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A Rare Non-Tragic Chance to Revisit the Idea of Driverless Trains

This week's Chicago L train crash highlights an area of technology where U.S. transit lags behind.

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Reuters

It usually takes a tragedy of considerable proportions to reopen discussions of train safety in U.S. cities. But this time a mere video might do the trick. By now you may have caught footage of a Chicago blue line L train derailing and barreling up an escalator at the O'Hare station earlier this week, as if auditioning for a Bruce Willis movie. In part because the crash occurred at 3 a.m., and in part by great luck, none of the injuries were life-threatening, according to news reports:

In the aftermath of the crash, much of the focus has been on the driver who evidently fell asleep at the helm (for the second time this year). No word yet on why in this case, but broadly speaking, transit agencies would be wise to review their driver work loads on a regular basis. Driver exhaustion is not uncommon on city transit systems; Portland TriMet recently revamped its overtime rules, largely in response to a great investigative piece by the Oregonian's Joseph Rose.

The L train incident is also a rare fatality-free chance to revisit the idea of driverless trains. Late-night shifts only stand to rise as off-hour transit becomes more popular in U.S. cities. Accidents caused by human error are at the heart of federal legislation for improved "positive train control" technology; at the local level, with wee-hour operation indeed poised to increase, cities might consider the additional step of fully automating their trains.

As Stephen Smith wrote for Cities back in 2012, true driverless transit doesn't really exist in the United States outside of airport trams. But the technology is widely embraced around the world, especially Europe and Asia. Closer to home, Vancouver's SkyTrain serves hundreds of thousands of passengers each weekday without a driver. Even older legacy systems, like the Paris Metro, have shown it's possible to retrofit trains for driverless operation.

The advantages begin with safety; aside from eliminating (or at least dramatically reducing) human error, driverless transit systems free employees to improve crime surveillance in cars and on platforms. But efficiency should be just as much a part of the conversation. Much of the money that systems save on paying drivers can also go toward increasing train frequency — especially in the off hours and weekends — which in turn will generate new ridership and revenue.

Transit unions predictably oppose any move to driverless systems. That debate is playing out right now in London, where Mayor Boris Johnson recently approved plans to order driverless trains for the Underground subway. But it's possible to retain many workers in other capacities, and at the end of the day the unions are fighting a losing battle against technology. Far better to expand job options for members than pretend things will always stay the same.

U.S. cities weighing the idea of driverless transit might turn their attention to Honolulu. Construction is underway there on a 20-mile, 21-station rapid transit system featuring fully automated trains. It's expected to open in 2017, and could be a model for other American metros to follow.

We tend to reserve transportation safety discussions for the aftermath of tragedy. This week is a chance to have one with a clearer conscience. It's certainly not an easy subject. Despite big efficiency advantages, the initial cost of driverless transit is enormous — prohibitive for many cities. And despite the reduction of human error, there's no guarantee of perfection. Fortunately, very few people die in U.S. rail accidents as it is. And even fewer escalators.

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