Automation in transit: Paris experiments with driverless trains

30 August 2012

As the Paris Métro’s Line 1 enters its final stages of transition from manual to driverless trains, the city looks set to benefit from a safer and more efficient service. Ross Davies talks to RATP’s Constance Lapostolle, Claude Andlauer and Eric Lebrun to learn more about the challenges of integrating new rolling stock and onboard broadband communication services, and the possibility of extending automation to other lines in the future.

The Paris Métro marked a red-letter day on 3 November 2011. In front of a congregation of politicians and dignitaries, Pierre Mongin, chairman and CEO of France's state-owned public transport operator RATP, inaugurated the first batch of driverless trains on its Line 1 service.

As part of RATP's modernisation programme, which was launched in 2000 to replace obsolete equipment dating back to the 1960s, the ultimate goal is to have 49 trains in operation by the end of 2012.

Opened in 1900, Line 1 is not only the oldest on the Métro, but also its busiest, serving approximately 725,000 passengers each day. This figure includes the capital's legions of tourists, who frequent the plethora of world-famous landmarks along the 16.5km route, including the Avenue des Champs-Élysées, Louvre and Arc de Triomphe. By automating the line, and increasing the number of trains in circulation, RATP is hoping to better serve this swell of passenger traffic.

Monitoring and control

It can certainly take heart from the precedent set by Line 14, the Métro's first and only other fully automated line. Opened in 1998 to relieve congestion on the city's busy RER rapid transition system, according to Constance Lapostolle, coordinator of technical feedback on the Line 1 automation project, it has been the benchmark for RATP's latest public service project.

"When Line 14 opened in 1998, it was a great success," she says. "So we started looking into the feasibility of other automated lines on the network. With Line 1 being one of our busiest lines [16 of the 50 stations with the highest traffic volumes are on Line 1], it made sense to update its rolling stock."

The project has seen the overhaul of the line's existing MP89 rolling stock range - first introduced in 1995, it is in the process of being transferred to Line 4 - and its replacement with new MP05 driverless trains, specifically designed for the project.

The MP05 line consists of six-car trains managed by an automated train operation system (SAET). The onboard technology controls the train's movement and speed, while real-time wireless communication services, including video control systems, transfer data from the carriages to an operation control centre (OCC), commissioned in May 2010.

"The project has seen the overhaul of the line’s existing MP89 rolling stock range and its replacement with new MP05 driverless trains."

"As automated trains have no driver or attendants onboard, communication functions are critical," says railways transportation systems division manager Claude Andlauer. "So, we have installed onboard video surveillance, which allows supervisors at the OCC to assess live situations, like if the train needs to be evacuated - although we're hoping this won't happen very often! Intercoms are also installed in the carriage, which allow passengers to make contact with the OCC in case of an emergency."

RATP is hoping that real-time video data monitoring will improve overall passenger safety and security on
the line. It will also be equipped to provide instant notification of maintenance requirements, thus reducing response and repair time, and service downtime.

"There are also cameras on both ends of the train, which is useful for obstacle detection and control," says Andlauer. "And in the event of a train breaking down, images are sent back to the OCC, so that a local supervisor can then intervene in under ten minutes and manually operate the train if need be."

The implementation of digital technology isn't exclusive to the trains. Stations and platforms on the Métro system have also been outfitted with OCC-connected real-time surveillance and security technology, as Lapostolle explains.

"Real-time video control on the station is just as important as on the train," she says, "so the stations are equipped with plenty of cameras, which could prove to be vital if a passenger safety situation were to arise.

"For example, at some stations there is still quite a gap between the train and the platform. With cameras strategically placed, if a passenger gets trapped between the train and platform, he or she will be automatically detected. This in turn sends a signal to supervisors at the OCC, who can monitor the scene and take the right course of action as rapidly as possible."

A gradual process

Impressively, the automation has, thus far, come about without causing any undue interruption to services. In attempting to reach its December goal, RATP continues to introduce two new trains a month. How difficult has it been to overcome the potential pitfalls of phasing in new stock?

"Well, you can't just switch from manual to driverless overnight," says Lapostolle. "It has been a gradual process, with an ongoing dialogue between engineering, operations and maintenance departments."

"It is important to remember that this kind of project hasn't been done before," adds Andlauer. "We have had to create a line in mixed-operation mode with automated and manual trains operating in tandem. To avoid traffic interruptions, work has been conducted at night between 1.30am and 5.30am when the line is closed."

Completed in April 2011, another challenge came in installing the 954 glass doors along the platforms, designed to prevent track intrusion. Given that the majority of platforms are over a century old, many had to have their structures reinforced before the 480kg doors could be fitted.

"In light of the age of the existing infrastructure, it wasn't easy installing the platform-edge barriers," says Line 1 broadcasting systems manager Eric Lebrun. "Some of the platforms are more than 100 years old and just didn't lend themselves to running driverless trains."

Under supervision

The Line 1 automation project, which is said to have cost in the region of €600m, has certainly captured the imagination of fellow international subway authorities. Several foreign delegations have visited the line's central OCC post and are now keenly monitoring the progress of the project as its reaches its denouement.

"While the RATP modernisation programme has pledged to provide new career opportunities for drivers on Line 1, it would be unfeasible to displace an entire section of the Métro’s workforce."

The notion of driverless trains may have gained traction in terms of the world's rapid transit systems - London's Docklands Light Railway (DLR) comes to mind - but RATP isn't planning a complete automation roll-out for all of its Métro lines.

As well as the obvious cost issues, this primarily concerns driver labour agreements. While the RATP modernisation programme has pledged to provide new career opportunities for drivers on Line 1, it would be unfeasible to displace an entire section of the Métro's workforce.

Most of the personnel affected by the latest automation initiative have been given supervisory positions, as Lebrun explains.

"I don't think we'll ever see a day - in the near future, anyway - when the network is entirely driverless," he says "There might be the opportunity to upgrade another line, perhaps, but we as a company need to consider the social implications of automated technology."

Lapostolle agrees. "You can't just say that everything is going to be driverless," she says. "There are also opportunities to modernise a network with driver-based automatic systems. "There's no reason why real-time video control and passenger information onboard services can't be developed on the driver-based lines. The next generation of rolling stock should have these devices, whether they are fully automated or not."

RATP’s operation control centre receives real-time data from the MPO5 carriages.
Passengers travelling on Line 1 – one of the busiest on the whole of the Paris Métro system – will benefit from increased safety and security measures, including real-time video surveillance.

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