AKIEM, a French rolling stock leasing company, and Taxirail, a transport start-up, signed a letter of intent on April 29 to form a partnership to finalise development of a light, autonomous train known as Taxirail, to provide on demand services on lightly-used regional lines in France.

Taxirail, which has been under development since 2018 by Exid Concept & Développement, hopes to deploy 200 vehicles in the next five years in partnership with French regional governments.

A demonstrator will be built this year by track maintenance vehicle specialist Geismar and is expected to be tested in 2022 on a 4km section of a disused freight line in Normandy.

Taxirail is expected to be powered by bio-methane or hydrogen and will have steerable axles to improve ride quality. A standard Taxirail vehicle will be 6m-long and 2.9m=wide with a maximum speed of 100km/h. Each vehicle will have 16 seats and space for 40 passengers.

The vehicles will work singly or running close together as platoons of two or three, rather than coupled in multiple. There will be no staff on board.

The business model envisages a fixed timetable of trains every 15 minutes in the peaks, with an on-demand service at other times. Passengers would order a train using a smartphone app, the pick-up time being determined by the first passenger with further passengers being given a next train timing if a Taxirail has already been ordered.

Taxirails will be operated from a control centre with staff dedicated to each line. In the case of an incident, such as an object on the line, once the Taxirail has stopped, on-board cameras will allow the control team to assess the situation, restart the vehicle if the object has been removed, or send a team out to remove it. Taxirail will be designed to carry out an emergency brake application if a road vehicle is detected by on-board radar and lidar to be blocking a level crossing.

To limit the weight of a Taxirail vehicle to 11 tonnes, they will not be built to the stringent crash-worthiness standards of conventional trains.

Taxirail will only run on lines separate from the national network or where this can be achieved with minimal infrastructure changes. Nevertheless, current national rules on train operation and design will have to be rewritten for the Taxirail, and consultation with stakeholders is underway.

Taxirail is expected to be deployed on dozens of single-track, non-electrified lines in France between 10 and 80km long.

Exid Concept & Développement managing director, Mr Régis Coat, told IRJ that the company was founded in 2014 as a consultancy specialising in innovation and has developed an autonomous road vehicle. Since 2018, the company has been concentrating on developing Taxirail to respond to the need to save minor rail lines from closure.