Paris Shows How to Automate a Subway

Conversion of Line 1 to automatic operation will occur without shutting down service.

Paris’ Métro Line 1 carries 725,000 passengers a day and has been the city’s most heavily trafficked line since it opened in 1900. Yet continual ridership increases have made congestion a mounting problem, so the city is working on automating the line to augment capacity. Some trains will run without drivers beginning next year, and full conversion will be complete in 2012. The city’s process to convert the line provides an example to other cities with old systems needing to substantially improve operations.

The conversion process began in 2007 with the commencement of work to redo platforms to assure that trains line up correctly. Last March, Bérault station was equipped with automatic platform doors six feet tall that open and close with the arrival and departure of trainsets. These doors, which align with train doors, are standard on new automatic subways around the world, and ensure that passengers make it into the trains; trains cannot depart unless both vehicle and platform doors are entirely closed. The lack of conductor means that the system must be designed to be safe and almost fail-proof.

By summer of next year, all stations on the line will be equipped with the doors; the transit authority installs two doors a night on each platform without disrupting service whatsoever. The use of these platform walls has a number of benefits: reduced delays, far less trash on the tracks, and suicide prevention.

New trains similar to those used on the decade-old automated Line 14 will be brought into operation beginning at the end of next year and slowly replace the existing trainsets, which will be moved to other lines in the system. This means that Line 1 will have both automatic and driver-operated trains operating simultaneously for a year and a half. The primary advantage of the decision to install trains gradually is that it means the system never has to be shut down and it provides a testing period during which problems with the automated system can be compensated by replacing automatic train service with vehicles operated by drivers.

Paris’ investment in a faster, more reliable Line 1 is part of its overall renewal operation, which has been underway for the past ten years. The city has renovated virtually all of its stations since 1999 and is in the process of replacing the majority of its train fleet. The city’s confidence in an automated train system has been confirmed by the success of Line 14, which has been highly popular and suffered few technical difficulties since it opened in 1998. The city’s planned radial circumferential rapid transit line will be completely automated when it opens in 2020.

The French city’s experience demonstrates that a conversion process doesn’t have to be intrusive. New York’s attempt at automating its L Train, a process that began in 1997, has been plagued by repeated delays, and the system still doesn’t function properly.

The key to success on Line 1 in Paris is its staging. The computer-operated control system necessary for trains to move without drivers was installed earlier in the decade. Stations are being renewed one-by-one, and will include necessary devices to improve automation, including the platform doors which New York won’t have. Finally, driverless trains are being incorporated into the system one by one over a relatively long period, meaning that problems can be squeezed out over time. Managers of other older systems should attempt to emulate Paris.

17 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • KansasNate

    My question is how do you get the transit unions to accept automation? They see it as a threat to their job security and I imagine would fight it tooth and nail unless all jobs were preserved — which sort of defeats the purpose of automation.

  • Sean

    I am sure the Parisian metro system came to an agreement with its union concerning employment levels.

    Once again, leave it to the rest of the world to show the United States how to innovate and effectively run a mass transit system.

    Most mass transit systems in the U.S. don’t have enough money to maintain, let alone upgrade, their stations.

  • Ian Leighton

    i have seen one exception to the platform doors, from the innovative lyonnais…

    lyon’s metro ligne D uses some sort of infrared sensors on the tracks near stations to detect if anything falls onto the tracks, and will consequently stop a train. i’m not sure why they did this instead of putting in platform doors (possibly graffiti, or other æsthetic reasons) but it works. seems like platform doors would be safer though.

    in any case, sitting at the front of the train and watching blue lights in the tunnel approach is an eerie and fun plus.

  • You neglected to mention that the Paris Metro shuts down every night for several hours. The New York subway runs 24/7.

    However, this actually proves your point, because in NY, subway service on entire lines is frequently suspended, sometimes for days at a time, during signal, station and/or track work.

  • Bravo. I would love to read more about the labour relations issue surrounding this change. I haven’t been back to France for years, but when I lived there in the 80s and 90s the transit strike was a fairly routine civic ritual.

    Yonah, you refer to the new Périphérique transit plan as “radial”. Don’t you mean circumferential or orbital?

  • NV

    I have to second Cap’n Transit’s point about the NY subway. Weekend reroutings make everyone mad, but what’s the alternative on a 24hr system? I’d much rather have 24hr NY than always be worrying about pumpkin hour as in Paris and London, and pretty much the rest of the world.

  • Chris G

    The NYC system leaves SO much to be desired. But my first complaint anywhere else in the world is when the trains shut down for the night.

    NYC needs to put doors along the platform for many reasons. But the most important to users is that you can then air condition the platforms.

    NYC needs to have displays of the next coming trains.

    There are others but those are two of the big ones.

    But above all, NYC has 24 hour service and that is huge. So as much as NYC wastes time and money studying things that work extremely well everywhere else in the world, the world can learn something from us too.

  • The only reason 24-hour service works in New York is the express tracks, which enable running trains around maintenance sites at night. Two-track systems can’t do that, and not coincidentally, New York’s two-track lines, the L and the 7, are really messed up on some weekends, with entire sections shut down or reduced to 20-minute headways.

  • jon

    i’m interested in how automating a subway line improves farebox recovery. it would seem to me that some existing subway lines could be profitable without the expense of operators making $100,000+/year opening and closing the doors.

  • Alex

    Does anyone know how Vancouver’s SkyTrain works? It is automated, but does not have platform gates.

  • Jon, automation costs money in software installation, testing, fail-safe systems, and rolling stock upgrades. The salaries you save aren’t material – if you automate the 1 train, you can expect to save about $10 million a year in labor costs, assuming all engineers and conductors are laid off instead of redistributed. The total ridership of the 1 per year is about 140,000,000, which translates to annual revenues of $260 million, 26 times what you’d save if automation cost nothing.

    In other words: it’s completely unnecessary.

  • Minato

    In reality Paris line 1 carried 213 millions passengers in 2008.
    About 750,000 per workdays.

  • Ocean Railroader

    I like them having people driving them in that a computer system can be hacked in from any where by anyone or short out. Also crime too if there is no one with the railroad on the train people will be more willing to start fights with one another or rip the place apart.

  • To clarify: when I said 1 line, I meant New York’s, not Paris’s.

  • prabhu

    How could they prevent the potentially major social conflict that might result from downsizing the drivers’ positions? (Automating Paris Subway)

  • prabhu

    How could they prevent the potentially major social conflict that might result from downsizing the drivers’ positions? (Automating the Paris Subway)

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