Much media and academic attention has been paid in recent months to the digitization and resultant automation of transportation. Most dialogue has centered on self-driving cars, as tech giants Apple and Google contend with Uber and other startups to remove the driver from our collective driving experience. However, a potentially more impactful digital transportation revolution is happening not on our city streets but below them.
I’m talking about trains, or more specifically the critical rail transit networks comprised of subway and elevated trains in urban areas, as well as surface trains connecting cities and suburbs. Indeed, while New York has entertained endless debate on the impact of Uber, the trains of New York’s Metro Transit Authority (MTA) accommodate over 1.8 billion passengers a year . As we face an urbanized future with over 80% of humans living in metro areas by 2050  these city rail systems are of increasing importance relative to lower capacity, higher cost automobiles.
The German company Siemens AG has quietly assumed industry leadership in digitizing train travel with innovative use of driverless technology that increases rail network capacity while offering passengers smooth, safe, computer-controlled rides not unlike those offered by the high profile autonomous show cars of Mercedes, Ford, and Audi . While transportation players Alstom and Bombardier have focused on monorails, airport light rail, and other systems whose limited scope minimizes system challenges, Siemens has successfully implemented driverless trains in major urban areas such as Paris  and Barcelona . In February Siemens announced plans to install a driverless train system in Riyadh that will operate 74 cars on 175 kilometers of track, effectively creating the world’s largest metro rail network .
The Siemens business model creates differentiation from competitors by offering proven driverless train systems that increase rail network capacity while managing the myriad risks inherent to rail travel. For example, Siemens’ Paris system is able to cycle trains on the busiest Paris subway line every 85 seconds, or 20 seconds faster than older manned systems. This represents an 19% increase in passenger throughput. A driverless train system that Siemens has proposed for London will increase the capacity of four major Tube lines by 8,000 to 19,000 riders per hour .
Siemens digital train systems offer rail network operators shorter interval times between trains, reduced energy consumption, superior punctuality, and the ability to easily add or remove trains from networks during peak hours . While most systems accommodate an onboard attendant to monitor systems and intervene in emergencies, the systems remain fully capable of driverless operation. In effect, Siemens’ product represents a substantial turnkey upgrade to the operating model of rail networks across the globe.
Implementation of driverless trains to date has been mostly confined to urban areas, where sequestered networks (such as subways or elevated tracks) offer less need for driver monitoring of tracks, and where density of traffic lends greater impact to driverless operation and reduction of interval times . However, the lethal 2013 derailment of a high speed Acela train near Philadelphia – an accident directly attributed to human operator error  – suggests an opportunity for Siemens to deploy advanced digital trains on inter-city routes as a safety (versus cost) measure. Indeed, Siemens is already working with German  and British  national rail operators to test long range surface rail systems capable of driverless operation. These systems will leverage networks of sensors located both onboard the train and along the tracks to avoid the human miscalculations that resulted in the 2013 Acela derailment.
The neglected and failure-prone train systems of the United States present a tremendous opportunity for Siemens to implement its digital train technology to the benefit of both Siemens shareholders and U.S. urbanites. In July New York earmarked $27 billion to improve MTA subways, which currently operate well beyond design capacity using signal systems from the 1930s and some cars dating to the 1960s . In March San Francisco finally secured $3.5 billion to rebuild the troubled Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system, where train intervals remain limited by a 1967 computer system . Washington DC is also eyeing major upgrades to a metro system mostly known for fires, delays, derailments, and crumbling stations .
Siemens has a strong foothold in the United States market – indeed, Amtrak’s flagship Acela trains are Siemens products – and its digital products have a track record of success in major global cities. As Siemens refines its digital train product portfolio it should consider U.S. applications. Likewise, as U.S. cities (and Amtrak) struggle to meet spiraling demand for efficient urban rail they should identify digital solutions to decades-old operational problems.
1 – http://web.mta.info/nyct/facts/ridership/
2 – https://www.sciencedaily.com/terms/urbanization.htm
3 – http://motherboard.vice.com/read/why-dont-we-have-driverless-trains-yet
4 – http://w3.siemens.com/topics/global/en/references/driverless_metro/pages/main.aspx
5 – http://www.siemens.com/press/en/pressrelease/?press=/en/pressrelease/2016/mobility/pr2016020173moen.htm&content=MO
6 – http://www.siemens.com/press/en/feature/2013/infrastructure-cities/2013-10-riyadh.php?content=CC&content=IC&content=ICMOL&content=ICRL&content=ICSG
7 – http://motherboard.vice.com/read/londons-driverless-tube-train-of-the-future
8 – http://www.siemens.com/press/pool/de/feature/2012/infrastructure-cities/mobility-logistics/2012-04-metro-paris/factsheet-how-does-a-driverless-metro-work-en.pdf
9 – https://www.wired.com/2013/04/why-arent-trains-autonomous/
10 – http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/31/magazine/the-wreck-of-amtrak-188.html?_r=0
11 – http://www.themanufacturer.com/articles/germany-to-introduce-driverless-trains-by-2023/
12 – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/British_Rail_Class_700
13 – https://www.wired.com/2016/07/nyc-mta-subway-train-station-car-upgrades/
14 – http://www.sfexaminer.com/time-come-rebuild-bart/
15 – https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/trafficandcommuting/metro-sank-into-crisis-despite-decades-of-warnings/2016/04/24/1c4db91c-0736-11e6-a12f-ea5aed7958dc_story.html