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Metro delays full switch to automated trains until next year

Metro officials said Thursday they will move more slowly to automate portions of the rail system in the coming months to ensure each step meets safety standards and has approval from Metro’s regulatory agency.

Transit leaders plan to start the conversion to automatic train operations (ATO) this fall by reinstalling an automatic rail car door system, which would be activated when trains stop at stations. An automated process — rather than having the train operator manually open doors — can save time as the process can take up to 15 seconds at each station.

“We’ve moved forward with prioritizing the progression of our auto-door functionality so that we can provide immediate benefits to our customers and the pain points that they’ve expressed,” Tiffani Jenkins, a Metro senior vice president who has been leading the agency’s ATO efforts, told Metro’s board members Thursday.

One of Metro’s most high-profile changes this year is its plan to switch back to ATO from manual operations, which would remove most train functions from human operators. The rail system was designed for ATO and operated that way from when it opened in 1976 until a fatal collision in 2009. The system has never returned, despite multiple investigations determining it didn’t play a role in the crash that killed nine people and injured 80 in Northeast Washington.

Bringing the system back, transit leaders say, would lead to fewer delays, a smoother ride, energy savings and improved safety by reducing human error. Metro officials also say it would modernize train operations and lure new customers after losing nearly half of daily ridership during the pandemic. The delay will move systemwide ATO rollout from late this year to the first quarter of next year.

The change also will save the agency as much as $10 million annually — a small but welcome savings as Metro stares down a $750 million operating budget gap next fiscal year.

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Transit leaders set a goal earlier this year of operating the Red Line in ATO this fall, with the remaining lines following by December. Testing for the conversion has run into turbulence, with some tests resulting in trains missing stops.

Last month, officials with the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission, the agency that regulates safety at the agency, reported concerns with how Metro was returning to automation. Commission officials said Metro wasn’t on track to meet its own ATO safety standards or to obtain the commission’s approval for the changes.

Safety officials also noted Metro had worked to adjust its plans in consultation with the commission. Last week, Metro and the commission held a joint meeting that transit officials said helped to chart a path toward gaining the safety certifications needed to operate.

“We certainly are well involved in the details,” safety commission spokesman Max Smith said. “Metrorail communicated to us in the summer that they would go back to looking at auto doors first, and the adjustments they have been making have been part of the regular interactions.”

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Metro said in a memo that “accelerating” automatic door operations before the switch to full ATO would allow technicians to document how the door system is working and better prepare operators on how to use door controls. Operators, who still will be in train cabs after the ATO switch, will manually close doors after ensuring passengers are onboard and no obstructions are present.

Transit officials said they plan to automate door openings on the Red Line next month if they receive approval from the safety commission. Full automation on the line could occur late in the year. The rest of the system would follow a similar sequence, with automatic doors early next year and full ATO adoption in the first quarter of 2024, according to Metro planning documents.

Metro General Manager Randy Clarke said he does not view the phased process as a delay, but a necessary step in a complex conversion.

“We are trying to move something forward that hasn’t moved here in like 13-plus years,” he said Thursday. “[ATO] is no question the safest way to run the system. It’s cost-efficient and it’s much better for customers. We wanted to do this and do it right.”

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During Thursday’s meeting, board members also viewed changes being tested at stations and on the agency’s website, mobile app and onboard trains and buses that they hope are clearer ways to direct travelers through the system. The changes include adding directional cues to Metrorail signs, more information at station entrances and more real-time updates on train and bus arrivals.

Board members stressed they also wanted Metro to retain most of its current information and ensure changes make travel easier for riders who speak languages other than English. Among other technological upgrades, board members said they hope at some point to shift Metro’s tap-in and tap-out rail fare system to a one-tap system, accessible with credit cards.

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“Wanting to be a world-class agency means that we need to scan the whole world for best practices,” board member Tracy Hadden Loh said. “This is the best presentation I’ve ever seen at [Metro] in terms of doing that.”


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