Trains Top 10 stories for 2017: No. 10, the AUTONOMOUS TRAIN

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RioTinto
A Rio Tinto train completed the first known heavy-haul autonomous (crewless) journey in the world in October in Australia.
A screen image capture of a Rio Tinto video on YouTube
WAUKESHA, Wis. — Danged if they didn't do it: Autonomous Trains, that is.

Discussion got into a frenzy back last January when then-CSX Corp. CEO Michael Ward said that trains with one person crews were "inevitable."

Labor unions disliked that statement and found an unexpected ally in E. Hunter Harrison. Almost immediately after taking over CSX as CEO in March, the late, irascible Harrison said he wasn't a fan of clipping crew sizes, saying pointedly that putting one person in charge of a 20,000-ton train didn't make "good business" and heaped on his own concerns about safety and train delays.

But that's old news. Australia's Rio Tinto changed the subject completely in October when the mining company announced its first fully automated heavy-haul trip from mine to port. Chinese engineers followed up in November with the launch of a "smart train" — a trackless streetcar — that operates on a fixed A-to-B route without human intervention.

GE Transportation's Chief Digital Officer Laurie Tolson even told Trains in the January 2018 issue of the magazine that autonomous trains are ..." of interest to other customers that we're talking to in the North American market and the Class I [railroads]. There's a desire to get ... to fully autonomous. ... [T]hey're working through it very carefully and watching and working with Rio Tinto and talking and going down and seeing what's going on with the tools that they're using from GE."

So let's not deny it, engineers and conductors as we know them will someday be as obsolete as telegraphers, cabooses, and pocket watch manufacturers (adjusting time pieces for six positions, heat, cold, and isochronism).

But crews are still around and will likely be for years and years until technology, politics, railroads, and millions of neighbors to railroad rights-of-way have a reckoning over the safety concerns Harrison expressed. For that reason, Trains editors name the Autonomous Train as the No. 10 story of the year in 2017.

Trains editors will present the Top 10 stories of the year in reverse order starting Dec. 21 and finishing on Dec. 30.

Read previous years' Top Ten stories online.

NEWSWIRETrains News Wire

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