America's Transit Challenge: Part V

The newest transit systems will depend more on smart systems, and rely heavily on automation
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Construction underway on an Alstom-powered fully automated transit system in Montreal.
REM, Montreal
This article is the last of five on transit in the U.S. and North America. Read parts One, Two, Three, and Four online.

Early one morning, sometime late in 2020, more than a dozen light rail trains will come to life at Honolulu Area Rapid Transit’s yard in Waipahu. Each will set out on its own, with no operator aboard, following only computer-issued instructions, to begin its daily run. The United States will finally have its first fully automated, driverless, high-capacity urban rail transit system.

Andrew Robbins, chief executive officer of HART, calls it a “game changer.”

Across the world, there are 63 fully automated public transit lines in 42 cities in 19 countries. Places such as Copenhagen, Paris, and Singapore.

One of the largest systems has been in operation since 1985 in Vancouver, British Columbia. The Vancouver SkyTrain carries half a million riders a day and, at peak times, operates on 108-second headways.

Robbins sees Vancouver’s high-frequency operation as a model. There, greater frequency helped increase transit ridership because passengers know they won’t have to wait long minutes for the next train.

“The idea is that these trains run just like a utility,” he explains. “There’s always a train coming.”

That’s made possible by shorter trains running more frequently. HART will have 20 four-car trainsets, with 17 running during peak operations, each carrying up to 800 riders. Robbins expects that Honolulu’s eventual 20-mile line will carry 120,000 riders daily in 2030.

To be considered fully automated, or what engineers call “Grade of Automation 4,” trains must be capable of automatic starting, stopping, and completely unattended operation. They must be able to respond to emergencies, such as an obstructed track, without onboard attendants.

Advocates cite greater safety, reliability, and operational flexibility as major benefits of automation.

Computer-Controlled Train Operations

HART’s $8.2 billion, entirely elevated line will serve a population of nearly one million along an area squeezed between mountains and sea.

“It’s a rail transit planner’s dream because it’s a linear corridor,” says Robbins. It’s also a region with congested traffic and two-hour commutes, crying out for a faster way to get around.

The transit line was always envisioned as a driverless system. Along with the ability to run trains more frequently, the economics allow for greater flexibility.

“During the day, depending on the demand, we can add trains and take trains off completely driverless,” Robbins says.

Lack of qualified operators on duty or on call will never prevent HART from responding to unexpected passenger loads. Future expansion becomes more manageable with a driverless system as well. There’s no need to hire and train additional operators; you just add more trains.

Hitachi Rail Italy is providing the trains as well as the signal, train control, communications, power, and passenger information systems. The vehicles are being assembled in Pittsburg, Calif.

At the Operations Control Center, just five attendants run everything. Workstations monitor trains and dispatching, security, traction power, and fare collections. At the passenger interface station, an attendant can send messages to trains or stations and respond to passengers who communicate via onboard intercoms from each rail car.

The 12-track rail yard is completely automated. It’s already being tested, and test trains are running on an energized portion of the main line.

HART has completed construction on the first 10 miles of the guideway. Nine stations along that segment will be finished by the end of 2019, allowing operations to begin the following year. The next segment, which will serve the Pearl Harbor naval base and Honolulu International Airport, is 50 percent complete and scheduled to be in service by 2023.

Robbins says they expect to award a design-build contract for the final, city-center segment early next year and have it completed in 2025. That contract will also include operation and maintenance of the entire line through 2050.

There’s a good reason for that: building a system with such leading-edge technology risks the scourge of obsolescence, of the kind which forces us to replace our smartphones and laptops every few years.

“Obsolescence management is a growing focus in the rail transit industry,” Robbins reveals. By engaging a private-sector partner and charging them with running and maintaining the system to high performance standards, HART transfers that risk and responsibility to the contractor.
Automation Grows
According to the Brussels-based International Association of Public Transport, total system miles of grade 4 lines will more than double by 2025 from the 650 currently in operation.

Along with airport trams, a handful of low-capacity automated lines operate in the United States. They include Detroit’s single-track People Mover; the Las Vegas monorail; the Jacksonville, Fla., Skyway; and the JFK AirTrain in New York City. All are operations carrying fewer than 300 passengers per train.

Several grade 2 operations, which are substantially automated but require an operator in the cab, are also running in the U.S. San Francisco’s Muni and Bay Area Rapid Transit are among these, along with the Washington Metro and Atlanta’s MARTA.

With coming projects, North America will begin to catch up with Europe and Asia, which together have three-quarters of the world’s fully automated lines. Most of that is concentrated in France, South Korea, Singapore, and the United Arab Emirates.
“A Lot of Fun Innovations”
“Cities across the country have to deal with a transportation marketplace that is changing, they have to deal with demographics that are changing, and the question for local decision makers is what have you done to react to this world that is changing around your transit system,” says Steven Higashide, director of research at Transit Center.

Cities will look at their transit network holistically, at how it serves the both city and the needs of all users across the region. Urban planners and real estate developers will seize opportunities to connect transportation with jobs, housing, and lifestyle. Transit agencies will help provide each customer’s door-to-door solution, through innovation, partnerships, and digital integration.

“We’re approaching 2020 pretty quickly and there’s going to be a lot of fun innovations that start off the decade,” proclaims Adam Cohen, a researcher at the Berkeley Transportation Sustainability Research Center.

It might start with a couple of mainland tourists standing on an open-air platform in Honolulu as a warm breeze wafts off the Pacific Ocean. A sleek, driverless four-car train whooshes into the station. As it comes to a stop, train doors and platform gates silently slide open together. The visitors go to the front of the train for an unobstructed view. As the train rolls high above traffic, blue water on one side and green mountains on the other, they might think, “Wow, this is really fun.”
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