Automating the CTA: A Tried-and-True De-Crowding Initiative

September 21, 2012 at 8:20 pm

At times it may seem like all I blog about is what Chicago could do better, but I haven’t been writing for a while and I have a few things on my mind.

Paris Métro Line 14

Line 14

When I went to school in Paris, I boarded Line 1 from my stop at George V station and switched to Line 14 at Châtelet. My school was at the Bibliothèque François Mitterand station; the trip took no more than 40 minutes total, including walking and transfer times. What was remarkable about Paris’ Métro system and my commute was that Line 14 is a fully automated and as of this year, Line 1, the busiest line in terms of passenger volume, will also be fully automated.

I really enjoyed the service on Line 14, which was frequent during rush periods – trains often came every 90-120 seconds. The technology behind such a short headway is automatic train control which provides a buffer around the trains for stopping time; the same technology enables the RER A (Réseau Express Régional, or Regional Express Network of trains serving Paris and its suburbs) to also run trains as close as 90 seconds apart.

Now, Line 1 on the Paris Métro has been fully automated without any notable interruption to service. This is remarkable as it is the busiest line on the network, carrying about 725,000 people per day (according to a press release by RATP [link, in French] regarding the line’s automation). The automation process began in 2005 with a contract between RATP (the agency in charge of most Métro operations) and Siemens Mobility and the entire planning, purchasing, construction, and testing process will be complete in a few months. For some perspective, the CTA in Chicago began alternatives analysis studies on the “Circle Line” in 2005 – and we have nothing.

Vive la différence?

I want to go over a few things regarding the automation of subway lines… Since I know Paris as best as I know Chicago (and finding public information about projects in other countries is easiest when you know the native language), I will primarily focus on the automation of Paris’ subway lines when making comparisons.

The first thing I think about when I think about automating subway lines is labor. The drivers must go somewhere once their job becomes obsolete, right? I’m pretty good with math but I’m awful at patience, so instead of waiting for a freedom of information request with the CTA I figure I’d do some of my own calculations: Based off of this CTA timetable for the Red Line (the network’s busiest line), I estimate 175 train trips per weekday – if anyone has a better number, please let me know. And if each voyage from terminus to terminus takes roughly 1 hour and 10 minutes (give some time for signal clearance waits), I can estimate that one conductor drives the entire route 6 times on an 8-hour shift, meaning there are 90 distinct conductors for a 24-hour cycle of the Red Line (If I am wrong, again, please give me better numbers in the comments).

I’m generally on the side of labor unions, but I think that there are certain cases where they are warranted and useful and within those cases, there are certain functions unions perform that are beneficial and others that are detrimental. Concerning transportation industry unions, I feel that the detriments outweigh the benefits (although a lot of the blame can be shifted on low government expenditure on transportation, especially compared with roads – but that’s for another day), especially in the case of automation. Article after article talks about how labor is threatened with automated subway systems. I thought certainly that there must have been a lot of friction between transit drivers for the Paris Métro and the RATP, especially considering that France is heavily unionized and very prone to strike, but it seems like that wasn’t the case, since the drivers for Line 1 were shifted onto other lines, and drivers for Line 14 never existed. Of the 250 drivers who have to leave Line 1 as a result of automation, 40 were promoted to other positions and other drivers were allocated throughout the other 14 lines. [source, in French]

I really wanted to be able to calculate the cost of labor and what the figures are, broken down into cost per voyage, per day, per year, etc… But I don’t have the time to do that research, nor the patience to wait for a freedom of information request to come through. What I do know is that CTA train drivers make $29.65/hour.

Interior of Alstom MP 05 trains

Interior of new Alstom MP 05 trains. Notice that you can walk from one end of the train to the other where each car is separated, resulting in increased standing room. The center pole (which has 3 poles to hold on to) and lack of dividers between the doors and seats means even more room for passengers.

Let me cut to the chase – the automation of Paris’ Métro Line 1 is estimated at 629,000,000 € ($817,071,000 as of September 21, 2012), including new track infrastructure, 49 new Alstom MP 05 trains (at 9.7 million €, or $12.6 million, per train), platform screen doors at 25 stations, and a control center for monitoring the operation of the line.

Bombardier 5000-series rail cars

CTA’s new 5000-series rail cars. Pretty much the same old thing with new seats and lights.


Screens inside Line 1’s new cars, displaying destination, next stops, and travel time to transfer stations.

The CTA recently purchased 706 5000-series rail cars (anywhere between 2 and 8 cars makes up one train in Chicago – but for comparison, let’s say 6 cars = 1 train, as it does in Paris) for $1.14 billion, a cost of about $9.6 million per 6-car train. So the fully-automatic trains in France are a bit more expensive, but they’re fully-equipped for the future. If we ever automated a line in Chicago, we’d have to retrofit the trains for automation.

Paris just automated its busiest Métro line for the less money than the cost of some slightly-better rail cars in Chicago. Those two aren’t entirely equal, but it is interesting to note.

Platform screen doors on Line 13 in Paris

Platform screen doors on Line 13 in Paris

Moving on, many people are concerned with safety and the lack of a driver in automated trains. Paris’ Line 14 isn’t without its incidents, but none of the incidents that occurred during operation of Line 14 were life-threatening or required evacuation. Riding that line every day, I never experienced a delay of more than a few minutes, which is a fairly common occurrence during my daily commute on the Red Line. People are also concerned about emergency evacuations on driverless trains; but think about it this way: A worker in a command center has a much better vantage point of what is going on in the tunnel and inside the train than the train conductor, who has no monitors in his/her cabin and may have trouble navigating a packed train during an emergency. And finally, concerns emerge about people falling on to the tracks, which happens without automated trains anyway. The solution is platform screen doors, which were being installed on Line 1 when I lived in Paris, and were installed on Line 14 from the start. These doors do not open until the train is docked in the station, and the train cannot leave the station until both the platform and train doors are fully closed. The doors can be opened from the track side via an emergency handle, if a person were to somehow wind up on the tracks or an emergency evacuation were necessary.

Come to think of it, the only articles these concerns were expressed in were from pro-labor organizations and couldn’t cite any existing automated subway systems that had a major problem. Make your own inferences.

There would certainly be growing pains with any newly automated system, but I believe that any sensible transit organization would take note from another organization that has successfully built both an automated subway line from the ground up and upgraded an existing, very busy subway line with automatic trains that can run 85 seconds apart – an organization such as the RATP (in cooperation with Siemens Mobility, Alstom, and STIF).

My comparison isn’t perfect. Line 1 in Paris is only slightly above half the length of the Red Line, and France (as many European nations) has much greater public support for public transportation infrastructure projects. But overwhelming praise for Line 14 and anticipated praise for Line 1 as a model for retrofitting subways with automated trains surely says something about the success of these systems. The CTA recently announced a Decrowding Initiative which will add just a few trains to the busiest bus and train lines at the busiest times, at the expense of certain bus routes. This initiative is just a band-aid for a larger problem: Increasing urban populations and more expensive energy combined with lower car ownership rates among youth will inevitably lead to higher future demand for public transportation. How many initiatives will have to be announced until the CTA realizes it has antiquated technology that isn’t ready for the future? Making incremental investments for the most important transportation lines in Chicago means a future where public transportation is reliable, frequent, and pleasant. The CTA should take note from other cities that are successfully preparing for their future.

I welcome your comments and corrections below.

Update: I didn’t mention New York City’s anticipated automation of the L line. The line isn’t done and has been marred with difficulties. It wasn’t a suitable comparison for a simple analysis of automated transit networks.