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Computer Fixes Planned to Improve Metro

Managers Expect Changes to Reduce Delays, Station Overruns by December

By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 1, 2005; Page B03

Metro managers said yesterday that they have developed a plan to reduce breakdowns and significantly improve subway service by December.

P. Takis Salpeas, a Metro assistant general manager, told the board of directors that he believes a new relay board is key to reducing breakdowns among Metro's newest rail cars as well as a group of older cars that have been rehabilitated but are failing to meet reliability goals.

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"We do experience problems with all these cars," Salpeas said, adding that most breakdowns are related to automatic train control, the term that describes the computer systems that control door openings, train speed and movement. Metro trains also are breaking down twice as often as they did three years ago, according to the agency.

The automatic train control system manufactured by Alstom Inc. is installed in the 192 newest rail cars, which were made by CAF Inc. The same system is being added to an older generation of 364 rail cars that were made by Breda Costruzioni Ferroviarie SpA. They are being rehabilitated by Alstom.

Salpeas said he suspects that a faulty relay board, which acts as the "brain of the train," is causing breakdowns of both the CAF cars and the rehabilitated Breda cars. Metro has ordered Alstom to replace the relay boards. "I'm optimistic that by the start of the next calendar year, we will see dramatic improvements," Salpeas said.

Metro cars travel an average of 41,700 miles between delays. By December, that should increase to 56,000 miles between delays, he said.

Unreliable equipment plagues the entire transit industry because there are only a handful of rail car manufacturers and a limited number of suppliers. Each transit system also orders custom-made cars that are complicated to build, Metro Chief Executive Richard A. White said.

"It's not like buying a car, when you can go to Toyota, you can go to Ford, and now you can go to three or four different kinds of Ford," said Robert J. Smith, who represents Maryland on the Metro board. "We are somewhat at the mercy of the companies that build these cars."

Metro managers said that in addition to improving reliability, they believe they have devised a way to reduce the number of trains that overrun stations because they can't stop in time.

Trains have overrun stations since Metro opened in 1976, but they have been doing it more frequently in recent years. A train has overrun a station if at least one door is not at the platform.

Metro officials say that overruns are not a safety concern because a separate computer system will not allow one train to get close enough to collide with another. But they are a hassle for passengers who can't get off the train at their desired stop and instead must ride ahead to the next station, cross the platform and catch a train in the opposite direction.

Overruns occur when the onboard computer does not detect a coil marker on the track bed. There usually are three or four coil markers between stations, and each is designed to communicate with a train's computer to let it know how close it is to the next station.

That information triggers the automatic braking system, which slows the train until it stops inside the station. If the onboard computer fails to detect a coil marker, the train can enter the station too fast to stop so that all its doors are lined up against the platform.

In 1996, there were 322 overruns. The figure increased to 583 last year. At the current rate, the number of overruns would reach 633 by the end of this year. Metro officials stress that although the number is rising, it is still a tiny percentage of the 35,000 station stops that Metro trains make each day.

Salpeas said he believes a software fix to the onboard computers will significantly reduce the overruns. Engineers will install a database that maps the location of all the coil markers in the memory of the computers. If a computer misses a coil marker, it will know that it should have detected it and start braking as if it had, Salpeas said. The changes will be in place by the end of the year, he said.

Metro managers came up with the fix as a byproduct of work Alstom began in late 2003 under a $3 million contract to study what it would take to stop eight-car trains precisely inside stations. Precision is important when considering eight-car trains because they are 600 feet long, the exact length of Metro station platforms. The transit system plans to begin running some eight-car trains by 2007.

In other matters, Metro directors learned that 345 of the agency's 9,963 employees earn $100,000 a year or more. Of that number, 158 are unionized workers, and most reached that level through overtime.

Charles Deegan, who represents Maryland on the board, questioned the wisdom of allowing bus and train operators to work 70 hours a week. "I don't want to ride a bus or a train where the operator has worked 70 hours," he said. Transit officials said they are considering ways to reduce overtime as they negotiate new contracts with all of Metro's unions.

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