Digitalisation, Major Projects & Infrastructure, Research & Development, Rollingstock & Manufacturing, Safety, Standards & Regulation, Signalling & Communications

ATO key to greater rail efficiency and capacity

Increasing traffic volumes in both passenger and freight transport are presenting a huge challenge to many carriers. 

Passenger traffic in the high-speed segment is forecast to double by 2030, and rail freight traffic will grow by 50 per cent. At the same time, a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions is also necessary. 

Rail transport is the only mode of transport in which it is possible for the term “climate-neutral transport” to become a reality in the next few years. It already accounts for less than one per cent of the transport sector’s total greenhouse gas emissions.  

Autonomous or automatic train operation (ATO) is the answer to the environmental challenges: this makes it possible to achieve a higher level of capacity and availability, as well as sustainability in rail infrastructure, while at the same time reducing energy consumption. 

Global transport leader Siemens Mobility has been one of the biggest driving forces in promoting ATO as the key technology in the digitalisation of the railways. 

The innovations of recent years have driven the spread of digital technologies in society to an unprecedented scale, a trend accelerated by the pandemic. And nowadays, digitalisation also means transforming rail transport.  

Siemens Mobility ATO global head Ireneus Suwalski and Trains Systems Manager Henry Wünsche recently presented a report on how highly and fully automated driving technologies are the key elements shaping this transformation, and how they offer an opportunity for greater efficiency and high added value in return for comparatively low levels of investment. 

“In close cooperation with its customers and partners, Siemens Mobility is developing the products and digital solutions required to make rail transport more flexible and adaptable,” they said.  

“ATO offers the option of flexible capacity optimisation and bottleneck elimination at traffic nodes or on heavily used routes.  

“This will make it possible to achieve the necessary capacity increases and more trouble-free operations without any costly infrastructure upgrades, by shortening the headway times and to achieve greater reliability by reducing any variance in running behaviour.  

“It also facilitates efficient conflict resolution in conjunction with the TMS (Traffic Management System). Additional benefits include improved punctuality, increased stopping accuracy, reduced wear and tear on rolling stock and more efficient energy use leading to a reduction in the carbon footprint, while at the same time cutting costs.” 

An example is provided by the Digital S-Bahn Hamburg partnership established in July 2018 by the City of Hamburg, Deutsche Bahn AG and Siemens Mobility. The aim of the pilot project under the rail sector’s Digital Rail for Germany initiative is to introduce highly automated driving in German rail transport based on the new European AoE standard, as well as fully automated, driverless shunting, for the first time.  

Suwalski and Wünsche  said a 23-kilometre-long section of Hamburg’s suburban train line, including four vehicles, is being fitted with the necessary technology for this purpose.  

“This is an innovative initiative that has been selected as a development cooperation project between the project partners,” they said.  

“The project partners are working very closely together in the joint project organisation and demonstrated the project on the pilot track at the ITS World Congress in October 2021.  

“In June last year, this project won the German Mobility Award in the “Best Practice” category as an outstanding example of an efficient and sustainable mobility solution.” 

The Digital S-Bahn Hamburg project has already implemented fully automated driverless train reversal operations as well as highly automated train movements.  

The solution has adopted the approach of using technical systems to automate as many of the train driver’s operating actions as possible.
It soon became apparent that it was necessary to integrate a new safety-related component into the vehicle which independently performs critical steps such as unlocking the driver’s cab, releasing the parking brake or periodically operating the vigilance device.  

As a result, the safe execution of driverless train movements has been made possible based on ETCS and ATO in accordance with standardised procedures. 

A further element involves precise vehicle location and environment sensing. In the Sensors4Rail project in conjunction with its partners, Deutsche Bahn is testing precise localisation based on landmarks in the project.  

Siemens Mobility is responsible for the system integration in this project and has contributed a cutting-edge odometry unit for locating the position of the front of the train that integrates the global navigation satellite system, vehicle odometry and landmark positions. 

In the important area of regulatory requirements, the criteria for the approval of fully automated railways for regional and long distance transport are currently defined. 

Siemens Mobility and its prestigious partners have won two ground-breaking research projects for the safety of automatic train operations from the German Centre for Rail Traffic Research (DZSF).  

The ATO Risk project is answering the question of how safe automatic train operation functions need to be.  

Risk acceptance criteria have been defined at the functional level as part of this. The ATO Sense project focuses on analysing the train driver’s performance in order to form a possible reference for an automated system.  

The results of these projects have suggested approaches for the approval of automated systems on standard-gauge main-line railways. This is a further step in the direction of fully automatic train operations which goes above and beyond mere technical testing, Suwalski and Wünsche said.