Autonomous mobility: The future of rail is automated

The rail industry needs innovative solutions that address the challenges of growing urbanisation, climate change and other factors putting pressure on public transport.

That is why we are championing the push towards automated train operation from metro to heavy rail solutions. Equipped with digital tools, cutting edge sensors, powerful software, and deep experience in driverless transport, Alstom is at the forefront of the development of autonomous systems and has its eye set on making the highest automation level, GoA4, on regional train lines a reality by 2023.

What is Autonomous Mobility?

Autonomous Mobility or Automatic Train Operation is an operational and safety enhancement in rail. It takes the guesswork, human error, and variables out of railways, making them more efficient, accurate, and reliable than ever. Combined with systems like Automatic Train Control, Automatic Train Protection and Automatic Train Supervision, these systems enable operators to do more with less, orchestrating their fleets and turning them into a finely-tuned network that performs better with less waste and risk. Alstom brings the industry’s broadest portfolio and deepest experience: Over 50 systems worldwide and driverless operation experience that stretches back to the 1970s.

Sydney Metro in Australia is a driverless rapid transit system that uses fully-automated Metropolis trains and the Urbalis 400 Communication Based Train Control (CBTC) signalling system.
  • 45%
    up to 45% less energy consumption
  • 30%
    more passenger capacity (depending on the line)
  • 3
    minutes faster per journey

Automated trains or Autonomous trains - what's the difference? ​

    • Operates on segregated tracks
    • Closed and secure system
    • Software establishes a security bubble around the train to ensure proper distance
    • Strong communication between vehicle and infrastructure
    • Operates on shared track
    • Must share path with other trains, cars and pedestrians
    • Trains need the ability to see ahead and around track
    • Train needs to be able to communicate and make decisions

Why automate trains?

Automating trains bring substantial benefits to operators, passengers, and the environment. 

  • Increased capacity

    Increased capacity

    Automation expands passenger capacity by increasing the number of trains a line can handle.

    Many networks are already operating at full capacity and simply cannot handle additional trains, but automation creates space by eliminating the variables caused by human behaviour.

  • Greater flexibility

    Greater flexibility

    Automating train fleets creates predictability and that predictability enables greater flexibility.

    When supported with Automatic Train Operation, operators have more choices. They can automate service on seldom used or remote lines, automatically park a train and keep it idle indefinitely or quickly respond to changes without needing a human driver to always be present.

  • Lower costs

    Lower costs

    Services like maintenance account for a large part of the costs of operating a fleet.

    Autonomous train technology ensuring that trains are operated as efficiently as possible; reducing wear and tear while minimizing the incremental inefficiencies that are natural to human influence.

  • Enhanced passenger experience

    Enhanced passenger experience

    Automatic train operation is not just for engineers and operators, it greatly improves the travel experience for passengers.

    Supported by technology, drivers can focus on passenger attendance and strategic decision, meaning passengers will notice smoother acceleration and stopping, more comfortable curves and seamless transport options that have fewer delays.

  • More sustainable

    More sustainable

    Eco-driving rail automation systems reduce energy consumption and are key to making the rail industry more sustainable.

    Automatic train operation orchestrates rail fleets, empowering operators to run their trains more efficiently. Performing as a single connected system, this improved synchronisation translates into maximum performance that helps reduce emissions and limit energy use.

Automating regional passenger and freight lines

One challenge is the fact that, across the world, regulations have not kept up with technology. That’s why Alstom is also leading Shift2Rail’s European working group that is tasked with specifying and modelling the required intelligent railway technical solutions, that will serve as the basis for the future Automatic Train Operation standard for mainline rail across Europe.

Alstom is already testing different levels of automation on different types of mainlines around the world to safely develop the standards of best safety practices. The goal is to have fully automated freight and regional passenger prototypes ready by 2023 and begin scale-up in 2025.

  • GoA 0 is basic, on-sight train operation, like a train driver manually operating a tram on the street.

  • GoA 1 is where a train driver controls starting and stopping as well as doors, while also responding to emergencies or sudden changes.

  • GoA 2 is semi-automatic train operation (STO) where starting and stopping is automated, but the driver still operates the doors, controls the train as needed and handles emergencies. This is one of the most-common levels of automation today.

