February 2, 2009
New Driverless Transit Technologies in 2009
By HAL LINDSEY
The year ahead will be one of challenge and opportunity. The economic challenges we are all experiencing will be offset in part by a renewed focus on public transit and infrastructure renewal that we expect will open the floodgates of federal support for worthy public transit projects.
One major challenge for Fiscal Year 2009 will be the prioritization of those worthy projects—a burden and privilege that rests on the shoulders of the new Federal Transit Administrator and his or her staff, but one that we can help them carry.
Our challenge as an industry is to bring projects to the forefront that are viable from the aspects of political will and mandate, dedicated funding sources for capital and O&M, technical and environmental soundness, sustainability, and fit within the fabric of long range regional transportation plans.
Driverless transit systems of all sizes—from rapid transit systems to feeder lines to circulation systems—are poised to further the goals of public transportation and energy conservation in the coming years. As such, one of the top priorities of 2009 should be to take advantage of the technological and economic benefits of driverless transit systems.
Able to operate with a higher frequency of service and better safety record than manually driven systems, driverless transit systems can carry more passengers per hour with a lower operating cost per passenger. This innate ability will help address our current predicament: public transit is carrying record numbers of passengers but the unfortunate fiscal problems associated with diminished tax revenues hinder any growth in service to meet this demand.
Some of the largest public transit authorities in the world have embraced the advantages of driverless transit systems sized to meet passenger demand.
In Asia, the Land Transport Authority in Singapore has built, and is continuing to build, driverless rapid transit systems for line haul needs and driverless automated guideway transit systems for lower-capacity feeder and circulator lines. These feeder and circulator lines extend the reach of the rapid transit system, not only in the areas served, but also through the use of frequent service and convenient transfers.
Development and land use policies in Singapore, the second most densely populated country in the world, are designed to enhance the use of public transit and vice versa. The result is public transit modal share that currently exceeds 60 percent during the morning peak hour trips and a public transit system that is profitable. In fact, the stock of SMRT, the integrated and multi-modal public transit operator in Singapore, is publicly traded.
By 2020, the Land Transport Authority hopes to surpass its goal of making 70 percent of all morning peak hour trips occur on public transit. This goal will in part be accomplished by doubling its current 85-mile-long rail transit system, which carries more than 1.6 million passengers on an average weekday. Numerous other examples exist in Asia and Europe. For example, manually driven rapid transit lines in Paris have been retrofitted for driverless service.
Vancouver, BC—where the first driverless rapid transit system in North America entered service in 1986—is another good example. Again, with very deliberate and close coordination of land use policies and a region-wide approach to intermodal transportation, the rapid transit system has flourished.
Today, TransLink’s Expo and Millennium lines total more than 30 route-miles with 33 stations and carry some 170,000 passengers on an average weekday. Another driverless line, the 11.7-mile Canada Line, is scheduled to open later this year, while design and construction will start on a fourth driverless line, the 6.8-mile Evergreen Line.
A Variety of Options
The fact that a transit system is driverless does not mean it will be successful; the formula for success is obviously much more complex. Nor does driverless transit technology make sense for every transit need. We are fortunate as transit professionals that our “solution toolbox” has a wide range of technologies to choose from. Where a grade-separated system is the right choice for a corridor or area, driverless transit technology should be considered without bias.
The successful demonstration and installation of communications-based train control in the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s Market Street Tunnel, in New York, and in other cities is a start. That being said, we have much to learn in the United States about the right application of driverless transit technology.
The new era dawning in 2009 will give us numerous opportunities to apply fresh thinking to old and new problems alike. May that be the case as we bring viable projects to the forefront for consideration, evaluation, and implementation.