The Washington Post
Safety commission wary of Metro using autopilot
Metro’s regulator raised safety questions Tuesday that it said the transit agency must answer before the rail system can restart an automatic train-piloting system that hasn’t been used for 14 years.
Metro announced Monday it is aiming to convert the system to a self-piloting one — removing control of train movement from onboard operators — by December, with the possibility of Red Line automation weeks sooner. The nearly 50-year-old rail system was designed to operate automatically and did so until a deadly train crash in 2009 prompted Metro to disable the automation.
“I hope Metro understands how complicated a return to automatic train operation is going to be,” said Robert Lauby, a commissioner with the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission, the agency charged with monitoring rail system safety. “It’s not just a matter of flipping a switch and turning the system back on.”
Transit officials say automatic train operation (ATO) will boost performance, safety and financial savings by creating smoother rides while reducing opportunities for human error. With most large rail systems using automation, Metro officials say its return is another step toward modernization and an improvement to lure back riders lost during the pandemic.
But members of the commission, who six weeks ago questioned whether Metro was taking the right steps to build a work culture that stresses safety, expressed concern at their regular monthly meeting Tuesday about whether the transit agency was ready for such a shift.
Metro officials said they have been preparing for the conversion since creating a program office to relaunch the system in 2019. Infrastructure rebuilding projects have laid the groundwork for the move, they added.
Systems across the country, including subways and rail lines in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago and Atlanta, use some form of ATO. But after a June 22, 2009, crash of a Metro train in Northeast that killed nine people and injured 80, Metro disabled ATO as a precaution while sorting out what went wrong.
Multiple investigations have blamed lax maintenance and a failure of Metrorail’s train protection system for the crash. The detection system, still in use today, did not notice a parked train that was in the path of another moving at 44 mph between the Takoma and Fort Totten stations.
Flawed modules within the system led to the deadly oversight, but all were replaced years ago, Metro officials said. Attempts to bring back ATO have not been successful because of more important priorities for the agency.
While Metro had not detailed its preparations until this week, transit leaders said they have been working behind the scenes for months, checking and testing equipment and putting train operators through simulation courses. Operators will remain in cabs during ATO with their primary duties including watching passenger boardings, closing doors, watching for track obstructions and monitoring train functions.
The more limited role for operators might reduce human error but also raises concerns about whether they will remain engaged and alert, safety commission chief executive David L. Mayer said. Commission investigations have found that in some cases where an operator was cited for running a red signal or overshooting a train platform, fatigue was involved.
“They do have to be ready to perform, for instance, if a train is not stopping when it’s programed to stop,” Mayer told commissioners. “Providing automation could have the unintended consequence of further disengaging them from the task. Keeping humans appropriately in the loop will be will be a matter that is also important in the automated era if we return to it.”
Lauby, a former chief safety officer for the Federal Railroad Administration, raised other concerns. Metro’s 7000-series trains have never carried passengers in ATO.
He asked whether Metro has considered new policies and procedures for how to respond to ATO system failures. He questioned how Metro would keep track workers safe. The current warning system is built on communication between controllers, operators and often flagmen.
He also asked how Metro will keep their abilities sharp.
“Is Metro considering all these different elements?” Lauby asked. “This seems like a very, very complicated task to quickly get ATO up and operating on this system.”
Another issue that surfaced during the meeting was a report from Mayer that Metro’s Rail Operations Control Center, which had overcome a staffing shortage two years ago, was again short on workers. The control center, Metrorail’s central nerve center, will take on an even more important role in ATO. Mayer said it takes nine months to train new rail controllers.
Metro spokesman Ian Jannetta said the agency is looking to backfill some positions with existing, qualified employees. Metro is recruiting new candidates and intends to start a new training class soon, he said.
Tiffani Jenkins, Metro’s senior vice president of communications and signaling, said operators are being put through retraining classes that include the use of simulators. Andy Off, Metro’s chief infrastructure officer, said consultants from other transit agencies and a panel of experts from the American Public Transportation Association are reviewing Metro’s preparations.
Safety Commissioner Michael J. Rush said that while the commission needed to be vigilant in watching over ATO implementation, questions should not overshadow the benefits of the change.
“I don’t disagree with anything that’s been said, but we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that potentially the automatic train operations are a safer mode of operating than we have today,” said Rush, senior vice president of safety and operations for the Association of American Railroads. “I do believe automation is the way to go.”