Automatic train operation (ATO)

Automated vehicle systems guarantee a particularly efficient traffic flow

Automated vehicle systems are ‘autopilots’ for train traffic, and an essential prerequisite for ATO in trains. The technology implements given instructions for accelerating and braking – as in the cockpit of an aircraft, but in this case on the track. It is better than manual control, because reaction times between driving command transmission and implementation are significantly shorter and fluctuate less.

Advantages of vehicle automation at a glance

Automated vehicle systems offer many advantages: Firstly, speed specifications can be adhered to very precisely. Trains run more punctually, which stabilises operations. This contributes to an increase in capacity, better operational quality and thus increased efficiency of the railway system. Optimised acceleration and braking significantly reduces energy consumption and decreases wear – reducing maintenance costs. Finally, these systems enable innovation: new, more flexible operating concepts that could not have been implemented before.

Automatic train operation (ATO) and European Train Control System (ETCS) technologies in use

The first Digitale Schiene Deutschland pilot project hit the tracks in 2018, for the S-Bahn in Hamburg. For the first time in Germany, automated driving based on the ETCS is being used there. Thanks to vehicle automation, the driver only needs to intervene if there are faults or irregularities – the train starts, accelerates, brakes and stops by itself.

The future begins now

Automatic light rail systems are currently way ahead of cars. In over 35 metropolises around the world – including Barcelona, Copenhagen and Paris – automatic trams are running smoothly. In Nuremberg too, automatic underground trains have been operating since 2008. What all these systems have in common is that the rail tracks are enclosed and not accessible to the public.

This development will also take hold in the ‘main-line’ sector (large railways, suburban railways etc) in the coming years. As these are open systems, the challenges here are significantly higher. The ‘Digital Node Stuttgart’ project will enable automatic operation in the region in the coming years. Initially, over 400 S-Bahn and regional trains, and five model series, will be equipped with ‘ATO over ETCS’.

Digital Rail Test Field in the Ore Mountains

Digitales Testfeld Bahn (Erzgebirge)
01/2021