People at the Ocean Park station, an MTR rapid transit station in Hong Kong on the eastern section of the South Island Line, which serves Ocean Park Hong Kong.

The Future is Driverless

by Jean-Francois Beaudoin, Senior Vice President of Alstom, Asia Pacific

Today, driverless trains are be speeding more passengers to their destinations – faster, more efficiently and more safely – in major metro systems throughout the world. With 55 fully automated metro lines in 37 cities around the world, there has been increase in track length of better than 14% over the 2014 figures, and the forecast is that by 2025 there will be over 2,300 km of automated metro lines in operation. 

True driverless metro operations are defined as being GoA4 (Grade of Automation 4) systems, in which trains are able to operate fully automatically at all times, including door closing, detecting obstacles and responding correctly to emergencies.

There tends to be a public belief that driverless trains are a very recent development, but they were actually introduced in the 1980s. The Port Island Line in Kobe, Japan, started operations in 1981, followed in 1983 by the Lille Metro in northern France. This was Europe’s first ever driverless metro, and today it runs over 45 km long route, with 60 stations.

Since then, there is increasing public awareness of autonomous train operations, as a growing number of city networks in Asia embrace true driverless systems, with trains that run automatically with no need for any on-board staff. The newly opened Hong Kong South Island Line, the Singapore Circle Line and the Shanghai Line 10 are all managed from a control centre by remote technologies, from CCTV cameras and on-board sensor technology. 

What are the factors leading to the move towards driverless metro systems?

Urban transport has always faced a unique set of challenges. Asia’s growing population and increasing need for mobility have created an urgent need for efficient, reliable and sustainable public transport systems that will not contribute to pollution and climate change. 

The solution to the challenge of moving huge and increasing numbers of people around major cities has been the mass transit rail network – known variously as the metro, tube, subway or MRT. Mass transit authorities are increasingly viewing the driverless metro as a relevant solution to these challenges, as an intelligent, sustainable and greener transportation system.

The aspirations of commuters, too, are evolving. They want their metro to provide increased reliability and frequency, with a more comfortable and efficient ride and greatly improved provision of information. Operators, in turn, want to satisfy their customers at the best possible price. They think in terms of total cost of ownership, and they must also address the new challenge: cybersecurity. 

The benefits of a driverless system are endless. Most important are its ability to provide increased line capacity. Driverless systems optimise the running time of trains and increase the average speed of the system, allowing trains to run more frequently. For example, the Moscow Metro operates at a frequency of 90 seconds, with up to 9 million persons travelling the train on a daily basis. In Asia, the potential for such capabilities is tremendous.

At the same time, reduced operation costs by controlled energy consumption allows operates to optimise deployment of their resources. As no driver is required, these experienced resources can be trained as service employees on platforms, providing extra security and general passenger assistance.

Understandably, one key barrier to public acceptance is the perception that a train without a human driver is less safe. Isolated cases have occurred in various places where the intervention of a human driver has prevented an accident, but on metro networks that have been specifically designed to host driverless trains, the evidence suggests that safety records are excellent. Using a driverless radio Communication-Based Train Control (CBTC) system as well a secure communication network for security and other subsystems including public address and passenger information equipment, fulfils the highest security and safety standards. 

The technology also offers an advantage during emergencies, since train service can be resumed via a reset of the train, from the operations control centre.

With none of the fanfare surrounding the rather patchy introduction of autonomous cars, driverless mass transit systems are being increasingly adopted around the world.  Examples include the automated systems in operation in Barcelona, Budapest, Paris, Singapore and Shanghai.

We recently supplied the Hong Kong MTR South Island Line (SIL) with the signalling system, track works, overhead line electrification and traction and Train Control Management System.  The SIL is Hong Kong’s d=first driverless subway train, a high level of reliability and greater train frequency, which is essential for big-city metros like Hong Kong. 

Hong Kong’s MTR is just one of the world’s driverless mass transit systems that we see utilising our technology and solutions. With contracts in such cities as Singapore, Riyadh, Shanghai, and Dubai, as well as in France, we aim to play an active role in this important new transportation technology – especially as we see a pick-up in implementing metro systems across Southeast Asia.

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