A Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority train pulls out of a station in Washington. (VCU Capital News Service)
The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA)’s recent announcement of Automatic Train Operation (ATO)’s return represents a fresh start for metro automation. However, this news does not come without safety reservations from the D.C. Metro rider base, and WMATA will need to be more transparent about critical test data to prove the reliability of its systems and get commuters on board.
Metro commuters expect reliability, efficiency and, above all, safety. But in 2009, the Fort Totten Metro collision killed nine passengers and shattered these expectations. A post-crash investigation found that a track sensor failure had rendered a stationary train “invisible,” preventing the oncoming Red Line train from stopping in time. The incident prompted WMATA to take its ATO system offline, despite the fact that the sensor system operated separately from ATO.
WMATA makes its announcement of ATO’s return at a time when D.C. Metro is in need of a reboot. With many commuters opting to work from home during the pandemic, the Metro experienced a drastic drop in fare revenue: Ridership dropped 60% from its pre-pandemic levels. Unsurprisingly, WMATA is looking toward automation to give Metro a boost in ridership and cost savings.
Nonetheless, WMATA has yet to communicate tangible improvements. While WMATA’s website has a significant amount of information available on its Safety & Security page, the most recent date listed in this information was 2015 — seven years ago. Moreover, WMATA’s latest March 9 presentation was filled with general descriptions of enacted changes, lacking the concrete statistics that would convince a skeptical commuter.
In fairness, the presentation did indicate that WMATA has improved its infrastructure and safety culture. For example, after tracking the cause of the 2009 collision to a faulty track circuit module, WMATA has worked on improving maintenance practices and increasing the frequency with which ATO systems are monitored. However, questions remain: What are the precise maintenance procedures, and how would they contribute to the upkeep of systems that would prevent another disaster? How can commuters be convinced that these practices will hold true, especially with recent reports revealing that several control rooms have been kept in poor condition with extensive issues? WMATA’s website fails to answer these questions, with the Safety page only mentioning maintenance once (in a brief introduction to WMATA’s safety management system).
WMATA also assures the public that since the incident, it has replaced track circuits, readjusted marker coils, and upgraded train cars. In addition, WMATA has been training staff on ATO, documenting track readings, creating clear pipelines for oversight and developing both internal and public communication plans. However, WMATA’s online descriptions do not show a clear plan of action. What are the documented track readings and what is the interpretation of that data? D.C. commuters should be able to easily access the mentioned test data, which is also missing from WMATA’s website.
In its peer review, the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) examined the quality of Metro improvements by inspecting facilities, interviewing staff, and studying procedures, diagrams, and records. WMATA’s updated practices were found to have “met industry infrastructure standards,” but specific test statistics were not included in WMATA’s recent Board Action/Information Summary. The APTA also indicated dissatisfaction with WMATA’s current ATO operating rules and training curriculum, recommending more development on both fronts.
While WMATA has been making progress, it needs to communicate more strongly and transparently with the public. WMATA needs to rebuild trust by publishing key statistics, including clear and accessible data about maintenance plans, how the automation system is being tested and the specifications for the new technology being fitted into the Metro. Concerned metro users should be able to trace WMATA’s progress and use this data to form educated opinions. Open communication with WMATA will help D.C. commuters feel more comfortable with the automated Metro systems they will be riding.
If WMATA takes these steps to bolster its credibility, restoring automation could have a net benefit for commuters and Metro alike. Automation provides more accurate predictions of arrival times, leading to reduced waiting times and higher reliability. The ATO system’s control of train starting and stopping results in smoother rides. Moreover, by timing train stops to maximize regenerative braking, metro automation leads to lower power usage and higher energy efficiency, strengthening Metro’s long-term economic sustainability.
There are even safety benefits to automation, as it reduces human error. Train operators can make dangerous mistakes, from running red-light signals to overshooting platforms, which the ATO system would be less likely to make.
The restoration of D.C. Metro automation is a step towards a safer, more efficient transportation system, but it must be grounded on concrete progress. Though WMATA may have made substantial internal improvements, its broad assurances do not accurately convey that information to the public. The onus is on WMATA to safely — and transparently — usher in a new era of Metro automation.
Nasifa Akter, Rachel Huang, Sophia Lee, Shriya Muthukumar and Jessica Wang are residents of the Washington, D.C. area and regular riders of WMATA.
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