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Policy Initiative Spotlight: Subways That Leave the Driving to No One

by Edward Alden
July 12, 2012

A new metro subway train arrives at the newly opened metro system in Algiers on October 31, 2011 (Ramzi Boudina/Courtesy Reuters). A new metro subway train arrives at the newly opened metro system in Algiers on October 31, 2011 (Ramzi Boudina/Courtesy Reuters).


In this Policy Initiative Spotlight, Renewing America contributor Steven J. Markovich looks at the implementation of driverless cars in subways, a trend that has seen growing  popularity in recent years. He highlights the costs and benefits of this alternative, and argues that the United States could gain long-term by implementing this system that has been keeping subway costs and wait times down around world for decades.

On October 31, 2011, Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika cut the ribbon on Algeria’s new subway system. German industrial giant Siemens led the project and supplied much of the technology for the project. In addition to major items such as the operations center, trackworks, and ticket systems, Siemens also supplied a technology that was new to Africa and is still unused in the United States–automated trains.

Siemens’ driverless trains are controlled by its Trainguard MT CBTC system. CBTC stands for communication based train control, and solutions sold by Siemens and other such as Thales, have become potent tools to cut costs and improve service on metropolitan rail systems across the globe, from São Paulo to Singapore.

Labor is the major operating cost for running a mass transit system; according to the budget of New York’s Metropolitan Transport Authority (MTA), labor costs were over 64 percent of total operating costs in 2011, exceeding revenues. Automated train systems allow a range of labor reductions. Trains can be remotely controlled without human presence—if needed, a worker can walk around the train to assist passengers but he/she does not need to be present in the control cab.

While reducing workers can trim operating costs, that benefit comes at the cost of good jobs. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average annual wage of a subway or streetcar operator was $63,820 in 2011. With total national employment at 5,920, cumulative earnings are almost $378 million.

Simply reducing workers is not the only way automated trains cut operating costs. Transit systems with human drivers have to balance the break needs and work schedules of their workers while managing the flow of passengers. This juggling act is often additionally complicated by arcane work rules from union negotiations or laws, and often results in substantial inefficiencies.

Reducing the labor requirement can also increase the quality of service. During off-peak travel times—late nights and weekends—the lower number of passengers cannot justify the same level of service, so fewer trains run, leading to much longer waits at stations. Automated trains allow systems to deliver similar levels of service off peak at a feasible cost. For instance, riders on Vancouver’s automated Expo and Millennium lines can expect a 2-3 minute wait during peak times, but only a 4-5 minute wait during late night. Contrast that with New York’s MTA, which not only runs fewer trains at night, but drops service to enough stations that it publishes a separate late night subway map.

While the United States today does not employ automated trains beyond small systems such as people movers in airports and the Las Vegas monorail, there is growing interest. In the spring of 2011, the MTA began improvements to the “7-line” which include a CBTC system; the project is scheduled for completion in late 2016. In March 2012, Thales and Siemens were both awarded with four-year projects with the MTA for a CBTC test track project off the “F-line.” These developments are not cheap; from 2010-2014, MTA has budgeted $2.1 billion for improvements to signal system moderation, of which CBTC is a large component. That is about 16 percent of the total capital investments planned for New York’s subway system.

The capital investment required to install CBTC is the major impediment to further adoption of driverless trains. Though the upfront cost is high, the foreign cities that have chosen to make this infrastructure investment have lowered their operating costs for decades and improved the commuting lives of urbanites and travelers.

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