  • GoA 3 is driverless train operation (DTO) where starting and stopping are automated and a train attendant operates the doors and drives the train in case of emergencies. Instead of focusing on driving, the train operators monitor the complete health and performance of the train.

  • GoA 4 is unattended train operation (UTO) where starting and stopping, operation of doors and handling of emergencies are fully automated without any on-train staff. The trains health will be closely monitored from afar.

Grades of Automation

Train automation is based on five grades of automation, from GoA0 to GoA4. Each step along this ladder increases operators’ control over their fleets while improving the fleet’s efficiency and performance.


Need some help with some automatic train operation-related terms and abbreviations? We've got you covered: 

  • Also called a traffic wave, the accordion effect is the unfavourable phenomena in transportation, where changes in the speed of the first vehicle in a traveling body ripple back through the line, causing increased delays and reduction in the overall throughput of the traffic.

  • Automatic train control is a rail safety system that controls the speed of a train and alerts drivers of dangerous situations.

  • Automatic train operation is a series of operational and safety enhancements for rail that enables the automation of trains. Automatic train operation is categorized into five ascending levels of automation called Grades of Automation (GoA).

  • Until governing bodies pass standard rules and governance for unattended mainline operation, the rail industry is developing solutions to benefit from the existing ETCS signalling system. This solution combines automatic train operation with ETCS Levels 1 and 2 to achieve GoA2.

  • Automatic train protection is a safety system that ensures sufficient distance or time between trains and provides warning when the train should be stopped. 

  • Automated trains like metros or people movers, operate in a closed environment. They are connected via digital signalling but get their own track and don’t have to share with other trains, cars or people. These trains use automation to support a driver.

  • Autonomous trains operate on tracks shared with other vehicles and pedestrians. They rely on digital signalling, but they require additional powerful sensors to analyse hazards around them and processors that enable them to adapt and even make decisions. Autonomous trains do not need a driver or attendants on board.

  • Collective transport is a type of complimentary mobility where rail services are supported and enhanced by cooperation with lighter transportation modes, such as public or private vehicles, for first-and-last-mile journeys.

  • Driverless train operation (DTO) is found on GoA3 where the trains starting and stopping is automated, but a driver still controls the doors and monitors the train.

  • Driverless train operation where all operations of the train are automated and can function without the intervention of on-board staff. GoA3 is typically associated with full-automation or driverless operation.

  • The amount of time a train spends at a station without moving, typically due to passenger boarding or exiting the vehicle. Automation can improve performance by reducing dwell times.

  • European Train Control System (ETCS) is the signalling and rail control aspect of the European Rail Traffic Management system which is the signalling standard for European railways. ETCS replaces various incompatible legacy signalling systems with standard trackside equipment and control equipment located inside the train.

  • Grade of automation, a standard way of describing progressive levels of automation in railways. GoA goes from level 0, which is no automation, to GoA4 which is full automation without train attendants or drivers.

  • The distance between two vehicles traveling on a shared transit system. Measured in either space or time, headway is a key aspect in measuring a network’s efficiency and it can be reduced with the proper application of rail control technology.

  • Mainline are the principal lines of a rail network. Branch lines, spurs or yards are secondary lines.

  • Metro is a type of rapid transport that operated in closed environments like tunnels or elevated guideways and therefore do not have to share right-of-way with pedestrians, cars, or other vehicles.

  • Onboard automatic train operation is different from automatic train operation over ETCS because the automatic train operation technology will be installed onto the trains themselves instead of on the vehicle and track. Onboard automatic train operation trains will be able to sense their surroundings, detect patterns, interact with other systems and passengers in order to make independent and safe decisions. 

  • Platooning is a method of driving that groups a series of vehicles together using digital technology to improve their efficiency. Once coupled, the vehicles can accelerate and brake as a single unit while also traveling at closer distances.

  • Semi-automatic train control is a level of automated train operation where the train driver operates doors and drives the train and handles issues as needed. STO is typically found in GoA2.

  • Systemic operation is a factor of railways and rail automation where fleets are treated holistically, as a single vehicle rather than a series of individual trains to improve their performance.

  • Unattended train operation (UTO) is the highest level of rail automation where door opening and closing, starting, and stopping are fully automated and managed without the use of on-train staff.