Automatic train operation

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Panel of MTR SP1950 EMU, capable of running ATO

Automatic train operation (ATO) is an operational safety enhancement device used to help automate the operation of trains. The degree of automation is indicated by the Grade of Automation (GoA), up to GoA level 4 (where the train is automatically controlled without any staff on board). ATO is primarily used on automated guideway transit and rapid transit systems where it is easier to ensure the safety of humans. On most systems, there is a driver present to mitigate risks associated with failures or emergencies.

Many modern systems are linked with automatic train control (ATC) and, in many cases, automatic train protection (ATP) where normal signaller operations such as route setting and train regulation are carried out by the system. The ATO and ATC/ATP systems will work together to maintain a train within a defined tolerance of its timetable. The combined system will marginally adjust operating parameters such as the ratio of power to coast when moving and station dwell time in order to adhere to a defined timetable.

Types of train automation[edit]

A diagram representing the different levels of automation possible on railways

According to the International Association of Public Transport (UITP), there are five Grades of Automation (GoA) of trains:[1][2]

Grade of
Train operation Description
GoA 0 On-sight No automation
GoA 1 Manual A train driver controls starting and stopping, operation of doors and handling of emergencies or sudden diversions.
GoA 2 Semi-automatic (STO) Starting and stopping are automated, but a driver operates the doors, drives the train if needed and handles emergencies. Many ATO systems are GoA 2.
GoA 3 Driverless (DTO) Starting and stopping are automated, but a train attendant operates the doors and drives the train in case of emergencies.
GoA 4 Unattended train operation (UTO) Starting and stopping, operation of doors and handling of emergencies are all fully automated without any on-train staff. All stations should have platform screen doors.

Operation of ATO[edit]

Whereas ATP is the safety system which ensures a safe spacing between trains and provides sufficient warning as to when to stop, ATO is the "non-safety" part of train operation related to station stops and starts, and indicates the stopping position for the train once the ATP has confirmed that the line is clear.

The train approaches the station under clear signals, so it can do a normal run-in. When it reaches the first beacon – originally a looped cable, now usually a fixed transponder – a station brake command is received by the train. The on-board computer calculates the braking curve to enable it to stop at the correct point, and as the train runs in towards the platform, the curve is updated a number of times (which varies from system to system) to ensure accuracy.[3]

When the train has stopped, it verifies that its brakes are applied and checks that it has stopped within the door-enabling loops. These loops verify the position of the train relative to the platform and which side the doors should open. Once all this is complete, the ATO will open the doors. After a set time, predetermined or varied by the control centre as required, the ATO will close the doors and automatically restart the train if the door closed proving circuit is complete. Some systems have platform screen doors as well. ATO will also provide a signal for these to open once it has completed the on-board checking procedure. Although described here as an ATO function, door enabling at stations is often incorporated as part of the ATP equipment because it is regarded as a "vital" system and requires the same safety validation processes as ATP.[3]

Once door operation is completed, ATO will accelerate the train to its cruising speed, allow it to coast to the next station brake command beacon and then brake into the next station, assuming no intervention by the ATP system.[3]

Notable examples[edit]

Urban passenger railways[edit]

The two white ATO start buttons beside the power/brake lever in a Tokyo Metro 10000 series train, corresponding to GoA 2 operation

Freight railways[edit]

  • The Rio Tinto Group "AutoHaul" system on its iron ore railways in the Pilbara.[12] This system is GoA 4 capable, able to run trains without a single person aboard for the entire trip out to the mines and back to the port. In October 2017 the first fully autonomous test took place over a 100 kilometres (62 mi) section.[13] The group was granted accreditation by Australia's Office of the National Rail Safety Regulator, approving the autonomous operation of iron ore trains in the Pilbara region of Western Australia.[14]
  • The Iron Ore Company of Canada uses nine automated GMD SW1200MG electric locomotives. This railroad is GoA4 capable, able to run trains without a single person aboard for the entire trip out to a processing plant and back to the mine in Labrador City.
  • The Navajo Mine Railroad uses four remote-controlled GE E60 electric locomotives. This railroad is GoA2 capable, able to run a train without any person on board for the entire trip out to the Four Corners Generating Station and back to the mines.

Mainline operation[edit]

  • The Czech railways have used GoA2 operation since 1991. Currently, about 400 vehicles are equipped with on-board units.[timeframe?] 1500 km of lines (of total 9000 km network) are equipped with lineside part of ATO, next 1500 km are covered by data for GPS localisation.
  • In the United Kingdom, the Thameslink core section through Central London between St Pancras and Blackfriars became the first ATO route on the National Rail network in 2018.[15]

High speed rails[edit]

  • German ICE high-speed lines equipped with the Linienzugbeeinflussung (LZB) signalling system support a form of GoA 2 ATO operation called AFB (Automatische Fahr- und Bremssteuerung, lit. automatic driving and braking control) which enables the driver to let the on-board train computer drive the train on autopilot, automatically driving at the maximum speed currently allowed by LZB signalling. In this mode, the driver only monitors the train and watches for unexpected obstacles on the tracks. On lines equipped with only PZB/Indusi, AFB acts entirely as a speed cruise control, driving according to the speed set by the driver with manual braking if needed.[16]
  • CR400BF-C 'Fuxing Hao', a variant of CR400 Fuxing series, running on Beijing–Zhangjiakou intercity railway is said to be the world first high-speed rail service capable of driverless automation in commercial operations. The specific Grade of Automation (GoA) was not announced.[17][18]


ATO will be introduced on the London Underground's Circle, District, Hammersmith & City, and Metropolitan lines by 2022. ATO will be used on parts of Crossrail once the route opens. Trains on the central London section of Thameslink were the first to use ATO on the UK mainline railway network[19] with ETCS Level 2.

