Soul(less) train

Should self-driving technology that doesn’t require a human at the controls be mandatory on US Railroads?

By Sarah Sidlow

This past December, an Amtrak train making its inaugural run of a new service between Seattle and Portland jumped the tracks on a highway overpass, and 132 tons of train hurled onto Interstate 5. At least three passengers were killed. It was discovered later that the train had been traveling at 80 mph in a 30 mph zone when it derailed, and positive train control (as in, the technology that can put the brakes on a speeding train) wasn’t in use on that stretch of the track.

In New York City, two commuter trains have slammed into stations in recent years—one in Hoboken, New Jersey, in September 2016, and the other in Brooklyn in January 2017. In these cases, both train operators were diagnosed with sleep apnea—a disorder that can lead to dangerous daytime drowsiness.

For those of us who commute for work, errands, or travel, the safety and efficiency of train travel is a daily concern. Some argue that it isn’t the train that’s the trouble—it’s the humans charged with driving it. But humans, it turns out, are no longer necessary for the functional operation of planes, trains, or automobiles.

The argument for automation is relatively simple: computers don’t get tired; they don’t get distracted or drink alcohol, and they do whatever it is they are programmed to do at a certain time. To many, this means they are safer, better pilots than human beings. And it’s not like the tech isn’t there—driverless cars have moved out of the science fiction novels and onto the roads. Large airports in the U.S. already employ driverless trolleys to move customers from one end of the facility to the other. So it’s possible that the future’s conductors will look a lot more like Watson.

But others warn that the rush to tomorrow’s automation may not solve today’s safety concerns. One big reason is this: just as computers are fantastic at doing exactly what they’re programmed to do, they are equally useless at doing anything they are not programmed to do. They aren’t able to make the real time decisions that sometimes end up saving lives.

And what happens to customer service if humans are removed from the equation? How can a driverless train respond to a sick passenger, for example, or a potentially dangerous one?

Finally, there’s the whole thing about how technology is slowly permeating every corner of our lives. [Oh yeah, and it can be hacked, which is a scary thing to think about.]

Like most things, it’s possible that the best solution lies somewhere in the middle: San Francisco’s BART system, for example, uses driverless technology to travel between stations, but human operators still handle boarding. In Copenhagen, trains are capable of being fully automated, but may still have on-board staff, just in case.

Meanwhile, India has its sights set on fully driverless operations by 2020.

Train of Thought

Distraction is human nature

By Ben Tomkins

Fully automated train transportation is not a question of “if”, it is a question of “when”. At the pace technology is moving, by the time my nephew’s kids are heading off to college, it is entirely foreseeable that computers will drive trains. If the current crop of science and fantasy geeks my nephew’s age has anything to say about the transition, we will be leaving from platform 9 ¾ on the way to Hogwarts.

Of course, even if the trains are stocked with Every Flavour Beans and magical ferret familiars, this is not the stuff of science fiction or magical thinking: it’s the natural (and inevitable, I might add) direction the rails of profit are laid for the train industry if it manages to survive at all. In my fair city of Denver, Elon Musk has tapped us for potential testing of a Hyperloop—a kind of warp speed pneumatic tube that will cut the travel time from here to Ft. Collins from a bit over an hour to about seven minutes. The future is coming, and the only competition trains can provide is cheaper prices. This is not a matter of my opinion or argumentative skill, it is a self-evident reality of all transportation, and the relative simplicity of trains makes them ideal for automation.

Is it possible today? Absolutely. For context, let’s take a peek at a transportation system that is geometrically more complex to automate than heavy rail. The US Air Force is working with Kratos Defense and Security of San Diego to phase in the XQ-222 Valkyrie drone. It is the first true fighter replacement, and the concept is that flocks of these things will be teamed with one human pilot. The price of each Valkyrie is about $2-3 million, and no, that shouldn’t be “billion”. An F-35 Lightning II is $100 million out of the box, not to speak of training and paying the pilot who will trash a few over a career. 

If we can fly fighter drones with enough confidence to stake the survival of the United States of America on it, then automating Amtrak is a walkover. It is a two-dimensional transportation system that runs on a pre-determined and unalterable route. Go ask an elementary school science teacher if they have any kids who could figure that out, and see if they can make it through setting up a Kickstarter campaign without laughing. I’m not kidding, actually. For those of you with smart, tech-oriented kids at home, think about the problem as best you can, and ask yourselves if you think your little genius could figure it out. For god’s sake, the first iPhone with both GPS and a camera was the 3G from mid-2008, which is probably the year they were born. Production model cars have had camera technology for a decade that yells at you if you go outside the lines (read: not rails), identifies speed limit and construction signage, and there are buses in Las Vegas and Washington that are already operating driverless with absurdly high standards of safety. One of them had an accident in Vegas recently, and lo and behold, it was the human operated vehicle at fault. 

