There’s plenty of speculation as to the future of how trains will get from one station to another.

Is automation a necessity? How might it be integrated? And how will unions respond if their members are pushed out of traditional train driver jobs?

Technology, it is said, can improve the rail industry’s performance and make it more competitive, particularly against the automotive sector, which is pushing hard on autonomous cars, and trucks, which could well gobble up more of the freight market.

As such, infrastructure managers and train operating companies are looking at technology and automation for clues in how to increase capacity.

On 16 February, representatives from the European Union Agency for Railways, Network Rail’s Digital Railway programme, Alstom, and DB Cargo, among others, gathered at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers to debate whether automatic trains are the future for mainline railways and if it could solve some of the persistent headaches caused by booming passenger numbers.

Aidan McGrady, a senior engineer at Network Rail, finished his presentation with a crisp “yes”.

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The concept of automatic train operation covers different levels of automation; from the driver still maintaining control of most functions; semi-automatic train operation — where the setting of the train in motion and stopping is automatic, yet the driver is responsible for the closing/opening of doors and can step in if the system fails — up to the point of automation where there is no driver at all.

Is the industry ready for change?

To date, automatic trains have been most common on metro and underground lines.

London Underground has used semi-automatic operation for many years on the Central, Northern, Jubilee, and Victoria lines.

Then there’s the Docklands Light Railway, which takes it a step further by removing the traditional cab and driver in favour of train attendants.

Andrew Simmons, chief systems engineer for the Digital Railway– Network Rail’s masterplan for modernising the railway – emphasised growth as the reason further automation is needed; specifically that since 1996, passenger numbers have doubled.

This has created more pinch points, accelerating the need for greater capacity.

Building a brand new line is highly disruptive, not to mention expensive. The argument, therefore, is look for other ways to increase frequency and cut delays, hence the Digital Railway.

It has repeatedly been said automation has proven its ability on metros – now is the time to migrate this to mainline operations.

The upgrade programme on London’s Thameslink will incorporate some automation from 2018 to meet requirements for 24 trains per hour on the core of the route, while Crossrail, a new line running through the heart of London, will also operate semi-autonomously.

However, Simmons made an interesting point here: any successful implementation of technology is reliant on industry readiness to welcome and understand the changes.

Perhaps wary of the potential fallout of doing too much too soon, the Digital Railway is looking at semi-automated operation.

This point of acceptance was also raised during closing discussions.

Govia Thameslink Railway has encountered huge resistance from unions over its plans for driver-only operated trains on Southern rail.

The Aslef union, which represents train drivers, has announced its members have rejected a proposed agreement with Southern that could have broken the deadlock.

Commenting on the result, Paul Plummer, chief executive of the Rail Delivery Group, said: “Where safety, jobs and pay are unaffected, the railway must be able to harness new technology and smarter ways of working to deliver the modern rail service the country needs.”

Supporters of train automation will nod in assent.

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