Modern trains can be automatic and self-driving, yet people are still necessary
I see more and more automation each day in the rail industry. Trains drive themselves; computers write timetables; equipment identifies its own faults and tries to repair those faults.
Yet I don’t see automation and smart equipment replacing human jobs. I recently analysed two metro systems to identify the number of staff needed to run a metro. Both systems were automatic with self-driving trains, yet both metros employed hundreds of staff per line.
Automated rail with self-driving trains doesn’t make people obsolete. These are some of the jobs in rail future-proof in the face of automation:
The human at the helm. Traffic controllers are the people in charge of the rail line.
They oversee the operation of train control and play a critical role if anything goes wrong. If there are delayed trains, troublesome passengers, something broken (that can’t fix itself), the traffic controllers are the ones who arrange getting it working properly again. This includes keeping the people on the ground safe as they try to fix the train service.
I’ve seen traffic controllers manage the nearly daily equipment breakdowns on a line such that passengers never get delayed. A lot of decision making goes into this, even when automation catches up, it will still need oversight by a person.
When it hits the fan, people working in incident response get in to gear.
I group the people working incident management into 2 categories:
What can go wrong?
Automatic trains still break down. Catastrophe can strike even the most resilient systems.
Major incidents I have seen include power lines breaking, natural disasters, and computer bugs that cause widespread chaos. Automated rail lines can keep passengers safe during these incidents, but I’m yet to see one that can get the service back running without the help of people.
People fix the incident
People with deep knowledge of the system are needed to diagnose and resolve the incident. More people are needed for coordination of the task and keep everyone safe. Every incident is different, I can’t give generalisations about the jobs required here, but fixing automated systems draws in people from a variety of backgrounds.
It’s not only traditional engineers involved in fixing an incident. More recently, the skills required to quickly identify and resolve problems with rail lines have branched out into other STEM fields. A recent series of breakdowns on Singapore’s driver-less Circle Line prompted data analysts and data scientists to get involved. They used their analytical skills to identify an intermittent fault on a particular train so that it could be fixed by the engineers. If you want more details on the mathematics they used, click here.
The train drives itself, but people in skilled jobs were still necessary to identify and fix problems as they occur.
Engage the community
Passengers want to know what’s going on. The community wants to know what’s going on. Politicians want to know what’s going on.
The bigger the incident, the more people want to be kept informed about what’s happening and when everything’s going to be back to normal.
Public relations staff engage the community on behalf of the train company, and keep them up to date about any delays or incidents. Train companies employ a variety of public relations people to answer these questions and keep people informed of the incident. These are traditional jobs that can’t be done well by machines.
The people who fix the system will always have a job.
Even the best automatic systems break down. No system has 100% up time over a long enough horizon.
Right now there is an army of people who spend their nights looking after the infrastructure that everyone relies on during the day. There are also people on call, when something breaks, they’re out there fixing it as soon as possible.
I have a previous article about great opportunities as a rail engineer. If you’re interested in reading that one, click here. Below is the short version:
Permanent way technicians and engineers fix tracks. They ensure passengers have a smooth ride along the rails, and that trains can travel with speed.
The pieces of rail that make up train tracks need to be kept a fixed distance apart, and need to be kept vertically aligned as well. As trains run over tracks, and as rain falls on the ground the track sits on, the rails can move apart over time. Permanent way technicians and engineers identify these problems and fix them.
Rail can also be chipped or damaged, causing damage to train wheels as they pass over. Repairing this damage reduces wear on train wheels, meaning they have to be replaced less often.
How will permanent way engineers deal with automation? It will help them do their job. Rather than walk the track every night trying to spot defects in the dark, the technicians and engineers can use a drone. Drones can scour the network automatically and identify hot spots that need to be inspected by a person.
Rolling stock technicians and engineers keep trains running. Trains are a complicated network of electrical and mechanical systems, and it’s these people that are responsible for fixing them.
Air conditioners, electric motors, wheels and axles, these are some of the train components fixed by rolling stock engineers and technicians.
Even in an automated system, rolling stock engineers and technicians are still needed to fix the trains. Trains are self-driving, and they are also self-diagnosing. The train computer can identify what the problems are on the train, such as a broken air conditioner or excessive wheel wear, and alert technicians to that problem. Trains can’t fix their own problems though.
