What can we learn about introducing ATO from around the world?

Source: Rail Technology Magazine Oct/Nov 2013

Jeremy Long, CEO of MTR Europe, explains the safety and service delivery benefits of automatic train operation and lessons on its implementation from around the globe.

Automatic train operation (ATO) is beginning to appear across our rail networks and is planned for both Thameslink and Crossrail. In the post-McNulty environment, ATO has become a vital tool to enable train operators to get the most capacity out of our crowded infrastructure.

MTR has introduced and advised on ATO systems across the globe including: introducing ATO to Hong Kong and Beijing, planning for its introduction to the Stockholm Metro, and providing advice for London Underground’s Piccadilly Line, Mumbai’s railway and the Singapore Light Rail Transit. In this article, I want to highlight some of the insights and best practices for introducing ATO that could be applied to the UK’s rail network.

A need for greater passenger capacity

There is a real need to increase passenger capacity in the UK, and in London in particular. The Office for National Statistics predicts that London’s population will reach 9 million by 2020 – a number that current infrastructure can’t support. That’s why £6bn and £15bn respectively is being spent on upgrading and building infrastructure for Thameslink and Crossrail. With that level of spending, it is vital we make the most of the infrastructure.

ATO maximises existing rail infrastructure by increasing the frequency of trains that can’t be achieved manually, thus increasing passenger capacity. With both Thameslink and Crossrail being built to run metro-style services, with up to a train every two-and-a-half minutes in either direction, ATO is an essential requirement.

Introducing new technology on an older existing network is particularly challenging. So there are four key factors an operator involved with introducing ATO trains and signalling systems needs to consider: detailed planning, minimising passenger disruption, coordinating with partners and extensive staff training.

Planning is key

Being prepared for a train system upgrade is half the battle. Therefore detailed advanced planning, involving all partners, is vital to the success of any ATO upgrade.

MTR has experience of this from Hong Kong. In the same way that London’s network is overstretched, by the early 1990s Hong Kong’s system had reached capacity along the busiest sections of the Kwun Tong, Tseun Wan and Island lines. Moreover the existing Automatic Train Control (ATC) system was approaching the end of its serviceable life giving rise to component obsolescence and reliability problems.

This meant that the customer service targets – including the famously high levels of punctuality – and the ability to carry an increased passenger volume that Hong Kong was experiencing, would have been affected if these problems were not resolved.

The upgrade was achieved by overlaying a new ATO system over the ATC system – a difficult task, but one that enabled MTR to work around the existing system without disrupting the whole network.

The Hong Kong project, which began in 1994 and finished in 1998, increased train frequency from 30 trains per hour per direction to 34 trains – a 13% increase.

Similarly, Storstockholms Lokaltrafik (the Stockholm public transport authority) is procuring an upgrade to its Metro that MTR is helping to implement. A 15-year-old signalling system on the Green Line (pictured below) is being updated to accommodate newer ATO technology, the first of its kind in Sweden.

During the test period of around four months, MTR saw an increase in punctuality.

On the Red Line, the authority is installing a new Ansaldo CBTC signal system, which also allows for ATO trains. The new system will increase the frequency of the service from 24 trains an hour to around 30 trains an hour, with a maximum design capacity of 36 trains an hour.

MTR also has experience installing ATO trains to brand new tracks in much the same way that Crossrail will need to incorporate a new fleet with new technology. We have rolled out ATO trains in Beijing and Hanzhou in China, as well as on new lines in Hong Kong, such as the Disney Resort, Tseung Kwan O extension and Airport Express lines. Again, MTR conducted detailed planning for all of these lines.

It took into account factors such as the need for dual two-track sections and bi-directional working for some strategic sections for degraded train service in case of emergencies. Preparing for these eventualities allowed for a smooth introduction of new ATO trains.

Minimising passenger disruption

Ensuring that passenger disruption is minimised during train system upgrades is vital in order to maintain customer satisfaction.

The customer therefore needs to be at the heart of the planning.

For Thameslink’s upgrade, putting passengers first in planning the introduction of ATO will be especially important, since there are numerous other works taking place along it at the same time, not least the redevelopment of London Bridge station.

MTR’s Hong Kong replacement project had its customers in mind from the outset. There, overlaying the SACEM system on top of the existing ATC kept passenger disruption at bay. Furthermore, most of the work was done during the overnight non-service hours.

Not all of this will be possible for the Thameslink upgrade work but it will be incumbent upon the operator to work hand-in-glove with Network Rail to ensure customers are properly informed of works. Moreover, by working closely together, Network Rail and the operator will be able to minimise the overall disruption caused to passengers.

On such a high-profile programme, keeping commuters on side will be almost as important as keeping the project within budget and completing on time.

Coordinating the work with partners

Full co-ordination between the infrastructure operator, the train operator and the rolling stock and signalling systems manufacturers is absolutely crucial for successful ATO introduction.

MTR’s understanding of the full operating spectrum, across track and trains – gained from being a full-systems operator in Hong Kong – has provided us with vital insights into how to implement ATO elsewhere in the world. In Stockholm and Melbourne we are working hand-in-glove with the infrastructure operators, and our knowledge has given us a much better and more holistic understanding of the challenges they are facing.

Similarly, here in the UK, London Overground Rail Operations Ltd (LOROL), of which we are 50% owner, worked in-step with Network Rail and Transport for London (TfL) during the upgrade and extension of the London Overground network, and at various points MTR was able to bring in infrastructure experts from our international business to advise on specific aspects of the work.

Staff training

The new ATO trains and signalling systems are only as good as the people who operate them. Making sure that staff have adequate and extensive training is vital for a smooth operation of any train service.

MTR’s Operations Training Department (OTD), based in Hong Kong, has rolled out training for staff at all levels (in Hong Kong and for new lines in Beijing and Hangzhou) including:

  • Operation and Maintenance of CBTC and iATP (a downgrade mode of CBTC)

  • Design of different contingency plans

  • Table-top exercise and CATE (Computer Aid Table-top Exercise) on incident handling between station, train and OCC staff

  • On-site training and coaching of station, operational control centres (OCCs), train staff and maintenance staff

  • Training for trainers, namely the senior management staff

  • Training for train crew management, the station masters

  • Advice on building up of training simulators and equipment for station, OCC, train staff and maintenance staff which include cab simulator, ATC and station management system.

In Stockholm, where MTR is also preparing to introduce new ATO trains, the OTD are providing the training programme outline as well as advising on the cab simulator project.

In Melbourne, the OTD provided advice on training programmes for the Metro in advance of ATO introduction, as well as advice on setting up a training centre – The Metro Training Academy, which was established in 2010.

Of course, driver training is also essential. This will be particularly true of Thameslink and Crossrail, where trains will be driven manually outside the cores of the networks when the services run on existing main lines. MTR has adopted best-practice criteria, covering classroom, computer-based and simulator training, practical exercises involving real equipment, case studies and on-the-job training.

Trainees are provided with a line trainer for day-to-day coaching and on-the-job training. The line trainers themselves are also developed in-house through the train-the-trainer programme as mentioned above.

Finally, in addition to periodic written and practical examinations throughout the course, each train driver undergoes a two-day refresher course every six months.


ATO will play a key role in maximising the UK rail network’s capacity on the infrastructure in which we are investing so heavily.

There are lessons we can learn from across the world where ATO has been successfully introduced.

By planning effectively, putting passengers at the heart of this planning, working in partnership and delivering best-practice staff training we can save time, money and passenger frustration, and deliver the extra capacity we so desperately need.

Tell us what you think – have your say below or email [email protected]


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