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Driverless train in Hong Kong offers a peek into the future

When will more U.S. public transit systems go autonomous?

Hong Kong’s newest rail line is fully autonomous
Photo by Plaraildaisuki

New York City’s Second Avenue Subway wasn’t the only big public transit project to open over the weekend. Hong Kong celebrated a splashy opening of its own when the South Island Line debuted as one of the newest routes in the world to feature a fully autonomous train.

The $2.18 billion new line in Hong Kong’s Southern District will see 170,000 passengers per day traveling the 4.3-mile, four-station route. The 10 three-car trains were designed using Chinese-developed autonomous technology and manufactured by CRRC Changchun Railway Vehicles in Hong Kong.

A driverless train at the Admiralty station on the South Island Line

Due to construction delays passengers had to wait almost nine years for the train to open—although not quite as long as the Second Avenue Subway—but travelers confirmed that it was worth the wait: The 11-minute trip replaces a 45-minute bus ride, with trains arriving every 3.5 minutes at peak times.

And since the route is automated, there’s virtually no chance of delays (although stations had a power glitch on the second day). Rail service now reaches all 18 districts of Hong Kong.

Stations offer self-serve ticketing and mapping kiosks as part of the autonomous experience
Photo by Wpcpey

Autonomous trains that require no human operators have become an important feature of the world’s major public transit systems, with many more systems feature one or two driverless routes. The benefits are huge, as a CityLab report notes: autonomous lines serve more riders, save cities money, and are more likely to be on-time. Driverless trains also eliminate human error, which has been blamed for several deadly crashes recently in the U.S.

Even though the potential to save money and lives is clear, autonomous trains have not been made a priority here the U.S., where the technology would dramatically improve service. There’s also plenty of precedent for autonomous rail travel in the U.S., with many monorail, people-mover, and airport transit systems operating without any human intervention.

A rendering for Honolulu’s new rail line, which will be fully autonomous

Some U.S. systems like San Francisco’s BART are almost there—they use driverless tech to travel between stations, but human operators still handle boarding. That will all change when Honolulu opens one of the most most ambitious driverless train systems as part of a major 20-mile elevated rail project that’s scheduled to launch this year.