Germany to introduce driverless trains by 2023

A Deutsche Bahn long distance high speed train. Image courtesy of Wikipedia - Sebastian Terfloth
A Deutsche Bahn long distance high speed train. Image courtesy of Wikipedia - Sebastian Terfloth

Germany is set to begin introducing driverless trains within the next 5 years according to local media.

The country’s national rail operator, Deutsche Bahn (DB), is reportedly working on bringing autonomous technology to its vehicles by as early as 2021.

“I estimate that by 2021, 2022, 2023 or so, we will be able to have a portion of our network that drive completely automatically,” said Deutsche Bahn chairman Rüdiger Grube in an interview with Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung last week.

He went on to point out that while this kind of automation was relatively easy for short distance, urban rail and metro systems, it would be much harder for long distance trains. Nonetheless he stated that DB was confident that it could find a way to implement this technology.

The company is already reportedly already working to test driverless train technology.

A 30km section of track in the German state of Saxony near the Czech border has been constructed for this purpose and tests are now underway.

The trains being tested in this project are making use of cameras and other collision-detection technologies in order to avoid accidents.

Further comments by the DB chairman suggested that the rapid development of autonomous vehicle technology was making investment in driverless trains a necessity in order to remain completive into the future.

As well Deutsche Bahn’s decision to begin phasing in driverless trains has likely been shaped by a history of labor disputes. Most recently in 2014, large parts of DB’s network were crippled through industrial action led by a union of train drivers.

While unions will undoubtedly oppose this switch, the long-term benefits in terms of reliability and profit margins for DB are significant.

Long distance driverless technology lags

The first driverless train system went into operation in the 1960s and in the modern day there are more than 40 driverless metro and suburban rail systems. Nonetheless long distance implementations of this technology few and far between.

For a number of reasons including relative cost, industrial relations and lack of interest, this technology has long gone unused.

Nonetheless, the last few years has seen interest in this area pick up speed, with new systems under development not just in Germany but also in Australia for iron ore freight.