Home PublicationsCommentary Policymakers’ Rush to Blame Technology 15 Years Ago Put the D.C. Metro on the Wrong Track

Policymakers’ Rush to Blame Technology 15 Years Ago Put the D.C. Metro on the Wrong Track

by Morgan Stevens

After a deadly crash in the Washington, D.C. metro system in 2009, government officials suspended the use of automatic train operations (ATO), a system that automatically accelerates and brakes trains between stations. Despite later investigations finding ATO was not to blame for the accident and decades of operation without problems, officials have yet to reinstate the technology in the rail system, leaving it and the region’s many commuters reliant on human workers operating trains manually. This incident provides a cautionary tale about how policymakers should not overreact or be too quick to blame technology when accidents occur in automated systems, a problem that will only grow more severe as automation increases.

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) has announced several plans to return to ATO since at least 2014; however, it has yet to be successful, preventing commuters from taking advantage of the safer and more efficient operations autonomous systems offer. The agency, which oversees public transportation services in the greater Washington, D.C. area, initially opened the rail system with ATO functionality in 1976. The technology automates trains’ accelerations, decelerations, and speed, optimizing operations and allowing train drivers to focus on other tasks. Despite these benefits and the system’s original design for ATO, WMATA has not restored the use of the technology since the 2009 crash. In order to remedy this, as well as maximize the system’s profitability, policymakers should provide WMATA with the resources necessary to effectively reinstate the technology.

ATO enhances the safety of rail service compared to manual operations. Automating operations minimizes human errors, which can cause accidents during manual operations. For example, ATO effectively eliminates human operators’ potential to overrun red signals or stations, which can result in serious accidents. Moreover, ATO results in smoother stops and accelerations that minimize any jolts or lurches commuters might experience on board. By automating movements, ATO maintains safety throughout the entirety of commuters’ journeys and reduces chances of accidents or bad experiences on board.

ATO also increases reliability in transit systems, enabling operators to transport passengers more efficiently than would be possible with manual operations. By automating trains’ movement, operators can ensure that commuters will reach their destination at a preset time. Indeed, a 2013 study of 52 metro lines across 16 transit systems, found that lines that switched from manual operations to ATO had a 26 percent reduction in delays lasting over five minutes. Further, the study found that 14 of 28 lines that use ATO met reliability targets, while only 2 out of 27 manually operated lines met reliability targets. This reliability translates into a smoother commuting experience, encouraging public transit usage, which provides a safer, more affordable, and more eco-friendly alternative to driving.

Finally, automating the metro system will enable WMATA to boost efficiency in three ways. First, manual operations are less energy-efficient and cause more wear and tear on trains due to less precise speed and braking control. By automating these aspects, WMATA can reduce equipment deterioration, energy consumption, and related expenses. Second, improving the quality and reliability of transit services will attract more commuters and increase fare collections. This, in turn, can help the financially beleaguered agency raise more revenue and make up for years of budgetary neglect. Third, automating operations can minimize labor costs and enable train operators to transition to new jobs. Indeed, fully automated rail systems can reduce labor costs by up to 70 percent compared to fully staffed systems.

By leveraging the precision and efficiency of ATO, WMATA can provide a smoother, more reliable commuting experience and increase ridership and revenue. Policymakers should provide the agency with the resources necessary to safely and quickly reinstate the technology and approach potential incidents involving new technologies and automation with a more measured response.

Image credit: Flickr user Phil King

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