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An autonomous train initiative is entering its test phase in Finland

30 July 2021

The aim of the initiative is to create completely new railway transport services and even to double the amount of railway transport.

The initiative, led by Finnish Proxion in conjunction with around 20 other tech organisations, innovates an agile, low-emission transportation concept for large industrial enterprises. In the future, the aim is to also bring autonomous passenger traffic to the rails. 

The autonomous train initiative received a funding decision in June and is moving on towards the pilot phase where the software and equipment of the autonomous train will be tested, simulated and test-driven. The project is a significant leap towards the transportation of the future.

“The strict environmental targets set by the EU are in favour of developing the electric modes of transport, and railway transport is the most energy efficient way to transport goods by land. The innovative development of rail transport is therefore in key position, as the goals are to develop transportation that is lower in emissions and to achieve better rail utilisation,” says Reijo Viinonen, the Project Manager of Proxion’s autonomous train initiative. 

The piloting of Proxion’s autonomous train will begin later this year. The autonomous train is expected to be operational in 2023.

The autonomous train reduces emissions and increases rail safety

Autonomy in transportation is a global trend, and its execution is being innovated constantly. While the development is well under way on roads, in the air and in maritime transport, the progress on railways has been slower.

The autonomous train unit in development is intended to be a low-emission and more cost-effective solution for short-distance industrial transport that is currently handled mainly by road transport.  An increasingly important feature of the train is safety. Technical Research Centre of Finland VTT, the innovation partner of the development project, is involved in enabling safe automation on the rails.

“It is important to ensure that the autonomous train operates reliably in all conditions and on a wide range of track connections. It is a leap towards safer railway transport. For example, sensor interpretation technology for the train unit is being developed as is combining a thermal camera and radar observations in order to be able to react correctly and in time to any obstacles or situations ahead,” says Pertti Peussa, Principal Scientist at VTT.

The advantages of an autonomous train unit also include agility and the longevity of the invested infrastructure. In addition, it offers a solution to the problem of available drivers, because, as the name implies, an autonomous train runs independently without a driver.

High international demand for autonomous rail transport

The first step of Proxion’s ambitious project is to pilot automatic railway traffic for freight transport in Finland that can be commercialised and is in high demand internationally.

The objective of the pilot is at first to improve the operating conditions of the metal and wood processing industries that are important to Finland. The project has collaborated with the steel company Outokumpu’s unit in Tornio and the forest industry company Stora Enso’s unit in Imatra.

Later on, the focus will be aimed more broadly on rail transport, where both goods and people are transported.

“The development of railway automation and ecosystems is currently a national interest for several European countries. All transportation will require AI-based data utilisation solutions, that are also at the heart of the autonomous train project. The whole project represents a bold, innovative pilot that creates cost-effective, dynamic new services that support business needs,” says Janne Hauta, Finnish Ministry of Transport and Communications Ministerial Advisor specialised in rail automation. The co-innovation development project of the autonomous train is funded by Business Finland and the companies Proxion, VTT, Teräspyörä Oy and Electric Power Finland Oy. Proxion coordinates and is responsible for the project and the information systems. VTT produces for the project the sensor technology and software needed to observe the environment, Teräspyörä Oy is responsible for fleet development and Electric Power Finland Oy for the digitisation of rail equipment.

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