The U-Bahn in Vienna will be equipped with ATO in 2023 on the new U5 line.

All lines being built for the new Sydney Metro will feature driverless operation without any staff in attendance.

Since 2012, the Toronto subway has been undergoing signal upgrades in order to use ATO and ATC over the next decade.[20] Work has been completed on sections Yonge–University line.[21] The underground portion of Line 5 Eglinton will be equipped with ATC and ATO in 2022. The underground portion will use a GoA2 system while the Eglinton Maintenance and Storage Facility will use a GoA4 system and travel driverless around the yard.[22] The Ontario Line is proposed have a GoA4 driverless system and will open in 2030.[23]

ATO is in everyday operation on Czech Railways lines with AVV since 1991, and in test operation with ETCS since 2008.

Delhi Metro officials have stated that driverless trains with advanced features will run on the Botanical Garden – Kalkaji corridor, with trial runs planned for the last week of July 2016 and the trains being operated on the route from August 2016 onwards. Initially, drivers will be deputed to operate the trains but will be gradually withdrawn, said a metro official.[24][out of date]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ International Association of Public Transport. "A global bid for automation: UITP Observatory of Automated Metros confirms sustained growth rates for the coming years" (PDF). Belgium.
  2. ^ Elisabeth Fischer (23 August 2011). "Justifying automation".
  3. ^ a b c "ATO". Railway Technical Web Page. Archived from the original on 12 April 2012.
  4. ^ "Driverless operations start in Nürnberg". Railway Gazette International. Archived from the original on 2009-07-01.
  5. ^ Tren Urbano Rapid Transit System, Puerto Rico - Accessed 2011-07-12
  6. ^ "Linea M1, nuovo sistema di regolazione della circolazione ATM, Azienda Trasporti Milanesi".
  7. ^ New York City Transit - History and Chronology Archived October 19, 2002, at the Wayback Machine.
  8. ^ "MTA L Train Response to Squadron" (PDF) (Press release). Metropolitan Transportation Authority. 2011-09-06. Retrieved 2011-10-29.
  9. ^ "New York Flushing Line CBTC contract awarded". Railway Gazette. 2010-06-28. Retrieved 2011-10-29.
  10. ^ "Rome's subway: the eternal project". 17 April 2016 – via Japan Times Online.
  11. ^ Kingsland, Patrick (25 July 2019). "Doha Metro: on track for the next World Cup". Railway Technology.
  12. ^ "Rio Tinto has confirmed that it is on track to completely transition to driverless trains across its entire Pilbara operation by the end of 2018". July 20, 2017. Retrieved 1 September 2017.
  13. ^ "Rio Tinto operates first fully-autonomous test train". Railway Gazette. October 2, 2017. Retrieved 5 October 2017.
  14. ^ Ltd, DVV Media International. "Rio Tinto's automated trains approved". Railway Gazette. Retrieved 2018-05-23.
  15. ^ Ward, Victoria (2018-03-26). "First self-drive train launched on mainline track". The Telegraph. ISSN 0307-1235. Retrieved 2018-03-29.
  16. ^ Der ICE – ein Produkt des Systemverbundes Bahn. In: Deutsche Bahn AG: ( bahntech, Nr. 1/06], S. 24 f.
  17. ^ "China's Fuxing series, can run up to 350 kilometers per hour (217 mph) without a driver". CNN. 8 January 2020.
  18. ^ "World's fastest driverless bullet train launches in China". The Guardian. 9 Jan 2020.
  19. ^ "Thameslink first with ATO over ETCS". Railway Gazette. 20 March 2018.
  20. ^ Wheeler, Charles (2008-12-17). "Yonge Subway Extension – Recommended Concept/Project Issues" (PDF). TTC.
  21. ^ "Rail News - TTC extends signal system to Queen Station. For Railroad Career Professionals". Progressive Railroading. Retrieved 2020-12-12.
  22. ^ "How will the Eglinton Crosstown LRT's automatic train control work? We break down every major element in an infographic". Retrieved 4 June 2020.
  23. ^ "Ontario Line will be driven by proven tech rather than futuristic prototypes". Retrieved 4 June 2020.
  24. ^ Rajput, Abhinav (April 28, 2016). "South Delhi-Noida direct Metro connectivity by August". HT Media Limited. Hindustan Times. Retrieved 10 May 2016.