FRA receives more than 2,100 comments on automated trains

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WASHINGTON — The Federal Railroad Administration received more than 2,100 comments from railroaders, lobbying groups, and the public on driverless train technology.

In March, the FRA announced it wanted public input about automated train technology, specifically “the potential benefits, costs, risks, and challenges to achieving such automation.” May 6 was the final day for the public to comment.

The federal agency received a wide-range of opinions, from railroaders who were adamantly against the idea to industry groups excited about the prospect of autonomous trains. Among those in favor were the Association of American Railroads, which commented that automated technology is already helping the industry and, if certain regulatory barriers were removed, it could help even more.

“While railroading in America is safer than ever, we are at an inflection point and further progress requires a paradigm shift,” said AAR President and CEO Edward R. Hamberger. “Emerging automated technology now makes it possible to envision, and more importantly build, a future free from the cause of one-third of all train accidents — human error. The Department of Transportation has encouraged the development and deployment of this game-changing technology in other transportation sectors, and we hope this is the beginning of an ongoing conversation about how it can be put to work across the world’s best freight rail network.”

The AAR called on the FRA to embrace automated technology for railroading just as it has embraced the idea of driverless trucks and cars.

Uptake is a company that specializes in artificial intelligence and has been working with companies such as Progressive Rail on technology that predicts equipment failures before they happen. In their comments to the FRA, Uptake officials predicted that artificial intelligence would revolutionize the industry.

“Just as positive train control was the most significant advancement in railroad safety during the 20th century, artificial intelligence will be in the 21st century,” officials wrote. “No other technology today holds the promise [artificial intelligence] does to end railroad deaths and injuries. To achieve AI’s full potential of increasing railroad operation efficiency and safety, FRA should craft a regulatory framework that rewards and incentivizes railroad innovation.”

Once considered the stuff of science fiction, autonomous freight trains have become a reality. In 2017, mining company Rio Tinto operated a driverless train on a 60-mile stretch of tracks in western Australia. The company hopes to expand its driverless operations this year.
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