Metro (WMATA)

Metro Preparing to Bring Back Automatic Train Operation for 1st Time Since Deadly 2009 Crash

Metro is making plans to bring back automatic train operation in 2023

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Metro is making final preparations to change the way it operates its trains.

News4 has learned that a presentation to switch trains back to a computer-controlled automatic mode is on the Metro board meeting agenda for this week.

The plan is to have the Red Line switch to automatic train operation by the summer and the entire system by the end of the year.

Metro hasn’t used automatic train operation (ATO) in over a decade. Right now, train operators control the movement themselves.

However, Metro was designed to operate in automatic mode — and is currently among only a handful of large transit systems that aren’t automated.

Metro says ATO should improve everything from on-time performance to wear and tear on trains and even energy consumption because it will ensure a much smoother ride.

“It's like, you know, slamming on the gas in your car, it’s not the preferred way to accelerate, nor slamming the brakes, right? It's a similar logic when you're running an automatic,” WMATA Chief Infrastructure Officer Andy Off said.

The Washington Metrorail Safety Commission says its members are waiting for additional information requested from Metrorail and intensive work is needed to ensure the transit agency is prepared to roll out ATO.

"As part of our oversight of Metrorail’s safety certification work regarding automatic train operation and automatic door operation, the WMSC communicates regularly with Metrorail regarding specific safety issues. This includes questions related to areas such as Metrorail’s potential timelines, testing, training development and implementation, roadway worker protection, and technology adjustments, and other intensive work needed for Metrorail to ensure the preparedness of not only the physical systems but also the Metrorail organization as a whole to safely operate using automatic train operation or automatic door operation," the commission said in a statement.

Metro hasn’t operated in ATO mode since a Red Line train crashed in 2009, killing nine people. It remains the deadliest incident in Metro's history.

In that case, a perfect storm of events contributed to the crash, according to a National Transportation Safety Board investigation. First, computer signals indicated that the track ahead was clear — but a second train was stopped not far around a curve. Then, the automatic system had the train move forward at full speed. By the time the operator saw the second train, it was too late.

Metro understands it will need to convince everyone that this new system is safe.

“We've verified with our manufacturers that this equipment, in these conditions, is safe,” WMATA employee Tiffani Jenkins said.

The Metro Board will hear the full plan this Thursday.

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