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Metro aims for a late-2019 return to computer-driven trains

Automated operations would usher in smoother rides and better train spacing.

Metro riders wait to board a train at the Grosvenor-Strathmore station on Sept. 18, 2017. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

More than a year after ditching plans to bring back automatic train operation — the self-driving train technology that launched when Metro did in 1976 — the agency’s leaders have changed course, citing the need to provide a better customer experience.

Metro is now aiming to restore computer-driven trains in the second half of 2019. The decision comes on the heels of a $1 million consultant’s study that recommended running fully automated operations during rush-hour periods, when the presence of track workers is minimal. For riders, that could mean smoother rides and a more efficient journey — and perhaps a few seconds shaved off their commutes. (Metro’s plans to return to ATO have fallen through in recent years, so it remains to be seen whether the agency will deliver on its promise.)

The agency says its goal is to run rush-hour trains in ATO beginning in the latter half of next year, after it has time to train its staff on the system that was disabled in the wake of the fatal 2009 Red Line crash at the Fort Totten station. ATO was not at fault in the crash, which happened after a signal failed to detect the presence of a stopped train as another barreled toward it at 49 mph. The train operator and eight passengers died in what was the deadliest calamity in Metro’s history.

Metro performed sweeping upgrades of its signal system after the crash — a safety-critical system that was never disabled and is used to detect trains even in manual mode. ATO was partially restored to the Red Line in 2015, but the return was short-lived; Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld sidelined plans to restore ATO, citing the system’s critical safety needs upon his arrival that November, and Metro halted a potential return in spring 2017.

Can Metro trains return to automation? It’s a $1 million question.

Now, Wiedefeld told Metro’s 1,700 managers in a promotional video Monday, the landscape has changed.

“We are in a very competitive market — whether it’s Uber, Lyft, scooters, bikes — you name it. And that’s before you started to think about automated vehicles and the role they may play,” he said. “I think we’re ready for it. But we have to recognize that we’re not the only game in town anymore. We have to do better.”

ATO’s restoration is part of a suite of initiatives Wiedefeld plans to introduce for the coming year — including mobile payment through a dedicated app and SmarTrip ride credits for anyone whose trip is 10 minutes later than Metro estimates.

In 2017, Metro declared in a quality-control report that the return to ATO was not an engineering problem but a personnel one. Leaders, however, feared that potential overreliance on automated operations would endanger track workers as the system underwent near-constant rebuilding and maintenance work.

The return to ATO will require a two-pronged approach to address leaders' concerns, according to agency officials: a proactive control system that would remotely disable ATO features outside of rush hour; and training on the system, which the majority of Metro’s operators are unfamiliar with, according to the agency.

But the benefits for riders will be substantial, the agency said.

“Just looking at system performance, the system is designed to operate in ATO and it runs better in ATO,” Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said.

While the trains drive themselves in ATO, they are not driverless. Operators remain on board to monitor the system, make announcements and close doors. But Metro says it will launch another automated feature in advance of full ATO restoration: automatic doors, a system that will be deployed before fully computer-driven trains — probably in the winter.

Metro said doors will open, but not close, automatically, saving time and providing a safer ride for passengers. Metro operators are required to wait five seconds before opening the train doors to ensure that they are servicing the correct side of the platform. (Operators have opened doors on the wrong side in the past.)

Metro halts plan to return to computer-driven trains

What exactly prompted the return to ATO was unclear. The full consultant study was unavailable Monday. As part of a ridership growth plan obtained last week, Metro’s internal staff recommended restoring ATO as a way to increase reliability.

“Restore automatic train operation (ATO) during peak periods, beginning with automatic door operation and then full operations,” the report recommended. “ATO is expected to result in a 5 percent increase in headway adherence, provide a smoother ride for customers, and support more frequent service — 2-3 minute headways, or 20-26 trains per hour.”

It was one in a package of initiatives — among them, instituting all-day peak service, extending Yellow Line service to Greenbelt, running all eight-car trains and overhauling the Metrobus system — that constituted an “action plan” for Metro’s flagging ridership.

While Wiedefeld was briefed on those options this week, Metro said it is too early to weigh in on whether he will propose a service increase as part of his budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1. Wiedefeld will propose his budget this fall.