Metro was originally built for computers to drive the trains, but humans have been doing it since 2009. The feature is back on for some Red Line trains. Restoring it to all trains on all lines will give riders a smoother ride and more frequent trains, but there’s still some work to be done.

Automatic Train Operation: sort of like Otto, but for trains. Photo by Bowman! on Flickr.

We last wrote about Automatic Train Control about six months ago. Automatic Train Control, or ATC for short, keeps trains properly spaced, keeps them from going too fast, and can assist train operators by driving a train between stations automatically.

ATC consists of three subsystems; one of them, Automatic Train Operation (ATO), is the piece that actually automates the driving.

Failures in ATC contributed to the 2009 Fort Totten crash, so Metro disabled it and drivers have been operating the trains manually since. Recently, Metro restored ATO on the Red Line, but only on eight-car trains, which make up to around half the trains on the Red Line.

ATO has benefits for both Metro and riders. An automatic train may feel like it handles smoother, accelerates steadily, and decelerates without the jerky movements we’re used to on a lot of trains. This steady and even train movement also can help the trains adhere better to the schedule and increase on-time performance, which has been lacking recently for various reasons.

Extrapolating further, ATO can help trains more easily fit through chokepoints like Rosslyn since automatic driving is more a “known quantity” and timing differs less than from operator to operator. This can all help Metro and passengers by providing more reliable service.

WMATA Automatic Train Control WEE-Z Bond. Photo by Matt Johnson.

Most eight-car trains still aren’t using ATO

Originally, it appeared that all Red Line 8-car trains would use ATO, but it turns out that this will happen “not any time soon,” according to WMATA spokesperson Dan Stessel. Metro doesn’t want its trains running with ATO around work areas, and a lot is happening in the middle of the day and the evenings. At these times, therefore, the trains are still in manual mode.

Until the amount of track and system work diminishes and trains aren’t single-tracking around work zones as often, trains should be running in automatic operation (“mode 1”) only during peak service (5-9:30 am or 3-7 pm) on the Red Line.

Roger Bowles monitored the Red Line over three days in mid-October. He observed 33 8-car trains, but only seven (21%) were in automatic mode. One of these seven was even converted to manual mode after a supervisor had the train operator manually align the train with the front of the platform even though it was only a few feet off and all doors were on the platform.

Unfortunately, this means that the Red Line train that you may be riding could be just as jerky and manually-controlled as the others you’ve ridden since 2009.

What makes up the Automatic Train Control system. Image by WMATA.

ATO may return to all lines ahead of schedule

As part of the safety fixes following the 2009 crash, WMATA is replacing all 1,750 track circuits in the system that link together at 59 control rooms. These circuits keep trains safely separated and relay information between the train and Metro’s central rail control center.

Metro replaced the Red Line circuits first, and because it doesn’t share track with any of the other lines, it was able to get ATO back. Metro is still replacing the ones on other lines; 150 modules and 187 bonds were replaced just this year.

WMATA has said publicly that ATO should be back on the Silver, Blue, Orange, Yellow, and Green lines sometime in late 2017. More recently, spokesperson Sherri Ly said the agency is hoping to have it ready for use “by 2017, or possibly sooner,” which could be up to a year earlier.

The timing will depend on how fast Metro completes the other safety-critical fixes recommended by the National Transportation Safety Board or mandated by the Federal Transit Administration, so no date is set in stone.

Manual train operation will never go away completely

Automatic train operation is better for both passengers and WMATA, but it will never fully replace manual driving. In case ATO ever happens to break down (as it has), train operators need to know how to drive their trains without it.

Standard practice before the crash was for the first train every morning to use manual mode. That way, train operators could stay skilled in manually driving the train before switching over for the rest of the shift. Once ATO resumes for the entire system, Metro would likely restart this or a similar practice.

This, like many major WMATA projects, can benefit from more communication

With initiatives like Amplify and the webpage tracking the Stadium Armory power restoration project, WMATA has made some laudable efforts to better communicate with passengers and the public. However, there are still opportunities for improvement. There has not been much specific information about the weekend or weeknight rebuilding projects, for example.

With ATO, the agency said it would be turned on for Red Line eight-car trains, but did not communicate the types of restrictions that would limit the system’s use. I hope Metro can regularly update riders on the status of these large projects, and look forward to riding on an automatically-driven train on my native Orange Line again!

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Stephen Repetski is a Virginia native and has lived in the Fairfax area for over 20 years. He has a BS in Applied Networking and Systems Administration from Rochester Institute of Technology and works in Information Technology. Learning about, discussing, and analyzing transit (especially planes and trains) is a hobby he enjoys.