Driverless freight train

A driverless freight train billed as the world’s first ‘lorry on rails’ has been unveiled in Germany – but is unlikely to operate on the UK’s antiquated railway system for years.

A driverless freight train bristling with advanced technology and billed as the world’s first ‘lorry on rails’ has been unveiled in Germany – but is unlikely to operate on the UK’s antiquated railway system for many years.

CargoMover uses a combination of radar, lasers and GSM mobile data systems to find its way safely to its destination by the quickest possible route without delaying other trains.

Its on-board computer, working in conjunction with data from a central control room, allows the unit to automatically nip in and out of the gaps created between scheduled passenger and freight traffic.

Its developer, the German engineering giant Siemens, claimed CargoMover has the potential to revitalise rail freight by offering the flexibility to transport small consignments at short notice currently only achievable by road.

However, outside ‘closed’ private rail sidings CargoMover can only operate on networks upgraded to include key component technologies of the European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS). In particular, it relies on GSM-R, the specially-designed mobile communications system for railways, to send and receive data from its central control room.

ERTMS is unlikely to appear on even major stretches of the UK’s problem-plagued rail network before 2010 at the earliest.

Other European nations will soon see significant sections of their networks using the system, however, and Siemens expects the first CargoMovers to be operating commercially in three years.

The company hopes CargoMover will be attractive to freight operators serving industries relying on ‘just-in-time’ deliveries of small amounts of freight, often at short notice. Hiring a full-sized freight train complete with driver is almost always uneconomical for such deliveries, leaving road transport as the only option.

Freight Transport Association spokesman Geoff Dossetter claimed UK freight operators and their customers would be ‘enormously frustrated’ if European rivals were able to take advantage of such potentially useful technology up to a decade before them.

‘Everybody knows we need a much better transport infrastructure for both passengers and freight,’ said Dossetter. ‘One of the best things we can do is to use the network more efficiently by getting freight on the lines when they are not being used to carry passengers – exactly what this system seems to be trying to achieve.’Each single-truck CargoMover unit is designed to carry loads of up to 60 tonnes for up to 150km – roughly the distance between London and Birmingham.

The unit is equipped with five radar sensors to monitor its distance from other trains on the line, while two lasers sweep the track immediately around it for obstacles.The sensors can work in all weather conditions and at night, when freedom of movement for freight traffic is at its peak.

The Transportation Systems division of Siemens spent two years developing CargoMover in conjunction with several German universities and the country’s Institute of Rail Vehicle Technology.

Siemens has just unveiled the system to the German railway industry at its test track in Wildenrath, which was upgraded with the latest rail technology specifically for the CargoMover project.

French ministers have urged their counterparts in London to back plans for a 400-mile dedicated freight line between Liverpool and the Channel Tunnel. The future of the proposed Central Railway is in the balance after the UK government was warned that building it would cause too much disruption.