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Metro will return to automatic train system for first time in 14 years

Metro says the system to launch this year will create smoother rides, remove chances for operator error and restore the agency’s original operating system

Tiffani Jenkins, Metro’s vice president of communications and signaling, who heads up the ATO project, stands in the control room of the L’Enfant Plaza station, demonstrating how the room’s circuitry interacts with trains. (Justin George/The Washington Post) (The Washington Post)
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Metro’s future will be a return to the past as transit workers make final preparations to relaunch the self-piloting train system abandoned 14 years ago — a transformation agency leaders say has the potential to dramatically improve service and change Metro’s fortunes.

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

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

Transit leaders said Metrorail should be running in ATO systemwide by December, as long as they receive regulatory permission. The Red Line could possibly convert weeks earlier.

“By December, we’re ready to activate, and we’re ready for everybody to go out there and just have a better riding experience,” said Tiffani Jenkins, Metro’s senior vice president of communications and signaling, who has been leading the agency’s ATO efforts.

Train experts say the reintroduction of a self-piloting train system has the ability to cure many of the transit agency’s performance and safety issues at a time when Metro needs a reboot. The agency is facing severe economic problems with the loss of nearly half of its pre-pandemic fare-paying passengers, mostly to telework.

The upgrade, Metro leaders said, should create smoother rides, reduce delays, cut the chances for operator error and boost the transit system’s finances through energy savings while returning Metrorail to the way it was designed to run.

The conversion happening at the Washington transit system, the nation’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-piloting trains on at least some lines.

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

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

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

Metro’s regulator, the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission, has often cited the agency for having too many train operators running past red-light signals, overshooting platforms or moving without permission when trains were ordered to halt. ATO removes those concerns, a system in which trains are programmed to stop at an exact location while operating at the speed controllers want them to travel. Riders will no longer feel sudden jerks from accelerations or slowdowns. Trains shouldn’t miss platforms and delays should diminish.

Transit agency officials expect savings in power usage from consistent and ideally timed braking and acceleration. Doors will open automatically.

Rail operators, whose jobs now involve keeping track of speed commands, watching for obstructions, monitoring passengers during pickup and offloading, and paying attention to a complex panel of train system sensors, will remain in the cab during ATO. Their role will mainly be closing doors to ensure safe boarding and keeping an eye on the track. Their presence also will ensure a Metro employee is around in the event of an emergency.

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

Despite the improvements, safety experts caution that automation isn’t 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-piloting 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 exposed a lax safety culture.

The train detection system exists separately from ATO and is still in use even as train operators control many functions. The detection system ensures trains stay a safe distance apart. In the Fort Totten crash, the system didn’t detect the parked train, and an operator onboard the moving train was unable to hit an emergency brake in time. Investigations pointed to faulty track-circuit modules for the failure, and that model of module was replaced systemwide.

As the agency sought to understand how the Fort Totten crash occurred, Metro paused ATO and put control of trains into the hands of operators. Transit leaders have tried to resurrect ATO multiple times, including in 2014 after spending $18 million on a post-accident engineering analysis and improvements. The efforts ended because of a need for additional infrastructure or upgrades.

Metro established a program office last year to relaunch the initiative it’s calling Automation 2.0. A team of engineers and technicians have been assigned to the effort, many working in tiny train-control rooms at all 97 stations, running tests and checking thousands of circuits, knobs and buttons fastened to shelves several feet high that communicate with trains.

Metro ordered to clean up, regularly inspect control rooms central to 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 curbed the rail system’s service hours to give maintenance workers more unimpeded time and ordered the 2016 SafeTrack maintenance blitz, which rebuilt miles of track and crammed three years worth of work into about a year’s time.

Wiedefeld, who resigned in May after a training lapse was discovered that affected half of all train operators, pushed to change Metro’s culture to emphasize safety, with mixed results. While the transit agency hasn’t had a significant safety incident since 2015, it has been repeatedly cited by its regulator for recurring violations. Meanwhile, a wheelset defect found in 7000-series rail cars since 2017 was not addressed, 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 service.

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, making its circuitry vulnerable to dirt and dust. Transit officials said they have since added more stringent checks on cleaning and maintenance at all 97 stations.

Metro leaders say the transit agency also made progress during the pandemic in making needed infrastructure upgrades, rebuilding track, replacing cables, boosting communications capabilities and reconstructing station platforms.

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

“We’ve brought in outside experts to help us really focus on what’s important here. We’ve got a good plan and we’re just laser-focused on getting there because we understand how important it is for the safety and reliability for our customers,” Off said. “We’ve learned a lot and made a lot of improvements. I think we’re ready to go back to how the system should be run.”