Rails Operate Robotically

Global engineering consulting firm Arup looks to the future of train travel. Analyzing an array of mega-factors, like the megatrends of population increases leading to the rapid development of denser megacities that converge into greater mega-regions, they published their speculative findings in the Future of Rail 2050. The report’s authors wrote about how the future of rail operators would play out in this astoundingly populated, urbanized world-to-be–in that there would and should be far fewer of them.

Instead, faster driverless trains were deemed the way of the future. As Arup wrote, “Improvements in–and the widespread distribution of–driverless systems and trains, will further [optimize] the running times and could eradicate journey delays.”

There are a number of arguments in favor of driverless train systems, such as how they can serve as a solution to human error. Interconnected vehicles that are programmed to automatically communicate with one another can thus operate systematically. Additionally, eliminating the driver’s cab allows more space for passengers. CityLab reports that with automated train systems, there is less lagging between the vehicles’ arrival times.

Cost efficiency is another important factor to consider; will societies save if they don’t have to pay living, breathing drivers? Although concrete data on the savings is currently scarce, one group of researchers found that, through semi-structured interviews and questionnaires with experts, automated subway systems “can reduce staff numbers by 30-70 [percent], with the amount of wage cost reduction depending on whether staff on [metro] lines are paid more.” (That’s a contingent conclusion that means that automated trains are probably cheaper, depending on circumstances.)

Unsurprisingly, many humans who work driving trains have expressed opposition to the proposals to replace their role. Last year in London, BBC reported that a rail-union leader said installing driverless trains would lead to an “all-out war” in reaction to Mayor Boris Johnson’s plans to integrate the technology. However, some London proponents see the driverless trains as a way to deal with strikes that union members take.

These contentious new driverless trains are set to roll along the tracks of the London Underground, the world’s oldest subway system, in 2022, as the “New Tube for London.” Meanwhile, a newer city, Dubai, operates a newer rail system that’s actually completely driverless. The Dubai Metro is currently the longest automated driverless system in the world.

More of this type of infrastructure is in the works. If all goes as planned, in 2017, Honolulu, Hawaii, will host the first-ever entirely driverless rail system in the US.

Other driverless rail lines operate in world cities like Copenhagen, Singapore, Sao Paolo, and Kuala Lumpur. City Hall in Prague, Czech Republic, recently approved the construction of a new metro line extending into the city’s suburbs, and announced that its vehicles would be unmanned. Officials reasoned that although research and development would initially have high price tags, they would later save on operational and overall funds.

Photo courtesy of Nate Robert.

Is that good news? Well, slightly more humans favor human drivers over robot ones, according to a poll posted on the bottom of an English article on the topic written by expat David Park.

Interestingly enough, the term “robot” was coined by a Czech author Karel Capek in his play R.U.R., describing entities that “can do the work of two-and-a-half human laborers.” The narrative’s carbon characters reason that the “human machine” is “costly” and “less than efficient.”

Regardless of paranoia or sci-fi speculations, it’s become apparent that various jobs are now being taken over by robots. The Tian Waike Restaurant in China has a staff of robots working as cooks and servers. At the Henn’na Hotel in Japan, the concierge, the bag-check–and most of the staff, actually–is robotic. There is even AI in the field of journalism; as of January 2015, each quarter, AP was publishing 3,000 stories written by robots.

The Future of Rail 2050 also proposes using “intelligent robots” to inspect tunnels and bridges and maintain weathered structures. For jobs like infrastructure repair, construction, and mining, “swarm robots” can be dispatched. These small machines are modeled off of “swarm [behavior] seen in ant and bee colonies” and distribute the work to achieve a collective goal.

While we can’t currently predict all the successful outcomes and great transitions from manual to automatic labor, at this point in technology, it seems like more proposals and plans are bound to burgeon.

Feature photo courtesy of KINKISHARYO.