LNVG Alstom Coradia Lint (Photo: Alstom)

GERMANY: Work has started on a project to develop and test technology for the driverless operation of regional passenger trains, and to identify the regulatory changes which would be needed to permit future use.

The project is being undertaken by Alstom, the DLR aerospace research centre and Technische Universität Berlin. It is looking at using ETCS to support passenger operation using Grade of Automation 3 — with an onboard attendant who would be able to intervene in the event of any problems — although GoA4 unattended operation is envisaged for the movement of empty trains in depots.

The Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs & Climate Action is supporting the research, while Niedersachsen’s Ministry of Economic Affairs, Employment, Transport & Digitalisation is providing €5·5m to fund the retrofitting of onboard equipment to two Alstom Lint 41 diesel multiple-units belonging to its transport authority LNVG.

First phase

The first phase of the project involves the development of technology to support automated operation. This will include systems for signal recognition, obstacle detection and to enable a train to be controlled remotely or by an attendant in the event of any technical problems.

‘The scientific objectives include the optimisation of the remote-control operator’s workplace for railway applications and operational studies for mobile train control by the train attendant inside and outside the driver’s cab’, explained Prof Dr-Ing Birgit Milius, head of the Department of Railway Operations & Infrastructure at TU Berlin. ‘Usability studies and technical feasibility are in the foreground.’

Alstom said tests in other countries had demonstrated that automated operation and remote control was technically feasible. The current project will include assess whether the existing regulatory framework for Automatic Train Operation could be adapted for regional trains, and what would be needed to demonstrate adequate safety for passenger operation.

‘Together with its partners, TU Berlin is developing a system definition for driverless operation, variance analyses to today’s operation with a driver, and safety analyses of the new system’, said Milius. ‘A possible path towards a generic approval of driverless driving is to be developed.’

Second phase

The second phase of the project will see ATO equipment installed on the two ETCS-equipped DMUs to enable testing under real-world conditions in northern Germany from mid-2024.

Testing will be undertaken in a ‘regulatory sandbox’ on lines in Niedersachsen, although the exact routes have still to be decided. DLR will identify the operational requirements and vehicle modifications which would be needed to obtain regulatory approval for fully-automated passenger trains.

Operational and economic data from the tests will be used to produce recommendations for the future roll-out of automation. TU Berlin is looking at human factors, including future staff roles, and meetings and consultations are planned to ensure the involvement of all stakeholders.

‘Automation of rail transport is an important step for a flexible and more attractive mobility offer’, said Dr Bärbel Jäger of the DLR Institute of Transportation Systems, which is studying the required changes to operational processes and staff roles. ‘The exciting thing here is that this work is being done in the context of a living laboratory, and thus very close to real operations.’

A variety of opportunities

Michael Kellner, Parliamentary State Secretary at the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs & Climate Action, said the automation of railways, especially regional routes, offers a variety of opportunities.

Lower operating costs would make it easier for regional providers to enter the market or expand their services, he suggested, while unprofitable routes could be operated more economically, meaning less commuting by road, lower CO2 emissions ‘and a more relaxed journey for commuters.’