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Driverless Trains on the Horizon: Legal, Safety, and Market Challenges Ahead

TSLDriverless Trains on the Horizon: Legal, Safety, and Market Challenges Ahead

Autonomous trains are already being tested in select locations around the world. These trains are most commonly used in airport lines or bulk transport. In India, they will be integrated into city metro systems. Interestingly, the subway system in Warsaw could also be adapted to incorporate such vehicles on one of their lines. However, for the large scale implementation of autonomous trains, there needs to be a well-prepared legal framework. There is also a lack of trust among passengers towards these machines. Transitioning to fleets that don’t require a human operator is inevitable. There’s a current shortage of train operators, and this issue is only likely to worsen.

“Autonomous trains are already in operation, but these are usually isolated and restricted to lines, most commonly serving airports. Broadly speaking, we are not just talking about autonomous trains but also autonomous freight and passenger vehicles. We know that all of these are currently in the testing phase, and negotiations regarding the legal issues are happening now. However, we cannot simply say that one day at zero hour we will swap all non-autonomous vehicles for autonomous ones. They will have to navigate the existing environment, so infrastructure must be adapted to make use of their advantages without harming the other transport participants,” stated Adrian Furgalski, President of the Board at the Economic Development Advisory Team.

In Hamburg, autonomous trains are tested over a 23-kilometer route. While they do not operate entirely without human supervision, the conductor’s role is primarily to oversee the onboard systems and take control of the train in the event of an emergency. Autonomous trains also serve the metro line in Copenhagen, running between the city center and the airport. Last year, a bid was also opened for the supply of automated trains for the Copenhagen City Train. Driverless trains will begin operating there in 2029.

“Autonomous trains are enormous expenses that will become widespread in the more distant future, when every third train will be autonomous. We still have a long way to go. Initially, we will start with closed systems like the metro, or only certain short routes from the city center to the airport, or between airport terminals. There are already many examples of these. However, access to a wider network requires efforts not only from those who want to introduce such a train, but also from regulators and those who will not have such trains, because everything must be mutually compatible, within a single railway system, accommodating different levels of technological development,” underlines the president of ZDG TOR.

Tests with autonomous trains are also conducted in other parts of the world, and there have already been accidents involving them. For example, in mid-February, 120 km from the port city of Dampier in Western Australia, an unmanned Rio Tinto freight train carrying 38 wagons of iron ore derailed. Such examples prove that there is much work to be done in the legal sphere.

“Just because trains are autonomous doesn’t mean that incidents won’t occur. Of course, just like now, there will be some accidents, and the railway will still be talked about as the safest means of transport, but accidents do happen. Then the question arises, who is responsible: the user, the one who constructed the vehicle, or some other entities?” Adrian Furgalski asks.

Ultimately, autonomous trains are expected to be increasingly used in passenger transport. Alstom, a French train manufacturer, has started production of autonomous metro trains in the Indian city of Chennai (Madras). The order involves 36 train sets, each composed of three carriages with a top speed of 80 km/h. The trains will serve a 26-kilometer corridor, used by 11 million city residents.

“Few people know that if we insisted today, on the second Warsaw subway line, trains could be operated without a driver. People must overcome the fear that the train is moving, and there’s no one keeping watch over it, because other types of devices and technological solutions are watching. It is hard to say whether this will happen in five or 10 years. What once seemed highly unlikely has been significantly accelerated, the development is very rapid. Hence, no one can give a deadline. However, it seems that it will be a significant financial outlay and a remote prospect. There is undoubtedly a faster development of this technology than it seemed a year or two ago,” assesses the ZDG TOR expert.

According to analysts from MarketsandMarkets, the global market of autonomous trains, which was valued at nearly 8.3 billion dollars in 2022, will be worth 12.3 billion dollars by the end of the decade. The acceleration in the implementation of such solutions can be motivated not only by the development of technology, but also changes in the labor market, which already struggles with staff shortages.

“We lack people to operate both trucks and trains. The profession of train driver is not attractive. One can argue whether the salaries are high or not, but people are not eager to attend schools to become train drivers. Obviously, we will do many things to shorten training time without compromising safety. The regulations concerning speed have already been liberalized – a double crew is not needed, but the labor shortage will still advance. Hence, the process of technological change, such as autonomous vehicles, will certainly accelerate. Sometimes people fear that these types of vehicles will take away their jobs. However, they fill gaps in the market associated with labor shortages, increased mobility, and the need to open new routes, including rail,” assures Adrian Furgalski.

Designing safeguards against attacks on infrastructure, including those related to cybercrime, is an important aspect of railway modernization and also a significant challenge for the future. It turns out that the Polish railway largely relies on outdated solutions. The infamous case of trains being stopped by a group of teenagers using a Radio-Stop signal raises concerns about how the system would deal with a professional hacker attack.

“The fact that we depart from old solutions in favor of super modern ones does not mean that they are safe. If a person creates a solution, someone else always knows how to bypass it. Security surveillance in transport is a never-ending issue. When talking about a cyber attack, it requires even more time and money, and we can assume that much worse intentions are behind it. If you add artificial intelligence in the wrong hands, it only makes these attacks more effective. So it’s a never-ending war between those with ill intent and those who have to prevent such attacks. The problem is that the ‘good guys’ always have to be at least half a step ahead of those who want to misuse modern solutions,” concludes the ZDG TOR expert.

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