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Metro testing automatic train operation next month

Thursday - 1/9/2014, 6:07pm  ET

WASHINGTON -- More than four years after a fatal Red Line crash, Metro is getting closer to resume automatic train operation, one of the key components of automatic train control.

In basic terms, the automatic train control is a system of circuits, signals and other equipment that relay signals to track every train and ensure two trains do not collide. It has two key subsystems, automatic train prevention and automatic train operation. The latter allows the train to maintain a smooth and consistent speed that keeps it spaced far enough away from trains in front and behind it. The former helps slow down, or even slam the brakes, when a train gets too close to another train in front of it.

Investigators found the fatal 2009 occurred when the system didn't recognize a train near Fort Totten, sending another train crashing into the back of it.

Since then, Metro has aggressively replaced older circuits made in the 1980s and the older 1000 series cars with new 7000 series cars.

While automatic train control has been always working, trains were switched to manual operation after the crash. In 2014, train operators still manually operate trains.

However next month, Metro plans to begin testing the operation subsystem during the overnight hours. It is the first step towards returning passenger trains to automatic operation.

"It's not only about a safer operation, but it's a smoother operation for the passengers. When we went to manual operation, people were complaining that the stops were a little too short, that the accelerations were a little too quick. That is done away with in automatic train operation," says Metro General Manager Richard Sarles.

He would not offer a timeline on when passengers can expect Metro to switch back to automatic mode, saying he didn't want to rush the job to meet a publicly announced deadline. Metro will meet with the National Safety Transportation Board in March to discuss a safety systems analysis on the entire system. The NTSB made several recommendations after the 2009 crash to improve the system and replace older trains.

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