Metro will bring back the ATO train system for the first time since 2009


Metro’s future will be a throwback to the past as transit workers make final preparations to restart the self-driving train system that was abandoned 14 years ago.

The Automatic Train Operations system was in place from Metro’s inception in the 1970s to a deadly collision in 2009, when the ATO system was turned off—and never turned back on—despite multiple investigations showing it played no part in the incident.

Transit leaders on Monday they said are bringing back the system, the agency’s latest move to make the rail network more attractive to commuters who have switched modes of transport and telecommuting during the pandemic. While Metro simultaneously seeks more government funding and new customers, transportation leaders hope the improved performance, safety and savings of automation can better position the agency to weather turbulent years as it rebuilds its customer base and service plans.

Transit chiefs said Metrorail should run system-wide in ATO by December, as long as they receive regulatory approval. The Red Line may be able to convert weeks earlier.

“By December, we’ll be ready to activate, and we’ll be ready for everyone to go out and just have a better driving experience,” said Tiffani Jenkins, Metro’s vice president of communications and signaling, who has the agency’s ATO led efforts.

Train experts say the reintroduction of a self-driving train system could remedy many of the transit company’s performance and safety issues at a time when Metro needs to be rebooted. The agency is facing serious economic problems with the loss of nearly half of its pre-pandemic fare-paying passengers, mainly to telecommute.

The upgrade, Metro leaders said, should provide smoother rides, reduce delays, reduce the likelihood of operator error and boost the transportation system’s finances through energy savings while returning Metrorail to the way it was designed to run.

The conversion taking place on Washington’s transit system, the country’s third largest, is not unique. Most modern rail systems, including the New York 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 was a researcher with the National Transportation Safety Board for more than 20 years, said the ATO systems are safer when they are properly maintained.

“It helps eliminate the human element if someone had a bad night or didn’t sleep well or was distracted,” he said.

Metro proposes fare, service increases and automatic train operations in new budget plan

Metro’s regulator, the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission, has often done that cited the agency for allowing too many train drivers to pass red lights, overshoot platforms or drive without permission when trains were ordered to stop. ATO takes that worry away, a system in which trains are programmed to stop at an exact location while who work at the cruisers want them to drive. Riders will no longer feel sudden jolts of acceleration or deceleration. Trains must not miss platforms and delays must be reduced.

Transport company officials expect savings in power consumption through consistent and ideally timed braking and acceleration. Doors open automatically.

Railroad operators, whose job it is now to keep track of speed commands, watch for obstacles, monitor passengers during pick-up and unloading, and pay attention to a complex panel of train system sensors, remain in the cab during ATO. Their role will mainly be to close doors for safe boarding and keep an eye on the track. Their presence also ensures that a Metro employee is nearby in case of an emergency.

Operators are being trained on simulators at a Metro facility in Landover to learn what to expect when the change is implemented.

Despite the improvements, safety experts warn that automation is not perfect and often relies on humans for critical repairs and maintenance. Metro operated with 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 Fort Totten station hit the train at about 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 ATO and is still used even though train drivers control many functions. The detection system ensures that trains remain at a safe distance from each other. In the Fort Totten crash, the system failed to detect the parked train and an engineer aboard the moving train was unable to apply an emergency brake in time. Investigation indicated faulty track circuit modules before the outage, and that module model was replaced system-wide.

While the agency was trying to understand how the Fort Totten crash happened, Metro ATO stopped and transferred control of the trains in the hands of operators. Transit leaders have tried to revive ATO several times, including in 2014 after spending $18 million on a technical analysis and post-accident improvements. Efforts ended due to the need for additional infrastructure or upgrades.

Metro set up a program office last year to relaunch the initiative it calls Automatisering 2.0. A team of engineers and technicians has been assigned to the effort, many working in small train control rooms at all 97 stations, conducting tests and checking thousands of circuits, knobs and buttons fashioned into boards several feet high that communicate with trains.

Ordered Metro to clean and regularly inspect control rooms central to automatic train operations

While Metro made many changes after the Fort Totten crash, maintenance was not given a higher priority until 2016 when former general manager Paul J. Wiedefeld took over. He limited the rail system’s hours of service to give maintenance personnel more unfettered time and ordered the SafeTrack maintenance blitz of 2016, which rebuilt miles of track and crammed three years of work into about a year.

Wiedefeld, who resigned in May after it was discovered that half of all train operators had a training break, pushed for a change in Metro’s culture to emphasize safety, with mixed results. Although the carrier has not had a significant safety incident since 2015, it has been repeatedly cited by the regulator for recurring violations. Meanwhile, a wheel set malfunction found on 7000-series railcars since 2017 went unresolved, leading to a derailment, an ongoing federal investigation, and a roughly year-long suspension of the cars that prevented the agency from operating at full speed. could work.

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

Metro leaders say the transit agency has also made progress in making necessary infrastructure upgrades, rebuilding track, replacing cables, improving communications and reconstructing platforms during the pandemic.

Andy Off, Metro’s chief infrastructure officer, said Metro has brought in experts from other transportation companies ATO or similar systems and experts from the American Public Transportation Association, among others, to consult and scrutinize Metro’s plans.

“We brought in outside experts to help us really focus on what’s important here. We have a good plan and we’re just focused on getting there because we understand how important it is for safety and reliability for 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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