Paweł Kołodziejczyk, M.Sc.

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Biggest failures of ATO research

What is ATO research?

Before we dive into the biggest research failures of Automatic Train Operations (ATO), let’s first discus what it actually is. ATO research describes technological advancements in safety and control to further automate train functions and reduce the presence of staff onboard or elsewhere. Its progress is described in Grades of Automation (GoA), where with an increased number from 0 to 4, the train becomes more autonomous and less human effort is needed to run it.  

There are many examples of various levels of GoA existing in the railway world, including the most advanced GoA 4Typically, such narratives involve a specific case description, comparison to existing solutions, technical overview, gains from using innovative technology and a traditional paragraph concerning staff and one summarising reducing costs. For urban high-capacity cases, a quick calculation shows how much capacity is gained by reducing headways or due to any other automation-related efficiency improvements including acceleration, braking, cruising, stopping time, or other. 

One of the biggest failures of ATO research, is that these solutions mostly involve new railway lines which often work in seclusion from the rest of the railway network and where all rolling stock operates with the same GoA. Clearly, to achieve a widespread adoption of ATO more attention is needed for solving problems with the existing network. These can be divided into three categories of challenges: 

  • Rolling stock 
  • Infrastructure  
  • Dispatching and control systems 

Current ATO tests

There is a lot of research done in what exactly needs to be solved, how it should be solved and how to align it with existing systems like ERTMS. We know it can and will be done and that all major railway companies put effort into introducing ATO in the coming years. It needs to be pointed out though, that the tests most often involve only individual trains and the potential gains of lower headways, better cruise control etc. These gains are often assumed to be equivalent for other trains and extrapolated to the entire network, while in fact the rail network is a web of interdependencies which should be studied on a higher level. Especially that the real value of rail services lies in timely, efficient and reliable transportation of people and goods, and not in improving operational KPIs.  

Failures of ATO research

The biggest challenge

Yet, the biggest upcoming challenge lies in the transition phase and interoperability among varying GoA. At some point in time there will need to be harmonious operations of trains with drivers and without them, in a safe and efficient system. To be fully aware of the gains of ATO in time, we need to answer at least the following questions:  

  • How long will the transition take and what phases need to be distinguished? 
  • What are the gains during each phase of the transition period? Are they sufficient? 
  • What large-scale efficiency problems can we expect? 
  • How a control and planning system should be set up, also cross-border? 
  • How can ATO be used to promote rail travel for medium distances? 
  • What is the actual system-wide benefit of fully implemented ATO? How does it depend on the location? 

There are still many challenges aheadA tremendous progress has been made so far, and it is time to emphasise holistic investigation. Thus, appropriate tools need to be developed so that we utilise the entire potential of rail transportation. 


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