China’s bullet trains that cruise along the nation’s vast 29,000-kilometer high-speed railway networks at speeds up to 350 km/h have been the envy of many nations.

Now China Railway Corp aims to keep the trains moving at the same speed while giving a break to the drivers who man the consoles.

The state railway operator announced at the end of 2018 the successful trial of China’s first autonomous bullet train that can hit 350 km/h. The company noted that autopilot technologies would be gradually rolled out to the just launched Fuxing, or rejuvenation, rolling stock.

The autopilot system, called CTCS3, will then be installed on the existing control system aboard the Hexie (harmony) trains as well to enable fully automated operations from acceleration to changing tracks.

One benefit of the cavalcade of autonomous trains is more precise scheduling, higher capacity as well as more frequent departures, especially during peak times of travel like the Chinese New Year or National Day golden week holidays.

But other than pressing a few buttons to set the autopilot system in motion, drivers are still required to stand by in the cab to monitor operations and intervene and override the system and take control in case of an emergency or a system malfunction, according to Xinhua.

Inside the driver's cabin on a new Fuxing bullet train. Photo: Xinhua
Inside the driver’s cabin on a new Fuxing bullet train. Photo: Xinhua
The Fuxing (Rejuvenation) series, the newest homemade bullet train with top cruising speed of up to 380km/h. Photo: N509FZ/WikiMedia
The Fuxing series, the newest homemade bullet train with a cruising speed of up to 380km/h. Photo: WikiMedia

The fully automated Fuxing trains are expected to be rolled out on the Beijing-Zhangjiakou route before Beijing hosts the 2022 Winter Games.

In July 2018, 415-meter, 16-car Fuxing trains with a seating capacity of 1,193 started plying the 1,318-km Beijing–Shanghai route with partial auto operation subsystems. Cities like Guangzhou and Shanghai have had driverless metro lines for years.

Artificial intelligence will also be included in future trains, using gadgets such as scanners that automatically check and deduct fees when passengers board and exit trains without having to deal with tickets.

Meanwhile, the East Japan Railway Company is also planning to introduce self-driving shinkansen trains, part of Japan’s efforts to prepare for an expected mass retirement of drivers and a shortage of new recruits.

JR East aims to run trains with only a conductor on board to manage emergencies, and later the only crew on board will be those serving refreshments, according to reports in Japanese media.

The removal of the driver may require extensive alteration to existing lines, such as constructing elevated tracks, installing floor-to-ceiling platform barriers and fitting the train with sensors so it can automatically detect obstacles on the line outside the train, and unusual noises and smells inside.

JR East plans to introduce the system on the Yamanote Line, a circle line that runs through Tokyo, as well as the 575-km Tohoku Line that connects the capital with Fukushima and Sendai, and which consists mainly of elevated track.