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Driverless trains: How India is bridging the technology & infra gap

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Rail travel seems to be fast capturing the Indian imagination, with the country signing a mega Bullet train deal with Japan, and Maharashtra toying with the idea of introducing Hyperloop trains, a radically new experimental mobility solution, to drastically cut down the travel time between Mumbai and Pune. 

India, known to be home to the largest railway network in the world, is steadily keeping pace with other countries in upgrading railways in terms of both, technology and infrastructure. Among other advancements, driverless train technology has already arrived at Indian shores.

Certain routes on metro lines in Delhi and Hyderabad now use Communication-Based Train Control (CBTC), a radio-based signalling system, to ply cars on tracks without a driver. 

Automation systems in trains have been in use for over two decades, but serious advancements and deployment have happened only in the last five or seven years. A milestone was achieved in March this year, when the total line length of fully-automated metros globally crossed 1,000 km, according to the International Association of Public Transport (UITP), a Belgium-based non-profit organisation tracking advances in public transportation.

For automated metros, France leads the pack with the largest and most advanced network in the world, followed by Canada, Singapore and the UAE. In all, 63 fully-automated lines are functional across 42 cities in 19 countries, according to UITP.

India got its first fully-automated trains in November 2017, with Delhi Metro Rail Corp and Hyderabad Metro Rail deploying trains with the new signalling systems on select routes. However, metro rails in India currently use at least one driver on these vehicles, and while there is installed capability to go for full automation, it is still some time away.

“We plan to flag off the train in one or two years, once DMRC develops some comfort with the technology and rigorous testing is complete,” said Anuj Dayal, executive director at Delhi Metro.

The automated or semi-automated intra-city metro trains use the CBTC system, which enables precise, continuous and automatic communication between the trains, track infrastructure and a central control centre. Different configurations allow the train operators to implement Automatic Train Protection (ATP), Automatic Train Operation (ATO) and Automatic Train Supervision (ATS) functions, as defined in IEEE 1474, the international standard for CBTC performance and functional requirements.

In this approach, dozens of sensors are fitted not only across the perimeter of the train but also in the cab (train’s cockpit) and wayside. They continuously transmit reports on parameters such as the exact position of the train, speed, travel direction and braking distance. The data is transmitted over radio frequency, typically in 2.4 GHz band.

There are set standards of automation called GoA, or Grades of Automation. In GoA 1, trains are run by one driver, while in GoA 2 and GoA 3, the starting and halting of trains are automated and a driver is made available for operating the doors and for driving in case of emergencies. The GoA 4 standard, however, represents fully unattended train operations (UTO).

With modern CBTC systems, a major feat over traditional technology is mechanised communication between the train and tracks, allowing the locomotives to automatically and continuously adjust the speed (and minimum braking distance), while maintaining safety and comfort (jerk) requirements. This has allowed high-speed trains to run closer to each other thereby improving frequency, especially during the peak hours.

The Delhi Metro itself has plans to reduce the wait time to 90-100 seconds, from a few minutes, in the future.

Efforts are also being made to make intercity trains driverless. In September, France’s national railway operator SNCF announced the introduction of prototypes of driverless mainline trains for passengers and freight by 2023.

While France is doing it to increase efficiency, others have their own reasons. The median age in Japan, which is battling with ageing population is 46, and the country is preparing for a mass retirement of professionals who were trained in the 1980s. This will also lead to a shortage of drivers going forward. As a remedy, the country is working on autonomous trains, more out of need than choice, and plans to introduce some of those by 2020.

China and a few countries in the European Union are also pushing for automated trains at a renewed pace. At present, around 10 per cent of the metro and rail routes globally are fully automated. This figure is expected to climb to about 50 per cent (about 2,200 km of automated metro line) by 2022, UITP estimates.   

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