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Self-driving trains come to Britain’s railways

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(credit: Alex Nevin-Tylee)
(credit: Alex Nevin-Tylee)

An automated driving mode for trains has been tested on a passenger service on Britain's mainline rail network for the first time.

When switched on, the Automatic Train Operation system on new Class 700 Thameslink trains removes control of acceleration and braking from the driver. This will increase the frequency of services, as trains will be able to run closer together.

After 18 months of testing, the new technology was used on a passenger train for the first time yesterday, on the 9.46am service from Peterborough to Horsham. The driver activates it by pressing a yellow button on the control panel. 

Trains with no drivers are a familiar sight to passengers on the Docklands Light Railway, but this is the first time they’ve been used on the mainline network. From May, services running through central London on Thameslink will use the new system, and by 2019 the frequency will increase from 14 trains per hour to 24 trains per hour, according to Govia Thameslink Railway.

“We are embracing digital technology to boost capacity through the heart of London, a historical bottleneck that has held back rail expansion across the south of the country,” said Gerry McFadden, engineering director at Govia Thameslink Railway. “Self-drive technology also has great potential for the rest of the country’s rail network, particularly on congested routes, and could in future reduce the need for costly infrastructure projects.”

The technology is part of the government’s digital railway strategy and investment, and was developed by Siemens. However, it won’t do away with the need for drivers, according to McFadden. “We’ll always need a driver in the cab, but this technology allows us to run more trains, more frequently than we could by driving the trains manually,” he said. “For passengers, the trip will be as smooth as ever.”

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