Trains might be able to drive themselves and identify their own problems, but I can’t see a way to automate the repair of trains; rolling stock technicians and engineers should have a job for decades to come.
It is signalling engineers or technicians who work with the computers and circuitry that control safe train operation.
You might’ve heard of train service stopping due to a “signal fault”, it is the signalling engineers and technicians who fix it.
Signalling is all about permitting trains to move along their track, or change tracks, without colliding with each other. The signalling systems have a variety of inputs and functions that allow this, including detecting where trains are and then routing them to safe positions when required. If this system breaks down, trains can’t move very far or very fast.
Should signalling engineers fear automation? Signalling engineers embrace automation. The signalling and train control systems are the most highly automated systems trains use. In 100 years, technology has moved from hand written notes with permissions to move trains, all the way to computer controlled trains with very little human intervention. Yet signalling engineers are still needed to identify the cause of breakdowns, and repair them when they occur.
A power supply circuit. Only a person can fix it.
Escalators are large powerful machines that spend most of the day pulling heavy loads. Escalators break down, wear out, and need to be replaced.
Mechanical technicians and engineers are required to inspect the machines, replace parts, clean and lubricate everything. Escalators are by design an automatic system (they don’t require a human operator, they can turn themselves on and off), yet people are still required to maintain escalators and fix them when they break down.
Building new rail lines is as much about community interaction and looking after people, as it is engineering and calculations. AI and robots in the future may be able to take care of the calculations and construction, but who will look after the human issues.
New rail lines help people, people form a community, politicians aim to look after communities.
System designers are ultimately the people who translate community and political ideas into projects that can be constructed. I don’t see any practical way possible of automating this interface between people and construction.
How to get into designing systems
This is a job you typically need a tertiary degree for.
I’ve seen a few design engineers start as apprentices having not even finished school. They’ve worked there way through the company and found their on-the-ground experience really helps with designing new projects. At some stage though, nearly everyone I’ve met has needed tertiary education. If not a degree, then a diploma or something equivalent.
Today, rail operators, government bodies, and design consultancies are all interested in hiring people with engineering or other STEM degrees.
The train line may be automatic, but the customers who use it aren’t.
I have a lot of respect for the people that help passengers get safely to their destinations. Trains don’t always work, or people get lost, or people can be tough to deal with for any other reason. It’s the passenger service people that are there to help.
You can’t automate a comforting hand on the shoulder, or some kind words when you’re feeling down. Helping passengers is the sort of job that will still be available in an automated train line.
Security is needed for many rail networks, occasionally you get a passenger who wants to cause trouble. Perhaps they’re holding the doors, or picking a fight with other passengers, or even urinating on the train. Some people need to be removed and handed to the police. Even the most automated lines I’ve used have staff available to come and deal with a difficult passenger.
Customer service people are there to help with regular queries, or in case of delay or emergency. They’re on the ground, getting involved with the travelling community, and helping people when they need. I can’t see a way of automating the work of customer service, it is a great job to be in if you love talking to people.
Freight customer service. Often neglected, rail freight makes up a huge portion of the industry. Freight companies may have a high level of automation in their operations, but there are still human problems to solve. People are still needed to negotiate contracts with other people, and to fix things that break down.
There is no longer a job for shovelling coal into a steam train. Technology progressed, this job was replaced by diesel and electricity.
Watch out if you’re a train driver. A computer already performs the necessary parts of a drivers job: Safe operation of the train, checking the systems before the train is put into service (maintenance engineers assist here), and delivery of a passenger or freight service.
Train drivers will still have a job for decades to come. Passengers find it comforting to see a person in the driver seat. We rarely see a lift or elevator operator anymore, train drivers are destined to go the same way.
It’s also not looking good for timetablers. The computing power required to run timetable algorithms adaptive to the needs of a changing rail line are cheap now. With a click of a mouse, a train controller can generate a regular timetable that meets system goals of trains per hour or least delays for passengers. The automatic timetable system can also adjust train service for unexpected events such as an extra train coming in to the network, or breakdowns. People aren’t needed anymore to plot trains on graphs and calculate manual timetables.
Trains have come a long way since the days of steam. I have worked on rail systems that drive themselves, that identify their own faults, and that can recover from them to keep the service running. Some of the jobs in rail disappear as the system becomes more automatic, but many more are still in place. As automatic as the infrastructure gets, we still live in a world of people and nature; things go wrong and people need to be there to fix it when they do.
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