abnormal situations arise)

Your last paragraph refers very closely to a term called 'para-professionalism', where in this context people who are experts in one field tend to infiltrate another by claiming to offer some fancy solution that solves everything. This is most common in IT consultancy, where such a company claims to produce a piece of software that improves efficiency and workflow and reduces human labour etc. etc. Do you think this is strongly the case when it comes to automated railways, where companies like Thales with its SelTrac product try to offer a solution that is 'apparently' win-win when actually there may be so many hidden problems in the works?
 

choochoochoo

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You just have to look how frequently the PIS goes wrong on trains to realise we are decades away from any chance of having systems reliable enough for full automation.

If they can't even get non-critical information systems operating properly right now, what hope have we got that a safety critical system can be relied upon without a driver keeping an eye on it ?
 

Echo123

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I don't work in the rail industry so this is just an observer's view. I think the big factor to consider in a study of automation is what the driving force is (pardon the pun). On the tube, the main thing seems to be enhancing capacity, eg the Victoria line re-signalling was about pushing up the number of trains per hour, as that was the only real way of carrying more passengers. The role of the driver will certainly change as new trains and systems are rolled out, but drivers will still exist for a long time. Centralised control centres seems to be a good secondary benefit too.

However some political characters seem to be keen on suggesting automation being the way towards reducing staffing levels, or downgrading the role of the staff member at the front of a train. The two aims seem mutually incompatible.
Thanks for this! You state that the drivers will still exist for a long time - with that being the case how do you see the role of the train driver changing exactly? Do you think they'll become more like train captains as is the case with the DLR?

Based on your last paragraph, do you think one of the reasons for automation is a supposed cost-cutting exercise? Some would say removing the driver removes the power of the union which in turn removes the possibility of strikes. I know the RMT is very concerned about the role of the drivers as the New Tube for London is soon to come in to play
 

matt_world2004

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Automation will only occur when the service frequency required is beyond that of a human ability to drive. TfL typically only "automate" lines to increase frequency as it currently does not reduce staffing costs.
 
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