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Will railways suffer the autonomous axe?

An autonomous vehicle right next to an old, unused trainAlmost two centuries ago, the Victorian age descended on Great Britain. It was a tale of two Charles’s (Darwin and Dickens), an era of ingenuity, an age of political reform and social change, and a dawning of the first Industrial Age. It was a time of smokestacks and sweeping development – and it coincided with the rise of the British railways. All throughout the country, train tracks were rolled out like a red carpet to industrial progress, connecting cities to towns and shorelines to inland areas. Rail wore the second crown for over a century, revolutionising travel, industry and broader concepts of human connectivity…until the day the automobile rolled into town.

By 1963, the car was king across the world, and the British government was looking for ways to resurrect the railway’s former glory. They commissioned physicist and engineer, Dr Richard Beeching, to recommend the way forward, which led to the report, Reshaping of British Railways that changed the network forever. For reasons of cost and efficiency, the Beeching report, or more appropriately, the “Beeching Axe”, saw the slashing of almost a third of the network – 5000 miles of track, including hundreds of branch lines, 2363 stations and tens of thousands of jobs.

From there, the winner was the motorist, who saw record investment in the development of new high-speed roads through an expanding web of motorways. The age of the motor car was upon us.

And now of course we brace another age – this one equally disruptive, and bound to unravel status quo: the era of the autonomous vehicle. Today, start-ups are scrambling to join the AI innovation race, governments are gearing up for policy and infrastructure changes, and public trust in AV travel is rising rapidly. And though we don’t actually know how the AV revolution will unfold, we have enough evidence to suggest that rail has seen her heyday.

Will it happen overnight? Of course not. But can passenger rail really compete over the long run with what AVs have to offer? All directional signs point to ‘probably not’.

Railways vs Roads as a means of public transport

For a while now, the warning signs have been coming: the great AV takeover is nigh. Lyft cofounder and president John Zimmer puts the “Automotive Judgement Day” – the day that private car ownership will all but end – as soon as 2025. And though this date is perhaps too soon, the point is, it’s a matter of time before the driverless car is the new travel norm. So, what do autonomous vehicles offer that rail – even your own car – fails to provide?

For one: a more promising investment. The upfront cost of rail is expensive – very expensive. When adding together the colossal costs of maintenance and upgrades, salaries, subsidies and deficits, and the loss of tax revenue, not to mention the cost of new train sets, it’s a hard sell to government budgets that already feel the pinch. The average cost of high-speed rail lines in Europe is typically around €25 to €35 million per km – excluding the more expensive tunnelling projects. Of course, we should also consider evidence that rail adds economic value through reducing road congestion. However, AVs on the road have the potential to disrupt those costs, which suggests the future is less clear cut.

So, let’s talk about those wheels sitting idle in the garage. The average cost of operating a car in Europe ranges from €364 per month in Hungary to €708 per month in Norway, with congestion costs threatening to see that figure climb! That’s a lot of money for an asset that is used only 4% of the time. Previously a symbol of freedom and success, a car in the eyes of the average Gen Z is considered excess baggage.

The unowned AV, on the other hand, offers this generation what they want: lean, fast, efficient point-to-point service. With emphasis on ridesharing, AV travel would be substantially cheaper and quicker than current car journeys. Traditional costs of acquisition, insurance and maintenance could be shaved down to a membership fee – the cost of belonging to an AV fleet service that takes care of the maintenance and services the car according to your commuter needs.

And in time, when owning your own AV is not uncommon, says Elon Musk in his Master Plan, Part Deux, “You will also be able to add your car to the Tesla shared fleet just by tapping a button on the Tesla phone app and have it generate income for you while you’re at work or on vacation, significantly offsetting and at times potentially exceeding the monthly loan or lease cost. This dramatically lowers the true cost of ownership to the point where almost anyone could own a Tesla.”

A new transport paradigm

But beyond the number crunch, there is a fundamental shift at play, which railways are too encumbered to offer. As opposed to the previous transport paradigm that said, humans revolve around the service, today’s modus vivendi says, the service revolves around the human .

