The key challenge for the consortium behind the remote train control (TC-Rail) project is to maintain connectivity throughout the train’s journey.
The partners – SNCF, the Railenium Technical Research Institute, the French space agency (CNES), ACTIA Telecom and Thales – have come up with a solution: a hybrid communications system that switches automatically between SNCF’s private 4G network, the Eiji by Thales multi-operator 4G solution, and a satellite link.
Thales contributed its capabilities and expertise in both low-earth-orbit satellite communications (MissionLINK®) and secure, nationwide 4G LTE coverage (Eiji). Thales also developed a communication system that combines these technologies to deliver seamless and secure connectivity.
This hybrid satellite/4G model marks a major step forward for the rail industry, paving the way for an operational remote driving service in the future. In case of failure, for instance, operators could take control of a driverless train and guide it to the next station remotely.
Four years of testing and research
The consortium, which was set up in 2017, has carried out extensive research and run a battery of tests, using a freight locomotive equipped with a remote driving system coupled to a laboratory carriage kitted out with measurement and testing equipment. The train was operated remotely from a remote control centre at Vigneux-sur-Seine station in the southern suburbs of Paris.
In recent months, Thales, SNCF and the other consortium members have completed around 30 test runs in different settings in and around the capital, including a service track at a freight marshalling yard, a conventional rail line and a non-electrified single-track line.
"We are proud to contribute to this ambitious remote driving project, and to bring our capacity to innovate and our expertise in the field of rail systems and communications. We firmly believe that the success of this experiment with SNCF and all of the partners of the project is a fundamental step for the deployment of remote train control in the near future." Eric Robert, Head of Innovation, France domain Transportation activities at Thales
Enhanced situational awareness and a user-friendly interface
As well as working on the hybrid communications system, the partners have developed and tested an enhanced vision system, with more sophisticated cameras and innovative, real-time image processing solutions. The result is sharper, brighter and more vivid pictures that improve remote drivers’ situational awareness.
The remote control desk has also been upgraded with a more user-friendly look and feel. These changes were based on feedback from SNCF’s test drivers, who helped design the interface and operated the test train remotely from the control centre in Vigneux-sur-Seine. A team of around 20 drivers also ran further tests on a simulator.
Thanks to the testing and research work carried out by the TC-Rail consortium, a remote driving service could well enter real-world use before long. And it will be an essential building block of the driverless train – a revolution that will shape the future of rail and bolster demand for new areas of expertise as it unfolds.