Autonomous vehicles: a challenge and an opportunity for the rail sector

- Brussels, BE
Side of blue train

Autonomous driving is expected to transform mobility in the next decades. Whilst the impact on road transport seems quite straightforward, consequences for the rail sector are less obvious. On the one hand, autonomous vehicles may result in a reduction of rail’s market share. On the other hand, they could provide a stimulus to the sector to further develop in an increasingly multimodal context. This was the key message put forward at the RFE dinner-event held in the European Parliament in Brussels on 19 June and sponsored by Transdev.

Thomas Steffens (Boston Consulting Group) introduced the debate presenting the results of a study on the potential impact of autonomous vehicles on passenger travel and in particular on rail. Driverless cars may become an attractive option if they fill the current gaps with trains in terms of safety and punctuality. Moreover, driverless car ride sharing may cause mobility costs to drop more, even below train costs. This situation is likely to determine challenges and opportunities for the rail sector. He said: “Autonomous driving blurs boundaries between public and private transport. Rail will continue to play a role in the future, provided that it is integrated in the concept of mobility as a service and adapts its long-term investment business cases”.

Thierry Mallet (Chairman and CEO of Transdev Group) highlighted that autonomous vehicles offer must be designed as a public service. Autonomous vehicles should not be developed to replace trains but rather to complete existing transport networks and to be mutually reinforcing. He concluded his presentation with an overview of the possible next steps at European level: “Rail operators need to improve their offer and their model. Open rail markets to competition can help to boost innovation and increase the quality of service. Moreover, public authorities and public transport companies need to cooperate to integrate autonomous vehicles into an effective public transport system”.

Keir Fitch (DG MOVE Head of Unit on rail safety and interoperability) stressed that, whatever we do about connected and autonomous vehicles, we should not repeat the errors of the past. Notably, the rebound-effect may result in more vehicles on the road and overcongested cities, especially at peak hours. He said: “Rail will continue to play a major role in the future, as autonomous vehicles do not have the capacity to replace mass transit public transport. Policy measures should therefore aim at optimising the ongoing revolution and ensuring the right multimodal mix in the future".

RFE Chairman Michael Cramer thanked participants and concluded the debate: “Autonomous vehicles bring opportunities and not only risks for rail provided that we, as policy makers, provide the right regulatory environment. We should therefore make sure that rail is in the spotlight in the ongoing debate on the future of European mobility”.

The next RFE event will be announced in the coming weeks. It will take place after the summer break.

About Rail Forum Europe

Founded by Members of the European Parliament from across the parliamentary committees, Rail Forum Europe is an international non-profit making association that aims at bringing together EU decision-makers and the rail sector to achieve a better understanding of rail-related issues. 

About TransdevTransdev logo

Transdev is a consultant for public transport authorities and supports them in everything from the pre-project phase to project management assistance to daily operation of public transport networks. With 83,000 employees in 19 countries, the group operates 43,000 vehicles and 22 tramway networks. In 2015, Transdev had a turnover of 6.6 billion euros.

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