Passengers on the platform can barely tell that a vision comes out of Dammtor station in Hamburg that morning. The Type 474 railcar looks more like a suburban fear than a revolution. Only the train indicators on the track clearly indicate that there will be no normal S-Bahn line 21 on Monday, but a “world first”.
Accelerated by a machine, controlled by algorithms, braked by computer chips. The S-Bahn to Bergedorf is part of the largest pilot project for automatic rail traffic in Germany. Deutsche Bahn and Siemens have digitally modernized several Hamburg S-Bahn trains so that they can travel automatically. On Monday, the first drove on the 23-kilometer test road to the outskirts of the Hanseatic city with passengers on board. With the schedule change on December 12, trains will begin regular passenger service.
The digital S-Bahn is a huge project. The first thing the group wants to do in a few years is to convert the Hanseatic city’s S-Bahn to digital operation, and then switch to a large part of all rail traffic in Germany over the next 15 to 20 years. According to McKinsey consultants, the switch to digitalization of the rail network will cost around 35 billion euros in the coming years. It is one of the largest infrastructure projects in the country.
In the cockpit of the prototype, it becomes clear what is changing. If train drivers switch to automatic train operation at the push of a button, they can put their hands on their knees. Trains accelerate and brake automatically. They calculate the stop time in stations, open and close the doors. However, it does not work entirely without a train driver. Because if something unforeseeable happens, for example when people are walking on the track, human personnel must immediately take over.
Soon it might be possible without a train driver
On Monday, the Valeska Hoop train conductor sits in the cockpit. Technology is a relief. She is not afraid of her job or that of her 20,000 colleagues in Germany, says Hoop. It is still not possible without her. Trains in the project receive electronic information about the route and other trains, but do not have sensors to detect objects on the route, for example. However, experts certainly see the possibility that that will change and that trains can operate in the cockpit without permanent staff by the end of the decade. Depending on the industry, the technology is constantly changing. The unions are also already worried about employment, but declined to make an official comment on Monday.
Conflicts are emerging as Deutsche Bahn wants to digitize the entire network, i.e. long-distance, local and freight traffic, as quickly as possible. Mainly for one reason: the network is reaching its limits in many places. In rail hubs such as Mannheim, Cologne or Frankfurt, there is simply no more traffic with conventional means. Digital upgrade could change that. Because authorities trust technology more than people, the digitally controlled train is allowed to travel faster. Up to 30 percent more trains could be on the same network, says railroad boss Richard Lutz: “Without even laying a new track.” The automatic system should also save 30% energy and be 15% more punctual.
But outside of high profile projects like in Hamburg, there is frustration in parts of the railroad about the speed of digitization in their own group. The plans have been around for years. But implementation is progressing slowly. According to its own statements, the federal government started the planned nationwide introduction of the European train control system ETCS – the basis of automatic traffic – in 2015. It has not gone very far in the past six years. years. According to current information, only 340 kilometers have been converted, or 1% of the network. Further pilot projects are planned, but this has not yet been a great success.
Experts recently criticized the pace of the renovation. Heike van Hoorn, Managing Director of the German Transport Forum (DVF), made it clear what slowness means: “The digitization of railways is a prerequisite for us to achieve the goal of doubling the number of passengers and more goods by 2030. “And that should help meet German climate targets.
The technology is in fact already in use. If you want to know what is technically feasible, you have to go by metro: in 16 European cities from Copenhagen to Turin, the metro and airport trains operate fully automatically. In London, the metro will be reconverted in the coming years. And there are also early examples in Germany: Nuremberg metro lines have been operating driverless for several years. The positive effect from the operator’s point of view: depending on the city, trains are almost 100% on time and consume less energy thanks to an optimized driving style.
Until now, there were no fully automatic trains running above ground, where many other influences can disrupt traffic. The technology presented by Bahn and Siemens on Monday is supposed to change that. Siemens boss Roland Busch described it as a “plan for the digitization of railways in Germany, Europe and the world”. It is also approved by the Federal Railways Authority for wider use.
Elsewhere in Europe too, there are automatic train projects in the pipeline. Deutsche Bahn has already agreed on a joint digitization strategy with SNCF. It stipulates that the Germans and the French will jointly develop the autonomous train.