Convenience, flexibility, and light carbon living are all imperatives for today’s preferred lifestyle. What self-driving offers is the opportunity to reshape our cities’ real estate to serve people, their communities and their aspirations. All that concrete for parking and traffic can be reinvented to facilitate connections, and greener, leaner AI infrastructure.

Arguably, until now what trains have always offered their passengers is time – time to work, read, sleep, or converse while the wheels merrily roll along. But driverless cars will do the same – equally enabling commuters to choose how they use that downtime. And as AV technology advances, hand in hand with consumer trust, self-driving vehicles are speculated to become safer than any other transportation mode in time. Railways have tried to accommodate the changing needs of customers with some timetable-free services and electronic ticketing, but given the nature of the existing network across the globe, how will the rail industry cope?

A case for the complementary

Of course, there are exciting innovations happening in the rail space that are suggesting a second resurgence and attracting customer loyalty – such as Britain’s recently introduced first hydrogen train to help the UK government’s mission to be diesel-free by 2040. And let’s not forget that autonomous trains have been operating on modern networks for quite some time.

There could be a happy coexistence between the two. Cities like Singapore are advocating complementary models with trains doing the heavy lifting and driverless vehicles covering the ‘last miles’ to home. In Potsdam, Germany, Siemens Mobility’s self-driving Streetcar is currently on trial, using lidars, radars, cameras and machine-learning software to interact with cars and pedestrians. It is also gathering data that can help in developing driver assistance and autonomous features for both road and rail vehicles.

As the Third Transportation Revolution unfolds, there is current legroom for both rail and road. But the question is, for how long will that last? Can rail avoid an imminent shakeout by partnering with AV-based industries, or is it, as some declare, a slow roll to their demise to make way for Roads as the future public transport system? Only time will tell, but we have our suspicions. All aboard?

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3 replies »

  1. Interesting thoughts and I’m certainly in the ‘complementary’ camp.

    My view is that mass rapid transit will always be required, and, that the axe falling on railways will be Drivers rather than railways as they are slowly replaced by automated trains!

    In commuter’s decision making on transport I imagine AVs are not a clear winner in all circumstances over mass transit when you take into account; convenience, congestion, price, journey time and pollution.

    In terms of cost, any fundamental change of take up of road or rail transport will significantly impact infrastructure capacity and will require billions to rectify. Significant AV take up cannot disassociate from this cost as they will add to the demand on an already likely constrained road infrastructure network. Ridesharing can help with capacity somewhat, however, ridesharing is in practice now.

    I certainly agree on the fundamental change in car ownership to a form of AV car leasing. Especially where millions of vehicles sit idle most of the time. As commuters weigh up factors mentioned above (especially the price point), the switch will be on for many, AV or not.

    Governments also have a role to play in our transport system as the macro costs and benefits are not always borne by the source (ie. pollution). A balanced system needs to allow for communities to prosper (socially, environmentally), and also in supporting business productivity. The question is, what transport system will allow for this balance in making a city truly liveable?

  2. Tw0 points to consider in assessing this probability.

    20 years ago the future of slow passenger ships was predicted to be zero. Cruise ships are now common. Slow rail will survive as an entertainment / recreation resource.

    While the article concentrates on commuter and in-city travel, autonomous cars will never achieve the intercity speeds that high speed rail can achieve. I do not think that rail is doomed, although I agree that driverless trains are a definite development. I also think that dual mode autonomous vehicles that can do the last miles on roads and self organise into trains on an autonomous network to do the intercity at high speed on rail will be the future of land based freight.

  3. I do not foresee the demise of rail, although I do see conventional steel rails being replaced by an innovative safer, friction-reduced system like a rail line, running between major CENTRE’s (hubs) 5 to 8 times faster than our local (Cape Town) trains. So travel between hubs is faster than a car ( can’t speak about AV’s just yet) but if needed to be faster, there always will be air (maybe even AAC (autonomous aircraft)). But in and around the hubs, AV’s will take over completely. There will be many, many more communal AV’s than private ones, because there will still be those individuals who will want exclusivity, so they may own their own Aston-Martin AV, or Bugatti AV. The norm will be communal AV’s of more than one size, at least a medium 4pax, and an 8 pax.

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