Photo by Ales Krivec

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

Mike David Smith
5 min readJan 17, 2016

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 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 at close quarters. Even the delay of traffic - the main inconvenience cars - is endured in a private bubble, complete with a radio.

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

The cost of car ownership is easily outweighed by the benefits of driving. Even for those who care about the environment, the comfort and convenience makes them unlikely to forego their car to prevent global warming.

The Downward Spiral of Public Transport

The consequences of the 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, light rail remains king. In London, Tube journeys outnumber those by car. The main reason is little to do with cost and everything to do with speed. Getting from A to B at rush hour in London is almost always quickest by descending to the Tube. Residents are willing to endure the sweltering summer heats and the cold winter walks to the station in the rain 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 cars 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. While it’s true they may suddenly gain access to a car, 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, cars 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. Combine that with shared usage using models being pioneered by the likes of Uber pool, it will be cheaper to use the self-drive taxi than 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. No worries about where to leave the car in order to get the train.

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 now incorporating high speed rail lines, all without stressful traffic.

The Upward Spiral of Public Transport

As more people move to using fast trains for long 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. In that utopia the space used by those city-linking roads will be quickly reused, as they will be the new sites for the high speed rail links the public will need.

The future? Photo by Geoffrey Arduini



Mike David Smith

Doctor working in North East England with a keen interest in technology