How to move more goods through America’s packed infrastructure?Robot trains


Anyone who has ever sent a chew around a tree on Christmas morning knows that the main danger of a train is that toys wander the railroad tracks and change at high speeds. Both are also the main dangers of a real train. So how difficult is it for you to make a train completely autonomous?

Or you may be wondering why you need to worry about trains and how they operate (whether this is the 1800s). Let’s back up a little.If you think the United States relies solely on trucks to move cargo, you may be suffering from tunnel vision: trains One-third of tonmileThat is, a ton of weight carries a mile, and that cargo travels within the United States each year. It’s almost the same as being carried by truck. The United States has the broadest rail network on a few miles of railroad tracks on the planet, yes, even larger than China, and is currently facing several rail networks. Same growl and congestion It looks like every other part of the country’s supply chain due to its unprecedented activity at the port and record demand at some railroad hubs.

As the cost of expanding Amtrak’s services is exorbitantly expensive to add new rail lines, trains may look like mature technology with little room for improvement or expansion. Shows..However, researchers studying this issue say it is possible to make them completely autonomous. Improve safety It will also significantly increase the amount of cargo that can be transported by making more efficient use of the American rail network.

Trains are wondering how the United States is suffering from a shortage of truck drivers and companies are wondering how to reach their goal of reducing carbon emissions. 4-5 times more efficient The amount of energy used per mile as a truck — a technology two centuries ago, and that era may have come again.

I wrote about Limitations that hinder the grand ambitions of self-driving cars.. However, trains have the property of avoiding those problems. Most importantly, the train is on the railroad tracks. This means artificial intelligence train engineers don’t have to worry about issues affecting car and truck drivers. There are no tailgates, lane changes, or left turns for traffic.

“I think trains reach full autonomy faster than cars,” said Maxim A. Dulebenets, an assistant professor of civil engineering at Florida A & M University, who recently published. Extensive review of literature on autonomous trains.. One of the reasons is that hundreds of passenger trains are already operating autonomously around the world as part of the city’s subway system.

Passengers arrive at Taizicheng Station on the Beijing-Zhangjiakou high-speed railway in Hebei Province, China. In January 2020, China started operating a fully autonomous “Shinkansen”.


Li Xin / Xinhua News Agency / Zuma Press

The first fully autonomous subway train debuted in Kobe, Japan in 1981, and since then technology has spread from Paris to New Delhi and from Sao Paulo to Vancouver.Of the world The first fully autonomous freight trainCrossing the Australian Outback, was put into regular service 2019 According to the mining company Rio Tinto. January 2020, China Fully autonomous “Shinkansen” Between Beijing and Zhangjiakou, the host city of the 2022 Winter Olympics.

Many other tests of autonomous trains, both passenger and freight, are underway.Testing of German and Dutch autonomous freight trains servicing the Port of Rotterdam Started this month..The French state rail company is currently testing trains that may start carrying passengers As early as 2023..In the United States, an autonomous freight train system built by the New York Air Brake was tested in the Colorado Desert. 2019..

The future of autonomous trains could mean putting more freight into America’s existing rail network without adding new lines, said Nalin Jain, Group President of Digital Electronics.


Pittsburgh-based train manufacturing company Its roots go back more than 150 years.Existing and future technology You can lengthen the trainHe adds, to run shorter distances between them and to be disassembled and reconstructed in harbors and railroad yards in a more efficient way.

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A BNSF freight train with 76 container cars and a FedEx freight trailer will pass Montana in August. Trains have grown longer in recent years as technology advances, and may grow even longer.


William Campbell / Getty Images

European Union-funded research Published in 2020 We have found that migrating to a new system for managing trains can increase the capacity of existing rail networks by up to 44%. According to an internal study by Wabtec, the rate of increase is even higher in the United States, which can be up to 50%. Its increase in tonmiles carried by the American rail network is equivalent to moving about one million full Boeing 747-10 passenger planes from coast to coast each year.

Despite the gathering of steam technicians, automatic train drivers aren’t ready to deploy everywhere, Dr. Dulebenets warns. Most autonomous trains are built on new, dedicated tracks that do not need to be shared with other human-controlled trains. These new systems tend to be free of dangers, such as highway intersections, where the majority of train and car-related accidents occur each year in the United States.

