Driverless trains are being embraced around the world — but what could go wrong?

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Automated train systems allow for more service frequency.

From smart bins designed to analyse trash to urban benches that charge phones and provide Wi-Fi, the parts of cities that were once talked about in future tense are now finding a home in the present.

Key points: 

  • 42 cities around the world run 64 fully automated lines
  • More than half of them are in Asia and China alone will have 32 fully automated lines by 2022
  • Experts say success for automation cannot be successful without human perspectives 

But critics of technology’s forward march have drawn attention to the fact that this automated future may lead to a hermetically sealed one — where human interactions are kept to a minimum in order to ensure maximum efficiency.

This week, one of the pitfalls of full automation reared its head during the first operational day of Australia’s first fully automated train line in Sydney’s north-west.

While the overwhelming majority of services ran without a hitch, one Sydney Metro train overshot a platform and subsequently failed to open its doors, causing delays across the line.

“All driverless systems have had issues at their launch, particularly because it’s never been done before,” said Professor Graham Currie, director of infrastructure and chair of public transport at Monash University.

“The human element is critical — you’ve got to bring the two together.”

Rational logic: Speed, safety and savings

Train reliability is a notorious sore point for commuters who have been caught in the middle of a system failure, which has been exacerbated in Australia by systems buckling under record heatwaves.

The queues of people at Castle Hill station for Sydney's new Metro trains

With an automated system, this issue can be reduced significantly.

With a warmer climate than Sydney, Singapore maintains one of the world’s most reliable rail services — admittedly on a smaller scale than that of Australia’s — which Professor Currie said was due to its automation and approach to maintenance.

In 2017, an Australian federal parliamentary enquiry into transport automation found driverless trains increased efficiency, reliability, and safety, while governments are able to save substantially on labour costs.

This is already enjoyed by cities such as Vancouver, London and Singapore, according to Daniel Bowen, the media spokesperson at the Public Transport Users Association (PTUA).

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“The question for Australia perhaps is whether those cities’ technologies will be adopted to the same extent,” Mr Bowen said.

Last year, the International Association of Public Transport found 42 cities around the world run 64 fully automated lines, with over 50 per cent of them in Asia.

In China alone, 32 fully-automated metro lines will be entering service across 16 cities by 2022.

Around the globe, automated rail networks run on purpose-built lines such as Singapore’s MRT service, or in hybrid systems where automated rail services co-exist with manually-driven ones such as London’s Underground and the Sydney Metro.

‘A giant elevator rather than a train’

You see a shopping mall-like underground train station with lit information screens lining a vast walkway.

To help automated trains run smoothly, “screen doors” have been built along the platforms of some metro networks, which act as a protective fence between the train and the station to ensure that sensors are free from stray objects — such as people, prams or phones.

This also allows a hotter place like Singapore to regulate the temperature of its metro network.

“Around Singapore, it’s almost like a giant elevator rather than a train,” Mr Bowen said.

“The screen doors obscure the view of the train, and because you’re underground, you can’t actually see much.”

The feelings that Singapore’s metro may evoke stands in direct contrast to Copenhagen’s metro, which was awarded the world’s best metro consecutively between 2008–10 by Ansaldo STS.

You see a slate grey underground station receiving natural light from above.

Each metro station was built with skylights that ensured that natural light would filter down to platforms, while screen platform doors were made to be transparent.

But not all cities have the ability to create a brand new underground autonomous metro line, as is the case with Europe’s underground subways.

A red white and blue light rail vehicle travels down an elevated rail track past bright bronze scaffolding.

Paris’s historic metro network for example, is currently undergoing an automation conversion, where stations built at the dawn of the 20th century are to be retrofitted with technology of the 21st.

In spite of the large set-up costs to fully automate two lines, Professor Currie said Paris Metro reduced its overall operational costs by 30 per cent.

He said this allowed rail authorities to run shorter trains more frequently.

A historic Paris metro subway station, Cite, is pictured with a train stopped picking up passengers along a curved track.

Who gets to say who stays and goes?

Automation’s benefits to any government are obvious: staff won’t be needed to juggle rosters, handle drivers calling in sick, or risk general driver error.

These factors coalesced across Sydney’s train network in 2018, creating a system meltdown dubbed a “perfect storm” by NSW Transport Minister Andrew Constance.

But eliminating the need for manual labour in a network presents a major issue for governments seeking to implement this transition: Who gets to say who stays and goes?

A large sweeping image shows construction workers in orange hi-vis who are made miniscule by underground rail lines.

Bob Nanva, national secretary of the Australian Rail, Tram and Bus Union (RTBU),told the ABC that state governments haven’t respected the work of their members.

“If new technology is being introduced simply to replace people, then it is being introduced for the wrong reason,” he said in a statement.

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Mr Nanva noted that while technology “improves the reliability and safety of trains”, there are many things staff do that technology simply cannot replicate.

“As the NSW Government is finding out on the North West Metro, even the most expensive technology is fallible, so trains still need to be under the control of someone,” Mr Nanva said.

But in an interview with the ABC, Mr Constance said automation did not necessarily have to be seen as a net job loss.

“It’s not just a case of high autonomy across transport modes,” he said.

“The forever and a day is going to be the ability for governments to require the services of people to be able to maintain, manage and deal with the ageing of [rail] assets.”

A man in a blue suit holds a handrail on a new train that has wrapping on its floor.

“We’re employing more drivers than we ever have and [are experiencing] incredible growth on our network, which means that jobs will continue.”

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While the Sydney Metro is overseen by a large central command network, which is touted to improve the reliability and oversight of the system as a whole, many users, workers and planners still point to the limitations of a cold, rational logic.

For Professor Currie, the decidedly non-rational aspects of human life must play a role in any system designed by, and made for, humans.

“Frankly, success for automation can never be successful without human perspectives.”