[FoRK] NYTimes.com Article: Next Stop for the Subway, a Fully Automated Future

khare at alumni.caltech.edu khare at alumni.caltech.edu
Thu Jun 24 01:32:59 PDT 2004

The article below from NYTimes.com 
has been sent to you by khare at alumni.caltech.edu.

worth a cross reference to Bruno Latour's work, Aramis, on what became Meteor... RK

khare at alumni.caltech.edu

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Next Stop for the Subway, a Fully Automated Future

June 23, 2004


The subway of the future was rumbling back and forth on the
Canarsie line in Brooklyn the other day. Not sleek or
silent, it seemed no different from any other train. But
its innards set it apart, making it groundbreaking for a
transit agency long dogged by a Luddite image. 

After several years of installation work and testing, New
York City Transit is finally close to unveiling its first
computer-controlled train line. A rollout of the $287
million system will begin in October and continue through
next spring on an overhauled L line. At first, train
operators will remain in control, but when the
computer-based system becomes fully operational, probably
sometime in May, trains will essentially drive themselves
from station to station in fully automatic mode. 

The spacing of trains, their speeds and when they start and
stop will be entirely controlled by a complicated system of
onboard and remote computers that communicate with each
other via radio signals. Operators will continue to ride in
the front cab in case of emergency, but their only job will
be to push a button in front of them periodically to alert
the rail control center that they are paying attention. 

And if all goes according to plan, in a few decades hence,
all New York City subway trains will run in the same way,
without human help. 

"This is a revolution," said Nabil N. Ghaly, chief signal
engineer for the transit authority. 

Although the system's benefits mainly center on being able
to run more trains at higher speeds, the most important
advancement will be in safety, supporters said. 

"The whole idea is to eliminate human error," said Joe
Bauer, a train operator instructor who has been helping
test the new system. 

More than a decade ago, a subway train with a drunken
motorman aboard barreled through a railroad switch in Union
Square and derailed, killing five people and pushing
transit officials to begin exploring options for automating
their aging system. 

Automated trains are by no means new. In San Francisco, Bay
Area Rapid Transit trains have been completely automated
since the 1970's. And New York City had a fully automated
train between Grand Central and Times Square for two years
in the early 1960's. More recently, driverless,
computer-controlled train lines have emerged in Paris,
London, Vancouver, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore and elsewhere.
The New York City subway, however, continues to depend on
the same antiquated system of signal lights, caution flags
and speed limits. 

"We are seriously behind," Mr. Ghaly said. 

The current
system dates to the late 19th century. Tracks are divided
into blocks, usually about 600 feet long, energized by an
electrical current. When a train runs over a block, it
interrupts the current and triggers a signal light behind
it indicating that that section of track is occupied.
Trains following behind will be stopped by a red light. The
problem is, it is impossible to know where exactly the
train is within a block of track, so it has to be assumed
when coordinating traffic flow that the train is at the
beginning of a block. If engineers want to run more trains
through a stretch of track, more signals have to be
installed, but this is possible only up to a certain point.
Right now, the least amount of space between signals is
about every 300 feet, except in special instances, like

Another drawback of the system is that if a signal is
broken, which happens from time to time, the transit
authority depends on train operators following guidelines
that say they can travel no faster than 10 miles per hour. 

"When a signal fails, we are really depending on the rule
book," Mr. Ghaly said. 

If workers are doing track repairs, the transit authority
also relies on train operators obeying flagmen and
instructions to slow down. And the signal system only works
in one direction. If a train needs to back up because of an
emergency, all the trains behind it have to be cleared. 

In the new system, each train on a line will have two
onboard computers (one is a backup) and an electronic
reader strapped to its belly. The readers are designed to
pick up signals from radio transponders placed every 600
feet along the tracks. The transponders will give trains
the information they need to track their locations and

Each onboard computer will in turn communicate by radio
waves with computers set up in spots along the track. These
track-side computers will be doing the main work of traffic
regulation. The trains' onboard computers will then set
down proper speeds. Meanwhile, a main computer at the new
rail control center, being built in Manhattan, will monitor
everything and issue commands when needed. 

In October, the system will begin operating in "shadow"
mode on the L line, with train operators still completely
in control while engineers make sure the software is
working properly. Later, over gradually lengthening
segments, the computer system will begin issuing commands
to the train operator about speed and travel distances, but
the operator will still apply the throttle. If the train
operator ignores directions from the computer console
inside the cab, the computer system will take over and halt
the train. 

Finally, in May or June of next year, the line will move to
fully automatic mode, in which the train operator will
simply sit back and watch while the train moves from
station to station on its own. 

The new system will allow the transit authority to squeeze
20 percent more trains onto its tracks, running 30 to 31
trains per hour on a typical line instead of 26, and permit
the trains to operate at higher speeds, meaning less
waiting time and shorter rides for passengers. Stations
will also have computer displays that will offer passengers
real-time information about when the next train will

But some outside the transit authority have raised
questions about whether having computers control trains is
safe in New York City, given the system's age and
complexity and all that can happen on the tracks. 

"No subway system is like New York City's subway system,"
said Councilman John C. Liu, chairman of the City Council's
Transportation Committee, who wants to hold hearings this
fall on the system. 

"Before you start having robots run our subways, I'd like
to see them get the P.A. system up and running," he said.
"Let's get the P.A. system working on all the subway cars
and platforms. Let's get the lighting fixed on all the
platforms. Let's get the MetroCard machines working fully,
all the time. Get the basic stuff done first before you go
into this Buck Rogers mode." 

Much controversy has centered on whether the transit
authority will eliminate conductors on the new trains,
leaving them with only one crew member, because train
operators, who no longer have to worry about running their
trains, can open and close the doors, which conductors now
do. Transit officials say they are still evaluating. But
union officials have been issuing warnings, saying that in
a time of terrorism fears, more crew members are needed on
trains, not less. They point out that packed trains in rush
hours can have more than 2,500 passengers. In an emergency,
one crew member, located at the front of the train, would
have trouble. 

"It's important to be at the technology curve, but it has
to be sensible," said Roger Toussaint, president of Local
100 of the Transport Workers Union. 

The questions about safety frustrate those close to the
project, who point out that the technology has proven
itself in other cities. The project is being led by Siemens
Transportation Systems Inc., the company that brought Paris
the driverless Meteor Metro line, which opened in 1998.
Engineers concede, however, the New York's system brings
its own set of challenges. Stephane Bois, a software
consultant on the project, said the biggest difficulty has
been figuring out how to overlay the new system over the
old, while making sure both still work. 

Despite the criticism and obstacles, transit officials are
moving forward with plans to convert the No. 7 line
beginning in 2007 to the same computer-based system and
then the F line in Brooklyn in 2009. Eventually, transit
officials hope the entire system will be converted,
although that could take decades. 

As for the matter of making public address announcements
actually understandable, they say they are still working on



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