Jean-François Beaudoin, president of French locomotive maker digital and integrated systems, says creating autonomous trains operating on a shared open rail network is much more difficult than achieving the same with a closed metro rail system. It states.


To do this, we need to give these trains “eyes and ears.” This is, as he calls it, a sensor that can look ahead to tracks for unexpected obstacles.

The complexity of the US rail network, where many lines are shared among multiple private railway companies, means that system automation can be difficult. This process “can take decades,” says Dr. Dulebenets. Coordinating self-driving cars with human-driven trains is similar to the challenges of partially self-driving technology. This technology needs to be meshed so that neither humans nor AI are confused.

From a safety standpoint, we are far more demanding on machines than on humans. Because we are far more considerate of the people who make mistakes than the machines that make mistakes. “The automated metro system must be designed to make one mistake for every million people made by human engineers,” he adds.

Another potentially big issue is cybersecurity. Since trains weigh between 4,000 and 20,000 tons, can carry dangerous goods and can take several miles to stop, allowing remote control of trains is a complete system for guiding trains. If it is not safe, it means that you are at risk of being hijacked by a hacker. ..

Yet another challenge to autonomous trains is legal — inevitably who is responsible Accident happens?? As with self-driving cars, the challenge here is that even if an automated system is safer than a human-driven system, it can change the person responsible for the accident if it breaks down. A long-standing hypothesis of philosophy on decision ethics —So-called trolley problem— Once AI has full control over the train, it can be too literal.

Challenges aside, in some respects, American trains are already surprisingly automated, said Eric Gebhardt, Wabtec’s chief technology officer.Federal law As of December 2020 All U.S. trains must be equipped Positive train control systemIs like Car automatic emergency braking system.. This system prevents trains from colliding with other trains, going too fast on curves, or blowing off misconfigured railroad switches.

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Inside the locomotive cab, semi-automatic train-driving features, such as the federal-mandated positive train control system, are displayed on the screen.


Ed Leaker / Wabtec

The transition to autonomous systems for trains is consistent with other upgrades, as has happened with other types of transportation infrastructure such as ports. Logic: If you buy a new train or upgrade your rail system significantly, you can also do all the available and cost-effective upgrades at once.

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What are the obstacles that may delay the adoption of autonomous trains? Join the conversation below.

The next step in train automation is to move away from the current “fixed block” system used to maintain a safe distance between trains. In this system, the track is divided into fixed length blocks and only one train can exist at a time. Gebhart says. In a “moving block” system, on the other hand, the safety buffers in front of and behind the train move together, allowing the trains to approach and follow each other. However, switching to a moving block system requires maintaining constant communication between the train and the central dispatch system. Some customers have already tested such systems, Gebhardt adds.

Assuming that these trains use a moving block system with the train’s on-board computer, according to an EU study, applying new technology could cut the capacity of the rail network in half. Such a system communicates with the train ahead, knowing its weight, weather, what it is doing, and when to brake. However, one of the advantages of rail networks is that they are already lacking in signals and sensors. This allows you to incorporate some of the “intelligence” needed to control a train into the track itself, place it along the track itself, or determine the speed of the train. By remote system.

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Rio Tinto’s remote operations center in Perth for autonomous freight trains in the Pilbara region of Australia.


Rio tinto

According to a Rio Tinto spokesman, Australia’s world’s first and only full-time autonomous freight train incorporates both in-vehicle sensors and system-wide sensors and processing. The train itself has cameras, radar, and collision detection systems, and the lines on which the trains run are also equipped with CCTV cameras at all public railroad intersections.

Rio Tinto calls their automatic train “the world’s largest robot,” which seems to be a fair explanation. The challenges of creating and deploying automated trains around the world are the same challenges that robots face in all other areas, says Dr. Dulebenets. From accepting the public and communicating with other vehicle drivers to finding new roles for workers who may move away from their current roles, we are the main barrier to the adoption of autonomous trains.

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Executives at Wabtec, a Pittsburgh-based train manufacturer, have more than 150 years of roots, and existing and future technologies allow trains to run longer, shorter distances, and ports and railroads in a more efficient way. Yard. Doing so could increase the capacity of the existing US rail network by up to 50%, the company said.


Ed Leaker / Wabtec / Associated Press

Write to Christopher Mims

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How to move more goods through America’s packed infrastructure?Robot trains

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