The vehicle drives on tracks and requires no steering; traffic is based on a schedule and monitored by a dense network of signal boxes. Is rail traffic therefore particularly well suited to autonomous driving and could it overtake road traffic on its way there?

“From a technical point of view, self-driving trains are basically no problem”, says Jürgen Siegmann who runs the specialist area of railway lines and rail operations at TU Berlin. However, there are two crucial problems with regard to their implementation. On the one hand, the rail network is not a closed system, and on the other, intercity express trains (ICEs), regional trains and goods trains all run on the same lines in Germany. And the simultaneous deployment of trains with and without drivers poses a major challenge in the opinion of experts.


London Underground soon to be driverless


There are already many driverless trains running in closed systems such as underground networks or airport train systems around the world. London Underground is to become completely driverless in the next few years, and in Germany, two underground trains have been operating without drivers in Nürnberg for the last seven years in a field trial. The results are positive across the board. The trains are more punctual, consume less energy due to their optimised driving style and can be operated at shorter intervals.

Railway lines, however, usually have no protective barriers, and people and animals can come right up to the tracks and cross them at level crossings. In encounters with animals and in other dangerous situations, the decision-making of a human driver is considered to be superior to that of any automated system. As Siegmann explains, technology is not yet far enough advanced to be able to decide which obstacles can be run over and which cannot.


© Deutsche Bahn AG
© Deutsche Bahn AG

Nevertheless, Deutsche Bahn is now operating a 25 kilometre test track in the Erz Mountains where it is acquiring experience. A train equipped with cameras and sensor technology is to recognise obstacles on the tracks independently and initiate the appropriate response. Deutsche Bahn is also working with the French national railway SNCF on the development of a driverless train. The project has the advantage, however, that in France passenger trains and goods trains use different lines.