Mixed Signals

City Promises No Driverless Trains, but Sets Track for Automatic Subway

New York City Transit Authority officials maintain that workers will always operate subway trains in New York. But a new signaling system they will be installing over the next 30 to 40 years is the first layer of an infrastructure that in other cities already allows trains to be tracked, driven, and targeted for repairs all by computer.

This technology will be in place on the L line in 2004; rolling out the project systemwide will cost more than $3 billion and won't be completed until many of the officials making these promises have retired. Coupled with the threat posed to station agents by the MetroCard vending machines, this new system, called Communications-Based Train Control (CBTC), will likely present Transport Workers Union Local 100 with the greatest structural changes it has ever faced.

"Every clerk I know understands the stakes of what the new technology means," says Marty Goodman, a station agent and member of the union's executive board, who has spoken against the MTA's phase-out of 237 token booth workers. "The boss puts in technology for one reason, to get rid of his biggest expense: employees. We know that. The workers are behind us on this. We must fight the Transit Authority's plans every step of the way. We have no staffing guarantees, no idea what the system's going to look like."

Automated for the people: "In time you'll see driverless trains," says one consultant.
photo: Jennifer S. Altman
Automated for the people: "In time you'll see driverless trains," says one consultant.

On the surface, CBTC is a much needed replacement for the subway's antiquated signaling technology. By all counts a prehistoric relic, the current system is a patchwork of traffic-light-like signals, people with pencils, and circuits installed in bits of track. Only a single train is allowed on a certain length of track at any given time. Trains must wait to move forward until the train before them clears this inflexible patch of turf.

"People do not give us credit for being smart, but we do learn from the past."

Under CBTC, the space allotted between trains will become fluid. Each train will have a signature signal, and when it passes a sensor along the line, onboard computers will relay a radio message to terminals in a central operating center, now under construction at 54th Street and Ninth Avenue on the site of an old bus depot bigger than a football field. Called the Rail Control Center, it will serve as headquarters for the entire subway, replacing the Rapid Transit Operations Command Center on Jay Street in Brooklyn. At the new center, main computers will process information sent from all the trains and bounce back messages telling them what to do. They will know where every train is at every second, allowing them to inform passengers when the next one is coming.

Factoring in incline, number of passengers, even weather, computers will achieve a new precision, allowing the Transit Authority to run trains closer together, more often and, proponents say, more safely.

"A fully automated system is not what this is about," says Transit spokesman Al O'Leary. "The computer will determine how fast the train can go depending on the geography and the weather. The operator will serve as its eyes and ears. The train can't spot a shopping cart in the middle of the tracks and override the system. The conductor will still open and close the doors."

The German-French consortium of Siemens Transportation Systems/Matra Transport International and Pittsburgh's Union Switch & Signal won the $135 million contract to install the technology on the L and develop an industry standard for CBTC. To avoid becoming dependent on a single vendor—as it did with the corporation that built the MetroCard system—Transit is grooming two other companies, Alstom Signaling and Alcatel, so they will be able to design equipment that can work with Matra's on future lines. "People do not give us credit for being smart, but we do learn from the past," O'Leary says. "It's fair to say that our experience with automated fare collection . . . created a situation where, going into a similar project that is technical and large, we seeded the field for a growth in competition."

Matra has a history of automating trains. In 1998, a year before the firm won New York, the company installed the first driverless train ever on Line 14 of the Paris metro. Their system on the L is based on the same technology.

Yet many transit advocates say driverless trains would not be welcome here. "While New York Transit would like to reduce labor costs, it will not happen in a severe way because there is strong popular support for conductors and a strong union," says Joe Rappaport, transit adviser to Mark Green and former coordinator of the Straphangers Campaign. "In terms of politics and in terms of safety, you will always have someone driving the train."

Safety is a major defensive arrow for workers, and not only because of the dystopian vision CBTC raises of machines hurtling unwitting humans down dark tunnels at high speeds. Operators can watch for both hindrances on the track and emergencies in the car. Unlike a conductor, new mechanical doors can't always identify straps or backpack handles.

But Tom Sullivan, who played a major role in bringing the system here when he directed the New Technology Train Control program for New York City Transit from 1993 to 1995, says that in other cities, armies of video cameras beaming images to monitors in command centers have helped workers manage trains from afar. Sullivan thinks the same kind of changes may be inevitable here.

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