Metro will restore the ATO train system for the first time since 2009


Metro’s future will be a step back in time as transit workers make final preparations to revive the self-driving train system abandoned 14 years ago – a transformative agency that executives say has the potential dramatically improve service and change Metro’s fortunes.

The automatic train operating system was in place from Metro’s inception in the 1970s until a fatal collision in 2009, when the ATO system was turned off – then never turned back on – despite multiple investigations showing it had no role in the incident.

Transit leaders said Monday they are bringing back the system, the agency’s latest initiative to make the rail network more attractive to commuters who have turned to other modes of transport and telecommuting during the pandemic. As Metro simultaneously seeks more government funding and new customers, transit executives hope improved performance, safety and cost savings from automation can better position the agency to weather the turbulent years then. that it is rebuilding its customer base and service plans.

Transit leaders have said Metrorail is expected to operate throughout the ATO system by December, provided they receive regulatory clearance. The red line could possibly convert weeks earlier.

“By December, we’re ready to activate, and we’re ready for everyone to go out there and just have a better riding experience,” said Tiffani Jenkins, senior vice president of communications and signage from Metro, which ran the agency. ATO efforts.

Train experts say reintroducing a self-driving train system has the ability to solve many of the transit agency’s performance and safety issues at a time when Metro needs a restart. The agency is facing serious economic problems with the loss of almost half of its paying passengers before the pandemic, mainly to telecommuting.

The upgrade, Metro executives said, should create smoother rides, reduce delays, reduce the risk of operator error and increase transit system finances through energy savings. while bringing Metrorail back to the way it was designed to work.

The conversion happening to Washington’s transit system, the third largest in the nation, is not unique. Most modern rail systems, including the New York City Subway and rail systems in San Francisco, Atlanta, Chicago, and Los Angeles, use self-driving trains on at least some lines.

Russell G. Quimby, who served as a National Transportation Safety Board investigator for more than two decades, said ATO systems are safer when properly maintained.

“It helps take out the human element if someone had a bad night or didn’t get a good night’s sleep or got distracted,” he said.

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Metro’s regulator, the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission, has often cited the agency for having too many train operators running through red lights, overrunning platforms or moving without permission when trains were ordered to stop. ATO removes these concerns, a system in which trains are programmed to stop at a specific location while running on cruise controls want them to move. Riders will no longer experience sudden jolts from speeding up or slowing down. Trains should not miss the platforms and delays should decrease.

Transit agency officials expect energy savings through consistent, ideally timed braking and acceleration. The doors will open automatically.

Rail operators, whose job now is to follow speed controls, watch for obstacles, monitor passengers during pick-up and unloading and pay attention to a complex array of rail system sensors, will remain in the cabin for a while. the ATO. Their role will mainly be to close the doors to ensure safe boarding and to keep an eye on the runway. Their presence will also ensure the presence of a Metro employee in the event of an emergency.

Operators are trained in simulators at a Metro facility in Landover, learning what to expect when the switch is made.

Despite the improvements, security experts warn that automation is not perfect and often relies on humans for crucial repairs and maintenance. Metro operated using ATO until June 2009, when a moving train struck a stationary train in northeast Washington, killing nine people and injuring 80. A self-driving train near the station in Fort Totten hit the train at around 49 mph after Metro’s train detection system failed. to detect the stopped train, according to multiple investigations that revealed a lax safety culture.

The train detection system exists separately from the ATO and is still in use even though train operators control many functions. The detection system ensures that the trains stay a safe distance from each other. During the Fort Totten crash, the system did not detect the parked train and an operator on the moving train was unable to press an emergency brake in time. Investigations revealed faulty track circuit modules for the failure, and this model of module was replaced throughout the system.

As the agency sought to understand how the Fort Totten crash happened, Metro suspended the ATO and put train control in the hands of operators. Transit the leaders attempted to resuscitate the ATO several times, including in 2014 after spending $18 million on post-crash technical analysis and improvements. Efforts ended due to a need for additional infrastructure or upgrades.

Metro established a program office last year to relaunch the initiative it calls Automation 2.0. A team of engineers and technicians have been assigned to the effort, many of whom work in tiny train control rooms at the 97 stations, carrying out tests and checking thousands of circuits, knobs and knobs attached to shelves of several feet high that communicate with the trains.

Metro has been ordered to regularly clean and inspect the control rooms at the heart of automatic train operations

While Metro instituted many changes after the Fort Totten crash, it wasn’t until former general manager Paul J. Wiedefeld took over in 2016 that maintenance became a higher priority. He reduced the rail system’s hours of service to give maintenance workers more unimpeded time and ordered the 2016 SafeTrack maintenance blitz, which rebuilt miles of track and cram three years of work into about a year.

Wiedefeld, who resigned in May after discovering a lack of training that affected half of all train operators, pushed to change Metro’s culture to emphasize safety, with mixed results. Although the transit agency hasn’t had a significant safety incident since 2015, it has been repeatedly cited by its regulator for recurring violations. Meanwhile, an axle defect found in 7000-series railcars since 2017 went unresolved, resulting in a derailment, an ongoing federal investigation, and an approximately year-long suspension of the railcars that prevented the agency to operate at full capacity.

Last year, the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission found one of Metro’s train control rooms – critical to train operations in ATO or through its current system – through neglect, making its circuitry vulnerable to dirt and dust. Transit officials said they have since added tighter controls on cleaning and maintenance at all 97 stations.

Metro executives say the transit agency has also made progress during the pandemic by making necessary infrastructure upgrades, rebuilding tracks, replacing cables, building communications capacity and rebuilding station platforms.

Andy Off, Metro’s director of infrastructure, said Metro brought in experts from other transit agencies using ATO or similar systems and experts of the American Public Transportation Association, among others, to consult and scrutinize Metro’s projects.

“We brought in outside experts to help us really focus on what’s important here. We have a good plan and we are just focused on the goal because we understand how important it is to the safety and reliability of our customers,” said Off. “We learned a lot and made a lot of improvements. I think we are ready to go back to how the system should work.

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