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Tech at the throttle

Drivers are increasingly absent in new transit systems

Automation cuts costs, may enhance safety



A driverless SkyTrain streaks across Vancouver�s skyline on Saturday; advanced microprocessers are at the unmanned train�s controls.

Facing a transit workers’ strike that could snarl the daily travel plans of more than one million Torontonians, transit professionals have good reason to talk about a technology that’s making tracks worldwide: driverless, automated rail transit.

“Reducing the impact of labour disruptions can be a collateral benefit,” says Mike Richard, vice-president of operations at BC Rapid Transit, the public company that operates Vancouver’s two, fully-automated SkyTrain lines.

The jobs aren’t lost, but shifted to customer-service positions on the platform at each station.

“But the real point is it delivers substantially lower operating costs while boosting speed, efficiency, customer service and even safety,” says Richard. “We pride ourselves on being the world’s largest and best example of that, but you’ve gotten a partial taste of it in Toronto, too.”

Yes, but experts say the TTC’s Scarborough Rapid Transit line comes nowhere near the operational sophistication found on Vancouver’s SkyTrain or many of the 119 automated guided transit systems worldwide, of which 19 are full-blown, heavy transit operations. Drivers still ride the RT trains here, although they are automated and could be driverless.

“The TTC was gun shy about the whole concept when it was inaugurated in 1985,” says longtime Toronto transit advocate Steve Munro. “That wasn’t the case in Vancouver, where there was no rail-based transit service then in existence. Theirs is much more impressive.”

These systems are driven by communications-based automatic train control. On conventional systems, trains are controlled with multi-coloured wayside signals telling crews to stop or go and at what speeds. Variations use mechanical devices that trip the brakes on a following train if the operator fails to heed the warning.

It’s considered primitive by comparison with communications-based train control.

This makes each microprocessor-equipped train an active component of the entire operation, each carrying a protective block of space along with it. “Communications-based train control and automated operation require a whole new mindset,” says Bill Mountain, a 30-year veteran of the business and a Georgetown-based, independent consultant to railways and transit systems around the world. “It’s about bringing a higher degree of control far beyond what a human being can do. You’re using a multitude of microprocessors on the trains, along the line and in the control centre that talk to each other constantly. Communication is via continuous data transmission systems that use inductive loops laid between the rails or, more recently, via totally wireless methods. And these systems don’t get stressed the way humans do.”

‘It’s like the progression in elevator technology. Finally, people became comfortable with pushing the buttons themselves’

— Bill Mountain, independent train control consultant

Mountain points to just one aspect of Vancouver’s SkyTrain to demonstrate what the system can do without hands-on intervention. At the end of each rush hour, trains are automatically routed into the yard to tailor capacity to off-peak demand. The trains switch off the main line, enter the yard and park themselves for re-entry into service later. Or, they uncouple the unneeded cars, do an integrity test to assure the rest of the train is complete and functioning, and then go back out into service. All without human contact.

The communications-based system employed on Vancouver’s SkyTrain — and the TTC’s Scarborough RT — is Canadian designed and manufactured at the Toronto facility of French telecom giant Alcatel. Mountain calls it “the gold standard of automated transit control technology.” Other systems are marketed by global firms such as Germany’s Siemens. They have not corralled as many orders for these driverless iron horses as yet, although competitors are trying to catch up to Alcatel’s early lead in the race.

“This all started in the mid-1950s and evolved rapidly in the mid-1960s and `70s,” says Walter Friesen, general manager of Alcatel’s Transport Automation Solutions division. “It really advanced rapidly because the German Federal Railway was going to implement 200-kilometre-and-hour intercity rail passenger service. Modifiying the existing signal system would have been expensive and time consuming. Communications-based train control as an overlay on the existing system was the answer. “In 1985, Scarborough’s RT was the first North American operation to use this automated technology. Vancouver’s SkyTrain — opened in 1986 to coincide with the city’s World’s Fair — took it one step further by going driverless. Friesen describes the two pioneer systems as “lynchpins to Alcatel’s global growth, all of it centred right here in Toronto.”

Automation is now a goal of transit operators worldwide. Paris has one line in service and more arriving. Many cities, such as Nuremberg, Germany, are retrofitting existing lines. It allows for precise, safe operation with increased frequencies at lower cost than fully-manned systems, says Friesen.

“The software and microprocessors push the trains to the edge of their design and service limits. If service is delayed, the system recovers quickly, altering the operation automatically to get the trains back on schedule. Adding more trains is just a matter of programming.” Because less equipment is required with automation, says Friesen, maintenance and operating costs drop.

Transit experts say part of the delay in going driverless is psychological.

“It’s that whole thing about there not being someone in the cab in cities where people are used to seeing someone,” says BC Rapid Transit’s Richard. “We have an intruder detection system that’s more effective in stopping the trains if someone is on the tracks. And we have attendants at each station to provide assistance or even intervene in the operation.”

Signal guru Mountain says it’s only a matter of time before this technology pulls into Toronto. “It’s like the progression in elevator technology. First, it was an attendant using old switchgear inside the elevator. Then, the conversion came to push button operation. Finally, people became comfortable with pushing the buttons themselves.”

Greg Gormick is contributing editor of the magazine Railway Age.

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