My final point is one that is very personal to me. I haven’t written one of these for something like three months because I was hit by an oblivious driver, who ran a red light and nearly killed me on October 8th. I spent eight days in the hospital with every rib on my right side broken at least twice, a clavicle that was splintered so badly my doctors only explained it to me in sound effects, and I cracked pieces off my right femur and fibula so I was walking around with some Darth Vader gear on for a month. That is the short list, and you can fill it out with whatever cheese grater-esque exterior flesh wounds your imagination can come up with. Why am I mentioning this? Because it’s about time we acknowledge the truth that everybody knows to their core, but don’t want to say out loud:

We all know we should pay attention when we drive, but the fact is we simply don’t want to. If we did, we’d do it, and yet there we are checking ESPN while we engage in the necessary but soul-sucking activity of sitting in ever-worsening traffic. And you know what? That’s totally fine with me. I won’t argue with human nature. Let’s all admit that we have a lot of other things we’d rather be doing, and hand the keys over to a broad-based automated computer system.

As soon as we get over that hump and tell industry and government it’s OK to automate, the machinations of the free market will pick up the slack. Amtrak has been the recipient of a gigantic government subsidy since 1971, currently employs 20,000 people, and that will have to change. That’s a good thing. If you have ever wanted an example of government propping up and regulating an industry to its own stagnating detriment, trains are your baby, and I’m a rabid liberal saying this. Automated rail is an ideal platform for proof-of-concept: it will save us money in the future, save the industry, and at the end of the day, save lives.

In good hands

Autonomous revolution and
cyber crime on the rise

By Missy Mae Walters

My instant reaction to a self-driving train, barreling down the tracks going upwards of 100 mph only relying on a computer to decide its next step was a little unsettling, both for my mind and my stomach. This was due in most part to my mounting resentment of technology. While most welcome the innovation with open arms, I’m abnormal in today’s age as a skeptic. To me, it’s like our lives are trains moving faster and faster towards an inevitable derailment. It is true there are several breakthroughs which make life easier, but some of the times it seems like at any moment a mega catastrophe could turn our world inside out.

Over the course of my somewhat short life I have gone from using a rotary phone to fingerprint scanning to unlock an iPhone. That’s just 30 years. To my grandmother, who lived through the Great Depression, traveled by wagon across the country, showing her my first cellular flip phone and trying to explain how one could call people from anywhere was quite comical. It makes me reflect on the possibilities of advancement over my own lifetime.

Certainty the “autonomous revolution” as penned by Popular Mechanics is just decades away, if not sooner. While the railways, streets, skies, and waterways are all fair game, we need to be cognizant of the inevitable dangers lurking around the corner. This is where I have a problem.

There is a thin line between the ‘driverless’ trains and the ‘autonomous’ trains that are expected to monopolize the market by 2025. Driverless is not the same thing as autonomous. Driverless trains have been in use in many cities for well over a decade. In 2008, Germany opened its first driverless mass-transit train line. This is where there is the presence of both a human driver and computer. The computer system controlling the train is located in a remote room controlled by humans. The trains are not the drivers; they are just ‘driverless’ in nature.

On the other hand, autonomous trains require a train to make decisions without the guidance of a human being.

I’m intrigued about autonomous modes of transportation but fear it could turn out to be a massive opportunity for cyber criminals and hackers. In an age where cyber crime is on the rise, further advancement in technology can simply present more opportunity. Hackers live for the opportunity to make their mark. Despite the possibility of reducing the instances of human error, does anyone stop to think having a computer in complete control could be dangerous?

Just months ago, in May 2017, a cyber attack was made on the German rail network Deutsche Bahn. Screens across all Deutsche Bahn train stations became infected with Ransomware and the appearance of the “WannaCry” message appeared on each screen demanding money. The Ransomware might not have taken over the commands of a train in motion but its not too far-fetched. Just a little under a decade ago, in 2008, a 14-year-old used a television remote to access the Lodz, Poland train system. Yes, a television remote! The train had a human driver, not a computer system. The train’s driver steered one way but was directed by the teenager, who was remote, to go a different direction.

The United States Computer Emergency Readiness Team (US-CERT), a division of the Department of Homeland Security, was instituted “for a safer, stronger Internet for all Americans by responding to major incidents, analyzing threats, and exchanging critical cyber security information with trusted partners around the world.” For years, they have analyzed the possible threats to our nation’s railway system.

In fact, in August 2015 they released a report entitled “The Future of Smart Cities: Cyber Physical Infrastructure Risk” which evaluated Positive Train Control (PTC) for failures. PTC is the system of sensors and automated devises, which slow down and ultimately ensure the train stops. The Department of Homeland Security did find that a “malicious actor” could gain access to vulnerable system entry points to create unsafe conditions by transmitting an “all clear” signal to cause a collision, send faulty signals to stop a train allowing for hijackings, or even could have the ability to increase the speed of the train.

Rail Engineer, an independent monthly magazine for British engineers, recently published an article entitled “Hacking the Railway” where a detailed account of a computer security firm made-up a virtual rail transport control and operation system to gain information on how to combat future attacks. It was bait to see how many hackers it could attract. The outcome of the project over the six-week period was almost three million identified attacks.

With all this said, cyber security and the implementation of standardized practices across the railway industry will be paramount to protecting the passengers who ride them. For all of us technology skeptics, we’ll just need to have a little faith. 

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Ben Tomkins is a violinist, teacher, journalist and critically acclaimed composer currently living in Denver, Colorado. He hates stupidity and generally believes that the volume of one’s voice is inversely proportional to one’s knowledge of an issue. Reach Ben Tomkins at

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