Digitalization of rail: automation, management and control systems

Why is this gap important?

By reducing the time and distance between trains, digital technologies can facilitate more intensive use of rail infrastructure, which increases capacity and boosts investment returns while improving user convenience and maintaining high safety standards.

Technology solutions

Advanced traffic management and control systems (TRL 10) help ensure safe and efficient rail operations. These systems include Communication-Based Train Controls (CBTC), used extensively for urban rail, combined with Driver Assistance Systems (DAS) to maximise use of the network. These technologies can maximise network utilisation by reducing the headway between trains, and they have also demonstrated effectiveness in reducing energy consumption by up to 15% (Dunbar, Roberts and Zhao, 2017).

Automated trains (TRL 9) promise improved safety, lower costs and greater energy efficiency than advanced traffic management and control systems. Under International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) Standard No. 62267, the rail subsector defines Grades of Automation (GoA) ranging from fully manual operations, such as a tram-operating in street traffic (GoA-0), to unattended, fully automated operations (GoA-4). 

Other digital technologies such as big data analytics (TRL 9) and artificial intelligence (TRL 8) could significantly improve end-user services through seamless integration across different modes and other measures, and they could also improve energy efficiency and reduce costs for operators.

Advanced traffic management and control systems Readiness level:

GoA-4 automated trains Readiness level:

Big data analytics for rail Readiness level:

Artificial intelligence for rail Readiness level:

Colored bars represent the Technology Readiness Level (TRL) of each technology. Learn more about TRLs

What are the leading initiatives?

  • The European Railway Traffic Management System (ERTMS), uses control, command, signalling and communication systems to ensure the interoperability of trains across the region, primarily on conventional and HSR networks.
  • The first fully automated metro (GoA-4) opened in 1981 in Kobe, Japan, and there are now over 1 000 km of GoA-4 lines in 42 cities worldwide – around 7% of total installed metro networks (UITP, 2018aUITP, 2018b). While the number of driverless metros is expanding rapidly on closed and secured lines, there are significant challenges to deploying fully autonomous trains on open, uncontrolled or unsecured lines (such as tram, intercity and freight lines). Nevertheless, a handful of autonomous tram-, intercity- and freight-line demonstration projects are in commercial operation.