The Rise and Future of Automatic Train Operation

December 23, 2019

Automatic train operation (ATO) is more than just automated trains - it encompasses a variety of operating states which keep the train travelling at the correct speed and stopping in the correct locations. But how far up the tracks could automatic train control eventually stretch to?

automatic train operation - train cockpit

But there’s more to ATO than a train without a driver. Indeed, ATO doesn’t necessarily mean a train is without a driver. Let’s look into how ATO has effected major change in the railways and its revolutionary potential for the future…

What is ATO Anyway?

Automatic Train Operation is a non-vital system which ensures trains stop in exactly the correct position at stations or at stop signals, controls the speed profile of the train to guarantee no sudden changes in acceleration or braking phases, and enables the automation of train doors. This is, however, a broad overview of ATO. In reality, the system is implemented on board trains in several different ways, including:

  • Semi-Automatic Train Operation (STO): The basic ATO which only executes the movement of trains from one station to the next by following an established speed profile as well as using the signalling system to control vehicle acceleration, braking curves and stopping positions.
  • Driverless Train Operation (DTO): Adding the function of door control to the Semi-Automatic Train Operation, removing the need for a driver but keeping the train guard, who carries out customer service duties as well as ensures passenger safety.
  • Unattended Driver Operation (UTO): Removing both the driver and the guard roles from on board the train, instead ensuring passenger safety through features such as the use of platform screen doors.

Now the basics are out of the way, it’s time to explore how ATO has been used on rail networks across Europe – all aboard…

Getting On Board with ATO

While ATO has become noticeably common on inner-city and suburban metro lines, including the London Underground’s Victoria line, the transition from these to the mainline may be slightly more complex. In Britain, Thameslink - which runs trains in the south east of England - has become the first mainline train operator to use ATO, with rail company Govia claiming that this will increase frequency to 24 trains per hour in central London and increase capacity by up to 70%. Other ATO trials are being run by Nederland Spoorwegen, the Dutch national rail service, with similar hopes to increase capacity on a network where it often reaches 100%.

ATO promises to change the way railways run. Yet, naturally, certain parts of this system are controversial. This begs the question, how should rail companies weigh up all the different consequences of introducing ATO to their networks?

Mainline Concerns

Despite rail companies’ optimism about ATO’s potential to increase train frequency and capacity, there are doubts as to whether the system can make a significant difference. In fact, mixed traffic on mainlines – in other words, the use of these lines by passenger and freight trains – limits how much train frequency can realistically be increased. While this isn’t an issue for Govia for the time being, with ATO currently being rolled out only on its central London lines with little freight traffic, once it’s introduced to the whole network the frequency and capacity benefits will likely be diminished.

The human cost of rolling out ATO to the wider railway is also noteworthy. As with any automation project, ATO will mean the services of some employees – in this case, drivers and guards - will no longer be required. While ATO has yet to be rolled out on any British railway routes other than Thameslink, the first step towards it – known as driver-only operation (or DOO) – has been suggested for rail companies including South Western Railway and Northern, leading to multiple incidents of strike action across Britain’s railway prompted by concerns over job losses.

Another no less important factor than others mentioned is the investment required for rolling stock and wayside infrastructure upgrades. Most of the existing rolling stock fleet used by mainline operators lacks support for ATO operation in respect to on-board systems such as Automatic Train Protection (ATP) and its transponders. Coupled with the lack of necessary wayside equipment, it is clear the whole infrastructure would need to be modernized in order to fulfil all the technical characteristics required for ATO. Such modernizations demand significant investment in terms of budget and time - something which may not be forthcoming from rail companies and governments alike.

The End of the Line?

ATO has revolutionised the way high-density metro systems operate. However, its success on the mainline is dependent on a range of complex considerations, ranging from its effectiveness on mixed-traffic lines to the human cost of removing the driver and guard roles from trains. One thing is for certain: the technology is there. How rail companies use it is the tricky part.

Don’t find yourself on the wrong track – learn more about how Automatic Train Control (ATC) systems increase safety, improve travel times and lower operating costs with our free white paper.