Metro look­ing at a re­turn to au­to­ma­tion

Trains have run in man­ual mode since a deadly 2009 Red Line crash. A study will help de­cide if it’s safe to use com­put­ers again.

The Washington Post Sunday - - COMMUTER - BY FAIZ SIDDIQUI faiz.siddiqui@wash­post.com

It’s been so long since Metro used com­put­ers to drive its trains that its op­er­a­tors lack ex­per­tise in how to use the tech­nol­ogy and the agency doesn’t know whether au­to­matic trains can com­ply with new pro­ce­dures it im­posed to pro­tect work­ers on the tracks, ac­cord­ing to agency of­fi­cials and safety au­dits.

The tran­sit agency has hired the engi­neer­ing con­sult­ing firm Mott Mac­Don­ald — at a cost of just over $1 mil­lion — to study the po­ten­tial safety im­pact of restor­ing Au­to­matic Train Op­er­a­tion (ATO), which for riders would mean smoother rides, pre­cise train po­si­tion­ing at plat­forms and fewer time-wast­ing stops and starts.

“ATO has ad­van­tages. It takes the hu­man er­ror out of train op­er­a­tions in many cases, pro­vided you have a vi­tal sys­tem that’s work­ing right. And it can give you more ca­pac­ity in the tun­nel,” said Metro board mem­ber Robert C. Lauby, who also is chief safety of­fi­cer at the Fed­eral Rail­road Ad­min­is­tra­tion. “But cer­tainly if the sys­tem that’s in place is not ca­pa­ble of pro­vid­ing a higher level of safety, then it’s prob­a­bly not a good idea. It will come down to the ques­tion of, ‘Is the cur­rent sys­tem able to take care of all the func­tion­al­i­ties that are out there that need to be han­dled in 2018?’ ”

The study is due this sum­mer, the agency said.

Metro was de­signed for com­puter-driven trains, and that’s what was used un­til the 2009 Red Line crash near Fort Tot­ten. Eight pas­sen­gers and the train op­er­a­tor were killed when a com­puter-driven train slammed into the back of a sta­tion­ary one at an es­ti­mated 49 mph, at the height of the evening rush. It re­mains the dead­li­est crash in Metro his­tory.

Au­to­matic Train Op­er­a­tion was sus­pended in­def­i­nitely fol­low­ing the crash.

The ATO sys­tem it­self was not at fault in the crash, how­ever, as fed­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tors de­ter­mined the prob­a­ble cause was a faulty track cir­cuit mod­ule. Metro’s sig­nal sys­tem uses a net­work of elec­tri­cal cir­cuits that com­mu­ni­cate the lo­ca­tion of trains on the tracks. Faulty cir­cuits can cause a train to “dis­ap­pear.”

Metro spent $106 mil­lion to re­place 1,700 track cir­cuits in the sys­tem as part of a Na­tional Trans­porta­tion Safety Board rec­om­men­da­tion, with an eye to­ward even­tu­ally re­turn­ing to au­to­matic op­er­a­tion. ATO was re­stored to the Red Line briefly in spring 2015, with plans for it to be re­stored sys­temwide by 2017.

But the Red Line restora­tion was short-lived, and the sys­temwide tran­si­tion never hap­pened. When Paul J. Wiede­feld came on as gen­eral man­ager in 2015, he said ATO was not a pri­or­ity be­cause the agency was fo­cused on ini­tia­tives crit­i­cal to safety and main­te­nance.

Metro said the tens of millions of dol­lars in up­grades were crit­i­cal for the safety of the sys­tem — even if au­to­matic op­er­a­tion is never re­stored.

It is “im­por­tant to keep in mind that the in­fras­truc­ture im­prove­ments that have been made over the past sev­eral years mean a safer and more re­li­able sig­nal sys­tem over­all, in ad­di­tion to re­mov­ing any in­fras­truc­ture bar­ri­ers to a re­turn to ATO,” Metro spokesman Dan Stes­sel said.

While smoother rides and stops would be a re­fresh­ing change for riders, of­fi­cials say the sys­tem’s needs to­day are vastly dif­fer­ent from when Metro opened in 1976, com­pli­cat­ing their de­ci­sion to re­turn to au­to­ma­tion. Parts of the 117-mile sys­tem are fre­quently turned into work zones, pre­ven­tive main­te­nance ef­forts have cut op­er­at­ing hours, and ser­vice has been scaled back to meet sched­ul­ing ex­pec­ta­tions and re­duce wear on the tracks.

