All Change: The Future of Autonomous Light Rail

July 3, 2020

Urban transport solutions are growing in popularity. But how can the industry adapt successfully to the changes along the tracks?

All Change: The Future Of Autonomous Light Rail

The number of people using light rail in the UK continues to rise. Over 272 million passenger journeys were made on light rail services in 2018/9, a year-on-year increase of 1.9%. The picture is similar across Europe, with ridership increasing by 6.9% between 2015 and 2018. In some locations, light rail is an integral part of public transport infrastructure which not only allows for easy commuting but opens up numerous possibilities in relation to urban planning and developing environmentally-friendly means of transportation. 

This is coupled with the exponential market growth in automated rail solutions, which have come to dominate light rail networks. It’s forecast that the autonomous rail market will grow to $9.69bn globally by 2023, with a CAGR of 9.8%. 

With such strong market growth, change is to be expected. But what kind of changes do automated solutions promise to bring to the light rail industry? And how do concerns about the environment and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic filter into these?  

Managing Capacity  

Capacity has always been a major issue on urban transport networks. As city populations increase, operators have had to balance the need to increase capacity with other concerns, particularly environmental considerations. Yet automation could provide the key to resolve this issue.  

One way in which capacity can be increased is through certain kinds of train control systems. Many light rail networks use communications-based train control (CBTC), which – through using onboard and limited trackside wireless equipment – provides real-time positioning and signalling information to both driver and control centre. CBTC enables reduced headway between trains, hence increasing capacity. 

Moving Towards Autonomy 

When it comes to autonomous light rail, the key development in the industry is AI. This can range from improving train performance through to reducing the impact of maintenance on services. The use of tools such as Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) systems monitors the speed of rolling stock, through which it can make quick assessments of tracks across the network in order to identify potential faults. 

Alongside maintenance solutions, light rail networks can reduce operational costs through adopting autonomous operation models. In Norway, the Bybanen Bergen light railway is aiming to leverage autonomous technology to reduce the total cost per passenger. Changes to signalling, including the removal of the Control Centre (as human error would no longer be an issue through the use of automatic train operation, or ATO), and increasing capacity through reducing train headway are both being trialled to determine their effectiveness.  

The Future is Eco-Friendly

Naturally, the move towards automated urban transport will have several positive implications for the environment. The increase in the number of automated people movers (APMs) in operation signifies the desire for quick and easy transport that is simultaneously eco-friendly. 

While electric-powered vehicles are clearly a starting point when it comes to reducing pollution, APMs offer much more than this alone. First of all, they are considerably cheaper to build than larger vehicles while at the same time capable of much more rapid speeds, making them useful in contexts such as airport transit. 

On a more general level, the use of APMs may encourage a change in passengers’ travel habits, with many of these covering very short connecting journeys. For instance, an APM is due to be built to accompany the HS2 high-speed railway line in the UK, transferring passengers from the mainline to Birmingham International Airport and the National Exhibition Centre (NEC). This, as with other scenarios in which APMs are usually adopted, will likely discourage usage of other, less environmentally-friendly modes of transport (e.g. buses, private cars), hence having a cumulative impact on the local environment in what are often very urbanised areas.  


Test to Track

The forecast growth in the autonomous light rail market means that demand for software components used on light rail rolling stock will likely increase. Inevitably, this will lead to an increase in demand for testing solutions. 

New software for rolling stock will therefore need to be assessed under the CENELEC standards governing rail software safety, namely EN 50128. This may include the increased implementation of software enabling the contactless operation of passenger doors, which can be achieved through automatic selective door operation (ASDO). As the name suggests, ASDO enables certain doors on board a train to be opened automatically and is already in operation on many light rail networks. This system is built to Safety Integrity Level (SIL) 2 standards, which outline the reliability and safety requirements it must follow. This is crucial as, in the case of passenger door operations at least, system failure could very easily lead to passenger injury or even fatality.  

Autonomous light rail has an important role to play in the future of urban transportation. It is not only an eco-friendly alternative to more traditional modes of public transport, but also provides the rapid, reliable service which modern commuters demand. It is also well-placed to deal with the challenges posed by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, its potential to boost capacity and automate maintenance processes limiting the amount of human contact needed to travel and carry out essential work. Bearing this in mind, it’s no wonder that – despite the downturn caused by the pandemic – the sector is due to bounce back with renewed strength and vigour.  

Learn more about Critical Software’s work in the light rail industry here.