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.”

 ?? Katherine Frey/the Washington Post ?? A passenger boards a Metro train in Rockville. The rail system has not used self-pilot functions on its trains since a deadly 2009 crash but has been preparing to reintroduc­e the technology by the end 2023.
Katherine Frey/the Washington Post A passenger boards a Metro train in Rockville. The rail system has not used self-pilot functions on its trains since a deadly 2009 crash but has been preparing to reintroduc­e the technology by the end 2023.

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