Be­cause of tech­ni­cal lim­i­ta­tions, ATO is un­able to com­ply with the 10 mph speed re­stric­tion the agency in­sti­tuted for work zones fol­low­ing sev­eral po­ten­tial ac­ci­dents in­volv­ing work­ers on tracks.

The ATO sys­tem needs to be “‘smart’ enough to know that the work­ers are present and en­force the ap­pli­ca­ble speed re­stric­tion,” Metro said. The cur­rent in­fras­truc­ture isn’t ca­pa­ble of de­tect­ing work­ers who might be la­bor­ing on dif­fer­ent seg­ments of track and mov­ing be­tween work zones through­out the day.

Gus Ubaldi, a con­sul­tant and vet­eran rail­road en­gi­neer who was in­volved in the de­sign of the Metro­rail sys­tem, said a work­around is avail­able: us­ing track­side over­lay equip­ment that sup­ple­ments the ex­ist­ing sig­nal sys­tem and can be pro­grammed to sig­nal that work­ers are in an area.

“You can put a de­vice in the track that will alert the train,” Ubaldi said. “Ba­si­cally it’s a por­ta­ble trans­mit­ter be­cause ob­vi­ously the work­ers are go­ing to be mov­ing from point to point . . . . It al­ready ex­ists.”

An­other is­sue is time. Since ATO hasn’t been used across the sys­tem for nearly a decade, a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of Metro op­er­a­tors in all like­li­hood don’t know how to use it.

“Prob­a­bly some of the op­er­a­tors have never used it and don’t know how it works, how they ini­ti­ate it, how they mon­i­tor it,” Lauby said. “The same thing for the [Rail] Op­er­a­tions Con­trol Cen­ter. That’s a ma­jor is­sue if you’re go­ing to make a ma­jor change like this.”

Metro made the same con­clu­sion in a 2017 re­port, not­ing that train­ing, not engi­neer­ing, would be an ob­sta­cle to restor­ing au­to­matic train op­er­a­tion.

“The de­lay of ATO . . . is not an ATC Engi­neer­ing prob­lem,” Metro said in the re­port. It’s that the op­er­a­tors have to be trained, it said.

With ATO, com­put­ers do the driv­ing — keep­ing the trains at the proper dis­tance and speed. Op­er­a­tors open and close the train doors at sta­tions and make an­nounce­ments.

Metro de­clined to say how soon au­to­mated trains could re­turn, say­ing any po­ten­tial time­line is con­tin­gent on the con­sul­tant’s anal­y­sis. The agency also is not train­ing any driv­ers on ATO.

“Any train­ing would oc­cur in ad­vance of a re­turn to ATO, if there is to be one,” Stes­sel said.

De­spite the ben­e­fits, the tech­nol­ogy is not a fail-safe. In win­ter 1996, the op­er­a­tor of a com­puter-driven train was killed when it slammed into an un­oc­cu­pied train at 75 mph at the Shady Grove stop on the Red Line. In­ves­ti­ga­tors found that Metro had de­cided to keep trains in au­to­matic mode rather than switch to man­ual as a snow­storm hit the re­gion, and they crit­i­cized the agency’s out­size faith in the ca­pa­bil­i­ties of the com­puter sys­tem.

Metro’s “to­tal faith in tech­nol­ogy, no mat­ter how ad­vanced and so­phis­ti­cated that tech­nol­ogy may be, is in­ap­pro­pri­ate,” the safety board con­cluded.

Fur­ther, the NTSB said, Metro was so re­liant on com­put­ers that train op­er­a­tors were in­ex­pe­ri­enced at op­er­at­ing trains man­u­ally.

Last year, top Metro of­fi­cials hinted the agency was ex­plor­ing a shift to the more mod­ern Com­mu­ni­ca­tions-Based Train Con­trol sys­tem used by New York and other tran­sit agen­cies. Stes­sel said those con­sid­er­a­tions are on hold.

“CBTC is a long-range dis­cus­sion and is many years down the road,” he said. “We are fo­cus­ing on an­swer­ing the ATO ques­tions first, and only then will we pivot to CBTC.”

“[Au­to­ma­tion] takes the hu­man er­ror out of train op­er­a­tions in many cases, pro­vided you have a vi­tal sys­tem that’s work­ing right.” Robert C. Lauby, Metro board mem­ber and chief safety of­fi­cer at the Fed­eral Rail­road Ad­min­is­tra­tion

SALWAN GEORGES/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

A Red Line train on tracks in Jan­uary. Au­to­mated train use was sus­pended in­def­i­nitely after a fa­tal 2009 ac­ci­dent at the Fort Tot­ten stop.

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