Photo by the author.

This morning, Metro started running eight-car trains in automatic mode on the Red Line once again. Six-car trains will resume in a few months once Metro can make a software change to make them stop at the end of the platform instead of the center.

The Metrorail system was built to start and stop trains at platforms automatically, but WMATA turned off the system in 2009 after the Fort Totten crash because of problems with the signaling system. WMATA has now finished rebuilding the signals on the Red Line, and other lines will follow in 2017.

Many riders had hoped the return to automatic operation would mean the end of the practice of stopping at the end of platforms, since it exacerbates crowding at many stations that have entrances at one end, especially at Union Station and Gallery Place.

I originally wrote about this in September 2014. The following is an updated version of that article.

At the time of the original article, Metro spokesperson Dan Stessel commented that six-car trains stopping at the head of the platform wouldn’t be an issue because the agency hoped to be running 100% eight-car trains by 2020.

However, recent developments suggest that six-car trains may be around for many more years, since Maryland and DC now want WMATA to use the remainder of the 7000 series order to replace the 2000 and 5000 series instead of expanding the fleet.

Why do trains pull to the end of the platform?

The policy of requiring trains to pull all the way to the head of the platform instead of stopping in the center stems from a spate of events in 2008 and 2009 where the operators of 8-car trains forgot they were operating 8-car trains and stopped at the 6-car marker. This meant that the last car was still in the tunnel.

Prior to the 2009 collision, WMATA operated all 8-car trains in manual mode because upgrades that would stop trains more precisely hadn’t been completed.

After operators opened their doors with the last car in the tunnel a few times, Metro only required operators to pull all the way forward on days when large numbers of 8-car trains were in operation (like for the Cherry Blossom Festival). After the system went to 100% manual operation in the wake of the Fort Totten collision, the practice became standard.

Most trains could have eight cars soon, anyway, making this moot

I asked Dan Stessel why Metro would continue the practice once ATO was turned back on. He says that for one, the other five lines will continue to operate under manual control, and some operators move between lines. Additionally, from time to time trains will be operated under manual control, so the agency wants to keep the practice standard.

Metro hopes to exercise its option for additional 7000-series railcars soon (assuming the contributing jurisdictions pony up the funding). If Metro succeeds at getting more railcars, by the time ATO returns to the rest of the system in 2017, Stessel says, Metro may be close to operating 100% 8-car trains anyway.

Why the computer can’t open the doors

This is basically still necessary because Metro doesn’t have a failsafe to keep forgetful operators from opening their doors when some cars are still off the platform. Without one, the agency doesn’t feel safe trusting operators to know where to stop their trains.

There used to be a system that prevented operators from opening doors in the wrong place: they didn’t usually open the doors at all. As recently as early 2008, Metro train doors opened immediately and automatically when a train was properly berthed in the station. But power upgrades created electromagnetic interference that disrupted this system, making doors occasionally open on the wrong side, so Metro had to turn it off.

To open the doors manually, the operator sometimes had to walk across the cab, adding some delay, but not that much. Unfortunately, some operators still occasionally opened the doors manually on the wrong side, leading Metro to require them to wait an extra five seconds and adding even more delay.

Return to ATO isn’t fixing everything, but it’s a good step

Without the auto-door feature and operators still stopping trains at the end of the platform, automatic train operation will be less of a victory than some had hoped for.

Still, the return to ATO will mean smoother rides for customers, less wear and tear on the railcars, and less energy consumption. It’s also more efficient and generally quicker, which means that riders may see faster and more reliable trips in some cases.

The fact that Metro feels confident bringing back automatic trains on the Red Line is good for one very important reason beyond the customer experience, though: safety.

The underlying cause of the Fort Totten crash was a failure of the track circuit system that keeps trains spaced apart. Metro built a backup system to check for wrong-side failures like the one at Fort Totten, which reduced the probability of another crash. But all the track circuits and modules needed to be replaced to ensure that the crash circumstances couldn’t recur.

That has now happened on the Red Line, and is about halfway complete on the rest of the system. It’s a major step forward for the safety of riders on the system.


Allison Davis is this month’s sponsor for posts about Transit. Learn more »

Matt Johnson has lived in the Washington area since 2007. He has a Master’s in Planning from the University of Maryland and a BS in Public Policy from Georgia Tech. He lives in Dupont Circle. He’s a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners, and is an employee of the Montgomery County Department of Transportation. His views are his own and do not represent those of his employer.