Lille had Europe’s first fully automated Metro system. It opened in 1983

Ooooh tiny. Image: author provided.

Thameslink recently unveiled its automated rail technology through London. New trains will drive themselves through the central London route between St Pancras and Blackfriars, allowing for 24 trains an hour and up to 30 an hour if necessary.

It sounds all shiny and futuristic – but the reality is that the technology isn’t that modern. In fact, Thameslink trains aren’t even entirely automated: the human driver still operates the doors, and is there to take over in case things don’t run smoothly. It’s the same system run by the Glasgow subway system, and several lines on the London Underground.

If you want to see real automation in action don’t bother with Thameslink at St Pancras. Hop on the Eurostar for 90 minutes to Lille, where the Metro has been operating at the highest level of automation since 1983. Yep: Lille had automated trains in the year David Bowie released Let’s Dance.

If you want to ride a comparable system in the UK, you’ll have to go to an airport. Gatwick and Stansted’s terminal shuttles use the same level of automation, capable of operating without human intervention. Even London’s Docklands Light Railway, which shares an aesthetic with the Lille Metro, needs a human being on board to close the doors and deal with emergencies. We’re so behind.

A plan of the Lille metro network. Image: Wikipedia Commons.

Lille’s two-line rapid transit system, VAL (Véhicule Automatique Léger), was based on a concept by French physicist Robert Gabillard, using a guideway with embedded sensors. Trains and stations are unstaffed, though monitored by a network of CCTV cameras. And glass partition doors along the platforms makes it very hard to get a decent photo. Damn you, health and safety.

Despite the system being 35 years old, it’s running smoothly. Sure, the design is very 1980s (plasticky trains with terrible moulded seats) and some of the station exteriors have that similar 80s vibe of bold colours and wacky shapes. But a station like Les Pres, with its high arches and wood finish, has a faint cathedral-like air – even if the view is of a car park.

What’s seriously impressive is the frequency. Even on a midweek afternoon in December, trains were running every 3-4 minutes and run every 66 seconds during peak times. Apparently the system’s capable of running a train every 60 seconds, but adds those extra six seconds for everyone to board properly. If everything’s running smoothly, the longest you should ever wait for a train at the quietest times is 8 minutes.

An underground station in Lille. Image: author provided.

Still, those trains on a December weekday were still standing room only. Even though Lille has an urban population of just over 1m, the metro trains only have two cars each. Even with trains shuttling along every minute that’s not enough, so an upgrade to double capacity is in progress.

Alstom won the contract for Line 1 in 2012, which was meant to bring new trains that were double the length of the existing sets by the end of 2017. Sadly, that upgrade has been delayed and nobody at Alstom seems to want to tell me when the new deadline is; one rumour is 2020. On completion, the plan is to boost capacity on Line 2 by transferring Line 1’s existing trains across.


That’s a shame, because these new trains will be the walk-through type, and have better electronic signage and bigger windows: on the old trains you’re kind of peering out a small gap at the front, which doesn’t have the ‘driving the train’ feel of the Docklands Light Railway. Lille’s current trains are sweet and dinky, but the city’s commuters deserve a transit experience to match how regularly they get whisked in and out.

Another part of the upgrade work is lengthening platforms. All Line 2’s platforms are 52m long, which can fit in two trains – or, one double-length upgraded train. Line 1’s platforms were built 26m long, which is obviously a problem if you want to double the length of the trains. That work has been completed, at least in the centre of Lille, leading to stickers on half the platform doors urging passengers to move along because trains don’t stop at that point (yet).

One day, Lille’s metro system will look as futuristic as its technology. If you want to see Europe’s first fully automated Metro system as it was (kind of) conceived, you should head to Lille soon.

 
 
 
 

To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.


Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.