The Washington Post
Switch to automatic trains gets support from Metro board
Metro board members voiced strong support Thursday to automating trains by December, saying it was past time that the rail system return to the self-piloting mode for which it was designed to operate.
“As we move and think about safety and reliability and everything, this is clearly the way to go,” Metro board chairman Paul C. Smedberg said after an update on the relaunch during a board meeting.
Metro’s restoration of automatic train operations (ATO) — a system that controls train movements while removing those functions from human operators — would be a return to form for the nation’s third-largest rail system. Metro had operated in selfdriving mode since it opened in 1976 until a deadly crash in 2009 prompted agency leaders to halt the program, even though subsequent investigations determined it wasn’t a factor.
That stop, ordered out of caution as Metro worked to determine the cause, wasn’t intended to be permanent. Multiple federal and local investigations determined that lax maintenance and flawed sensory devices essential to Metro’s train-detection system failed, causing a parked train to go undetected by a program that should keep trains safe distances apart. Nine people were killed and 80 were injured in the crash.
After earlier attempts to restore ATO, Metro officials say the changeover this year will be aided by infrastructure upgrades made during the pandemic. The transit agency also is seeking to improve service and reliability to recruit riders, hoping to make up for fare revenue lost during a rise in telework.
Most major rail systems operate in ATO, which experts say reduces the chance for human error and provides riders with a consistent and smooth ride without sudden braking and accelerations. Transit officials also say ATO decreases delays while increasing reliability. A 2013 study by Community of Metros, an international association of rail agencies, found that transit systems that switched to ATO had a 26 percent reduction in delays of at least five minutes.
Board members, who had been updated periodically on ATO as a team of engineers worked on the project since 2019, spent much of Thursday’s board meeting questioning Metro’s preparedness to relaunch the system over the next nine months. Their questions built on a round of similar questioning from the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission earlier this week. Also fielding ATO queries were top officials from rail transit systems in San Francisco, London and Atlanta, as well as experts from the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), who have been reviewing Metro’s plans, protocols and ATO equipment while consulting with the agency on best practices.
David J. Carol, chief operating officer for APTA, said his team spent a week reviewing documents and making sure that maintenance records, written procedures and required logs were in place. Team members inspected Metro’s Rail Operations Control Center and train control rooms, and interviewed staff and union leaders before briefing Metro General Manager Randy Clarke.
Addi Matthew, director of maintenance of way at the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transportation Authority, said he checked that train sensory devices for the train-detection system that failed in 2009 had been replaced.
“Seeing we haven’t used this system in a while, the software and hardware . . . are there updates that are needed to any of that before we move ahead?” Smedberg asked.
Tiffani Jenkins, Metro’s project leader and senior vice president of communications and signaling, said software updates have been made on all cars. Coil placed on the track as part of the ATO system continues to be installed, while that project is finished on the Red Line, she said.
“If an operator sees something happening on the platform, can he or she override the ATO system?” Smedberg asked.
Jenkins replied that operators can take over a train and operate it manually. With the new system, train operators will still be in cabs, tasked with monitoring boardings, closing doors, watching the track for obstructions and standing ready to take over in an emergency.
Jenkins said operators are training to be Ato-certified on tracks and in simulators in a training complex.
Board member Tracy Hadden Loh said she was pleased to see Metro lean on other agencies. She said she was confused about why Metro hadn’t returned to ATO in previous years, saying it seemed “super obvious.”
Clarke said Metro seemed to get too caught up installing programs and equipment to retrofit a system built for ATO for manual use by operators — then kept going down that path.
“We made a choice as an agency, and let’s not re-litigate the past of the choice,” Clarke said. “Operating in ATO is safer than not operating in ATO. That is a world-class standard that’s not debatable in our industry.”
Metro board member and Loudoun County Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R-dulles) asked Metro’s staff whether the transit agency was moving too quickly to have seriously considered all the measures, safety checks and guidelines needed to run ATO by December.
Metro Chief Safety Officer Theresa M. Impastato said Metro continues to work on new rules and procedures that align with ATO but added that the relaunch effort has been going on for years.
“Metro really hasn’t publicized a lot of the work that we were doing behind the scenes to assure technical readiness,” she said. “Now, we’re really pivoting our attention to look towards organizational readiness, acknowledging that technically, the system is ready — so we could flip that switch.”
But, she said, that’s not what Metro is doing.
“We are now going to devote the remainder of our project timeline to really making sure that we look at every procedure, we look at every operating role and we look at every training module and make sure that our employees know and understand how they are to safely operate within the overarching structure of ATO,” Impastato said.