We are currently experiencing a decade in which technological advances are pushing the boundaries of what is possible ever further and ever faster. The FDP recently presented an ambitious and interesting topic: In the next 15 years, 20 percent of all Deutsche Bahn trains are to run without train drivers. This would be a step that has the potential to fundamentally change rail transport, increase efficiency and benefit the environment. But how realistic is this goal? 

What train transport can learn from air transport 

First of all, it should be noted that rail transport is a partially open system compared to car traffic. While road traffic is characterized by a large number of participants with sometimes chaotic behaviour, the processes in rail traffic are already highly regulated and standardized. This structure therefore provides a solid basis for the implementation of AI control systems. Similarities can be found in air traffic, where pilots monitor the systems and are supported by air traffic controllers. Modern aircraft are already able to take off and land almost autonomously. A similar approach could also be adapted for rail transport: Train drivers would become system monitors, while AI systems take over the actual control of the vehicle. In principle, a lot can be learned here from developments in air traffic.

The financial and technological challenges of AI trains 

A comprehensive data infrastructure is essential for the realization of such a scenario. For example, data checkpoints must be set up to verify the position of the trains at regular intervals and provide information to both the driver’s cab of the locomotive and the control centers. This technological upgrade requires significant investment in the rail infrastructure, including the vehicles themselves and the rail network. Financing these innovations is a challenge, especially given the financial constraints Deutsche Bahn is facing. However, the discussion around AI-controlled trains also raises the question of how the safety and reliability of these technologies can be guaranteed. Monitoring and control by AI naturally has the potential to minimize human error and increase the efficiency of train operations. At the same time, however, extensive testing and safety protocols must also be developed to ensure that these systems function reliably under all circumstances.

From subways to nationwide networks 

The technology for driverless trains already exists in closed systems, such as subway trains or airport transfers. The challenge lies in transferring this technology to the partially open network of Deutsche Bahn, an undertaking that seems entirely feasible. The rail industry is facing a long-term task, with planning and implementation periods spanning decades. However, the potential benefits – for the environment, the economy and society – are enormous. The role of politics and regulatory authorities will be crucial in this context to enable the transition to AI-driven rail transportation. Legal framework conditions must be adapted and standards for the safety and interoperability of autonomous trains must be defined. The FDP has initiated an important debate with its call for a 20 percent share of automated trains within the next 15 years. It is now up to the political decision-makers to set the course for the future and create the necessary framework conditions.

Autonomous trains as an opportunity, not a threat to train drivers 

At the same time, it should always be emphasized that the introduction of autonomous trains does not necessarily have to lead to the replacement of train drivers. Given the shortage of skilled workers in the industry, the capacity freed up by AI systems could help to fill existing gaps instead of eliminating jobs. Deutsche Bahn and other rail companies should use this opportunity to make their services more efficient and sustainable without jeopardizing employment.


In our estimation, the first steps towards the automation of rail transport could be realized by around 2028, with the possibility of operating certain main lines fully automatically by 2035. These timeframes show that the FDP’s vision is by no means utopian, but could represent a realistic prospect. However, considerable efforts are required in terms of investment, research and development as well as the adaptation of legal framework conditions. The potential benefits – improved efficiency, increased safety and reduced environmental impact – make it a worthwhile endeavor. Getting there will depend on technological innovation, political will and social acceptance. Train transportation is therefore on the threshold of a new era in which AI could play a central role. The next few years will show how far Germany is prepared to progress along this path and take a leading role in the development of the transportation of the future. 

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About the author

Mathias Herrmann


Mathias Herrmann is an internet entrepreneur going back to the Internet’s early days with a deep interest in digital and future technologies. For over 20 years, he has been helping companies make the most of their data by forging innovative solutions – without forgetting the people behind the data.

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