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TTC eyes driverless subway

Automated control a ‘bargain’ at $750M, Moscoe says



A subway train arrives in the Queen St. station yesterday, guided by a human driver. TTC chair Howard Moscoe would like to see the system adopt driverless trains.

Nov. 17, 2006. 11:59 AM

A computer driving our subway trains?

Driving them closer together and sometimes in opposite directions on the same track?

TTC chair Howard Moscoe thinks so.

He calls it automated train control and the only thing separating the city from his driverless subway idea is $750 million. That’s also the cost of building only three kilometres of subway with three stations, Moscoe said, adding that his plan would immediately boost rider capacity without sinking a shovel.

The money would cover retrofitting the entire subway with a computer system that tells the train how far it is behind the train in front, when to slow down and when to speed up.

It would allow running trains closer together.

Moscoe says automation would increase rider capacity on the Yonge line by at least 40 per cent.

And there are other interesting possible benefits too, including all-night service and something he calls the “democratization” of subway station management.

Moscoe suggested it’s a more economical way to immediately boost ridership than building more subway lines and stations.

“It costs $242 million to build one kilometre (of subway), including the station. Automated train control will allow us to reorganize the way we think about the subway system.”

But after hearing the price tag, Bob Kinnear, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 113, was skeptical, considering how cash-strapped the TTC is and how upset Moscoe got earlier this week after receiving only $1.46 million in federal funding for more security.

“Now he’s got this wonderful idea that we want to invest three quarters of a billion dollars? Where’s this money coming from?” said Kinnear, whose local represents 8,600 members.

The French town of Lille pioneered driverless trains in 1983 when it launched its light-rail system. Paris, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Turin, Copenhagen and Nuremberg followed with driverless metros or streetcars. New York, Tokyo, Seoul, San Francisco and Toulouse also have automated subways or Light Rapid Transit systems.

In fact, the TTC’s Scarborough Rapid Transit uses it on its smaller, mostly ground-level trains, though Kinnear says sometimes operators drive the trains because the automatic system works only 80 per cent of the time.

“There are times when the computer for some reason, isn’t able to be used or fails, then (people) drive it,” TTC spokesman Marilyn Bolton said of the Scarborough RT, which TTC staff say was the first transit system in North America to go automatic in 1985. “I think there’s nothing for the public to fear or we wouldn’t be doing it.”

Automated train control is already part of the TTC’s subway spending plans, but Moscoe says it’s not at the moment a budget priority. He told the Star he wants to make it one at the commission’s next meeting Dec. 13.

Once automated, the only thing required of the operator at the front of the train would be to look out the window, ensure everyone is safely aboard and manually close the doors. The computer drives to the next station. The cost, in large part, stems from hooking the trains’ acceleration, braking and door systems into the automated system.

The system would also allow the TTC to operate two-way, all-night service on only one track — say, from 10 p.m. to 5:30 a.m. — as it could deftly navigate trains moving in opposite directions out of each other’s way using short peripheral, or “cross-over” tracks that run off a main line about every five kilometres, according to one TTC source.

Moscoe sees a spin-off benefit from all-night service: Unlike the current schedule, where maintenance workers have only a few hours each night to work on both tracks, automated trains would leave the opposite track available for longer periods of time.

The system would also free up the second subway employee, the “guard,” who looks out the window and manually opens and closes the doors.

With the guards antiquated, Moscoe says the TTC will have extra employees, and he proposes a new rank of workers to be filled: Station Master.

Under his plan, each subway station would be run by the manager who, along with input from a neighbourhood advisory council made up of volunteer transit users, local residents, the ward councillor and station employees, decides how to run that particular station.