Autonomous trains, the future of rail travel in the Czech Republic

Photo: AŽD

On Wednesday, December 15, an autonomous train undertook a journey on the Czech railways for the first time. The trip was part of a presentation of digital railways on the Plum Railway in Libčeves, in the Louny region. Trains without drivers will probably be put into regular operation in two to three years in the Czech Republic. The biggest obstacle to the transition to a fully autonomous railway system is the current legislation, which needs to be changed.

The technology behind autonomous trains has been developed by the Czech transport company AŽD for more than ten years in cooperation on technical development with European institutions and Czech research centers. According to the director of AŽD, Zdeněk Chrdle, the technology used for this innovation is 90% Czech. AŽD has invested approximately CZK 100 million in the development of autonomous trains.

Astonishing technological innovations but an array of difficulties

The autonomous train is moving based on a computer program. Without the driver’s intervention, the railway vehicle reacts during the journey, for example, to a person on the track or a car at a level crossing. The train starts up on its own, and its position and speed are visible to the control center. When an obstacle appears on the track, the train stops and reports the emergency. The train can then be put back into service by the supervisor’s intervention.

The area in front of the train is monitored by an object detector that replaces the driver’s eyes. The use of several different types of sensors makes it possible to cover the monitored area in front of the train. While some sensors have a long range, they do not detect what is happening close to the train, and vice versa. The appropriate composition of these sensors and many other technical aspects are still under investigation and testing.

By its technological nature, each sensor perceives the environment from its perspective. Therefore, information beyond the current vision of a normal driver’s eye is already being captured. Experts from AŽD are even working on sensors that enable them to “see” the train around the corner. These sensors are planned to be fitted at-risk points along the line, such as platforms, tunnel entrances, or sections behind curves. The data from these sensors will be continuously transmitted to decision-making modules.

According to Vítězslav Landsfeld, the system can process an incredible amount of data from all the sensors every second. At the moment, it’s about 1.5 GB/s, which translates to an enormous amount of information per second.

Railway operations are, in some aspects, much more complex, more sophisticated in terms of systems, and bound by all kinds of regulations. The fundamental problem is also that there is much more significant momentum. Unlike a car, which stops a few meters after braking, a train stops after hundreds of meters.

The designers of autonomous train operation systems also think about extraordinary situations such as animals running in front of the vehicle or a tree falling on the railway in a storm. Although the systems react immediately, the train fails to brake.

The development continues

AŽD will move the development of systems for autonomous train operation from the U10 Litoměřice – Most line, known as the Plum Railway, to its second line, Kopidlno – Dolní Bousov in the Hradec Králové Region, where there is no regular passenger transport. For some time, the bar has been transformed into an experimental track.

According to the director, the line between Litoměřice and Most would include mixed traffic. This means that both trains without a driver and classic ones would run there. “Some people are worried that this will take work away from the drivers, but there are not enough of them, and we are trying to simplify the process. He concluded that there are also concerns about traveling by an autonomous train among some passengers, “he concluded.