Let’s Talk Seriously About Driverless Trains

(StreetsBlog) – In large, urban cities all over the country – in Washington, D.C., New York City, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco – ridership on public metro transportation systems is down. That may seem hard to believe given rush-hour overcrowding but it’s not hard to figure out why. Suppose you want to go from 24th and Mission to San Francisco International on a Sunday afternoon. The trip only takes 24 minutes by the region’s BART transit system – about as long as it takes by car. The problem is, if you time it wrong, you can end up waiting another 20 minutes for a train. To maximize transit ridership, service has to be utterly reliable and frequent – especially in the age of Uber and Lyft.

What if public metro systems ran fewer cars continuously.  That kind of frequency would make transit more competitive. The problem, of course, is labor costs – public metro transportation systems like BART would lose a lot of money on that kind of solution, thanks to the need for additional drivers.

Everybody knows the problem, and the solution is already here.

Public transit systems in the Bay Area and across the US continue to rely on one operator in the front of every single train (even though computers already drive trains and operators are just opening and closing doors and acting as a backup). Meanwhile, there are some 20 fully driverless “GoA4” train systems (meaning there is no requirement to have an operator on board) throughout the world; many have been in continuous operation for decades. The advantages can’t be overstated: better frequency, punctuality, reliability, capacity, and better fare-box recovery.


The Copenhagen Metro (seen here in Vanløse station) is one of many systems with no drivers on board the train. Photo: Wikimedia Commons


So why are public metro systems in the US ignoring the obvious technical solution?

  • Safety: According to BART Director Lateefah Simon, “When BART trains go under the Bay with hundreds of millions of pounds of water pressure above, I want to know there’s staff on those trains. We live on earthquake faults. We need trained people who understand disaster preparedness.” However, if the Transbay Tube rips open in an earthquake, it’s hard to imagine what an on-board driver is going to do besides become another victim. Furthermore, if that’s really the issue, backup safety “operators” with emergency training could simply ride back and forth between Embarcadero and West Oakland. The rest of the system could be operator free.
  • Organized Labor: “I don’t believe the contract would even allow for this. An operator is required to run a train,” says Alicia Trost, spokeswoman for BART. But union resistance is based on a false assumption: that automation means the drivers get canned. It doesn’t. Laurent Fortune is an engineer who managed the automation systems for Line 1 and Line 14 of the Paris Metro. Drivers weren’t fired – in fact, they were promoted to “supervisor” or transferred to other areas.  “There are still lots of humans around, they’re just not at the front of the trains,” said Fortune. He added that they are switched to places where “they’re more useful.” Additionally, these “supervisors” still have to be trained to drive the trains in an emergency, or to bring a train back to the shop if the automation on a particular train has failed.



A stop on one of Paris’s automated lines. There are still “humans” in the system, they’re just not at the front of trains. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The GoA4 system is far more dynamic. For instance, the RATP (the Paris transit system) was not ready for an unexpected political demonstration around 2:30 a.m. At the request of the police, the RATP was able to keep the subway operating and get the demonstrators home. None of the metro systems in the US are capable of responding to last-minute needs because it is impossible to get operators suddenly and efficiently in place. With a fully automated system, staffing is replaced by control centers that are capable or running the entire system autonomously. Ironically, the US metro system already has the technology in place to install an automated deployment system. For instance, every public metro system in the US already maintains a count of how many people are entering and leaving the trains at any given moment at any station. Similar to the GoA4 system, data that is fed into the operational computers can automatically lengthen trains and/or send them more frequently as needed. And this sort of responsiveness allows each train in an automated system to carry a greater density of people, so it is vastly more efficient.

There is still a lot of work left to fully automate the US metro system and get rid of human operators, but little of that work requires new technological innovation. The time to start making these changes is now, because as Waymo and Uber’s automated cars are coming online soon, and alternatives to public metro systems are only going to get cheaper and more available.  Indeed, the US metro system has a responsibility to start automating right now – especially since the tools for doing it are already available.




This article was adapted from it’s original version by Roger Rudick, published here at StreetsBlogsSF.

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