Photo by Ales Krivec

Will self driving cars trigger a second coming for the train?

The past century has seen trains relegated from their Victorian glory days to a mere bit-player in transportation; a poor cousin to the car. The advent of the self-driving car, contrarily to some theories, may well see the second coming of the train.

To first consider why the train has fallen out of favour, you have to think about why driving a car is currently the superior option.

Outside metropolitan areas with excellent public transport — the majority of the western world — using a car is virtually essential. Using a car means you walk out of your home, get into the vehicle and when you next leave the comfort of your seat, you have arrived at your destination. No walking; no waiting at a bus stop in the rain; no stopping to pick up other passengers; no changing to a train; no need to confront your fellow man a close quarters. Even the delays of traffic, the main inconvenience of a car, are endured in a private bubble, complete with a radio.

A good reason to own a car. Photo by Sam Javanrouh

The (ever falling) cost of car ownership easily outweighs the benefits of driving. Most people don’t give that much thought to the environment, and even if they did, it would take some spectacular fear-mongering to make them willing to endure public transport to prevent global warming.

The consequences of the western transition to majority car ownership have dealt a double blow to public transport.

A spiralling cycle situation has been created, where with every decrease in use of public transport, the service worsens, making it less appealing and causing further reduced use.

In densely populated cities however, the train remains king. The Tube in London, and the subway in New York, where available, are used by numbers that outweigh cars. The main reason for that is little to do with cost (though they are very cheap) and everything to do with speed. Getting from A to B at rush hour in either of those cities is almost ways quickest by descending to the subway. Residents are willing to endure the sweltering summer heats, the cold walks to the station in the rain and the occasional threats of mugging or terrorist attack, to take hours off their commute time. Even A-List celebrities who could clearly afford better, continue to use the tube.

Enter the self-driving car

It has been said that the self-driving car will further decimate public transport outside the heavily congested urban areas. The logic is that those currently unable to afford, or unwilling to bare the stress of driving will be gifted that luxury thanks to the self-driving car, pulling them away from public transport. However, while it’s true they may suddenly gain access to a car, however, the way they use a car will change, giving rise to a new use of public transport.

The new model of car usage. Photo by John Cobb

With self-driving cars, it seems unlikely that individuals will continue to own cars. Instead, they will become part of an enormous taxi fleet that people will use only when they need them. As the largest cost of a taxi — the driver — has been eliminated, the price per ride will drop enormously, making it only marginally cheaper than the petrol needed to drive your own car. Combine that with shared usage, with models being pioneered by like the likes of Uber pool, it may even be cheaper to use the self-drive taxi than the petrol to drive your own car.

In this world of increasing access to cars, there is one huge negative consequence — congestion. Roads are already running at capacity in the UK; adding more users to them can only lead to more gridlock. That gridlock is good news for the rail industry. Slow journeys by road will entice more and more people onto the rails — just as it already does in big cities.

The downside to improved access to cars. Photo by RayBay

Another advantage to the self-drive taxi over your own car is that it doesn’t need to be parked. This provides another boost to the rail industry as it suddenly becomes an excellent idea to get a slow taxi the short distance to a rail station, followed by a fast train to somewhere near your destination, and another taxi to complete the trip.

Suddenly, using public transport, has all the benefits of driving a car, but also the benefits of taking the train: comfortable point to point journeys; making use of high speed rails; all while avoiding the delays of traffic.

As more people move to using fast trains for longer distances, and suburban trains for shorter but more congested routes, we will see a reversal of the spiralling cycle currently encountered. Increased usage of trains will translate to more money in the rail sector, leading to further improvements in train service. These improvements make trains more appealing, leading inevitably to further increased usage.

One may dream that this may spell the slow death of the motorway/interstate as it becomes the slower, more expensive option. Freeing up the space used by those city linking roads will be perfect, as they will be the new sites for the high speed rail links that will replace them.

The future? Photo by Geoffrey Arduini
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