massurban: “Why U.S. Transit Systems Are Still So Far Away From…

Posted on Friday, July 13th, 2012 at 14:15


“Why U.S. Transit Systems Are Still So Far Away From Converting to Driverless Trains

Stephen Smith. July 9, 2012

With Google priming Nevada to be the first state to allow driverless cars on its roads, transit fans could be forgiven for asking: Where are the driverless trains?

The technology is relatively simple and has been around for decades. Unlike cars, which are autonomous and proceed on sight alone, railways must be centrally controlled to prevent collisions. So while a driverless car is limited by how far its sensors can “see,” the central computer that directs driverless trains is fully aware of all trains on its tracks, removing much of the guesswork.

The United States doesn’t yet have any fully automated trains outside of a few airport shuttles and small-scale “people movers,” but Europe and Asia have adopted the technology quite readily. European firms like Italy’s AnsaldoBreda and France’s Matra (now owned by Siemens) pioneered the technology, and which operates on six continents. Africa’s first system, in Algiers, opened in November of last year.

The obvious advantage of driverless trains over their manned counterparts is that transit agencies don’t have to pay drivers. Upgrading to driverless requires a large upfront investment, and still requires humans to act as engineers, maintenance workers, janitors, and station managers. But after the investment is made, eliminating the driver position offers agencies flexibility and riders much more frequent service.

During rush hour, the main impediment to more service is the number of trains an agency owns, and in some cases tracks that simply can’t handle any more traffic. But during off-peak hours, it’s the cost of putting drivers on each train that determines how often the trains come.

Driverless service eliminates these costs, “break[ing] the connection between frequency and labor costs,” as transit consultant Jarrett Walker put it. Vancouver’s driverless SkyTrain network, for example, has off-peak headways that would make Americans drool with envy. Riders on the Expo and Millennium trunk line never have to wait more than 5 minutes for a train, even late at night – a frequency that would be prohibitively expensive without driverless trains.”

Via: The Atlantic

Photo: Reuters