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Slow year ahead on Metrorail

Metrorail will continue to perform at a sub-par level for the rest of this year. That's the way Metro board member Chris Zimmerman assessed this afternoon's report to the board from Metro's chief of rail operations.

Dave Kubicek, the rail chief, said he didn't see any way he could recommend a return to automatic control of the trains before the end of this year, at the earliest. The issue, he said, is safety. So the trains will remain under the control of the operators in the front cab.

The trains were built to run automatically. Manual control has slowed operations and created more wear and tear on the equipment and on Metrorail personnel. There are some safety risks to operating trains under manual control, Kubicek said.

But he has consistently maintained, as he did today, that he cannot recommend a return to automatic control until Metro has two things: a safety device in place to warn controllers that a train has disappeared from their monitoring system and a fix for the underlying problem with the automatic controls such as occurred during the June 22 Red Line crash.

Kubicek said there's a chance both those things could occur by the end of the year, but he did not commit to a timetable.

Zimmerman spoke for many riders when he said, "It's not the answer any of us want." But he and the other board members are not questioning Kubicek's judgment about the need to fix the problems with the automatic system. Rather, they are aware that travel conditions on the rail system have deteriorated since the automatic system was suspended as a safety measure.

Kubicek reviewed the consequences: The trains are moving more slowly, and the system therefore has less capacity to handle crowds at rush hour. Humans aren't as good at driving trains as the computers are, so the ride can be rougher -- especially as the trains slow down and stop at the platforms.

Kubicek described the situation as similar to what occurred in 1999-2000, the previous time automatic controls were suspended for safety reasons. But operating conditions are more difficult now because of the greater passenger loads, the increase in the number of rail cars and the other safety restrictions that Metro has imposed, such as speed controls.

By Robert Thomson  |  March 11, 2010; 1:45 PM ET
Categories:  Metro  | Tags: Dr. Gridlock, Metrorail, Red Line crash  
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Easy solution: Change "par"

Posted by: member5 | March 11, 2010 2:56 PM | Report abuse

It's March. So, we won't see an improvement for another 9 months. Great.

Posted by: jckdoors | March 11, 2010 3:29 PM | Report abuse

Slowing a vehicle to a stop smoothly is apparently a skill metro train operators do not have. I'd hate to be a in car with any of them.

Posted by: Wallenstein | March 11, 2010 3:42 PM | Report abuse

So using manual control produces some safety risks, but so does automatic control? (Guess it's a matter of which risks are greater.)

I had been under the impression that trains were moved to the end of the platform, under manual control, because operators kept forgetting how many cars they had. If that's true, then the problem is human, not mechanical. I must be missing something.

Posted by: dfranzen70 | March 11, 2010 3:43 PM | Report abuse

On the one hand, manual sounds safer than an automatic control that is faulty, but on the other hand, a train rear-ending another train that is stopped in the tunnel during a busy rush hour when trains come closer together or because one stalls is also scary as hell. I'm still happy to have Metro, think its a nice system and will continue to take it unless there is another accident.

Posted by: SusanMarie2 | March 11, 2010 4:18 PM | Report abuse

This is ridiculous. There's no evidence that manual control is any safer than automatic control. Personally, I'd feel safer with automatic control -- even before they put in the fixes for the problems with the system. And we do know that manual train control causes all kinds of other problems -- jerky trains that make people motion-sick, extra wear and tear on the trains, delays, more crowding, etc.

If Kubicek isn't willing to put the trains back on automatic control, then he needs to be fired and replaced with someone with more sense.

Posted by: robwilli | March 11, 2010 4:42 PM | Report abuse

Something else that has changed but is not getting as much attention in the media coverage as the manual vs automatic control issue: at least on the Red Line, the vast majority of trains are now running with 6 cars, even during rush hour. Before the Red Line collision last summer, during rush hour the trains were almost exclusively 8 car trains. Those extra 2 cars make a huge difference. For some reason, we haven't gotten back to 8 cars, even on manual control. It would be nice to get an explanation as to why the 8 car trains have been cut back so much on the Red Line.

Posted by: capecod1 | March 11, 2010 8:23 PM | Report abuse


Posted by: fireball72 | March 11, 2010 8:47 PM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

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