Automating the Paris Metro

Even in a country that's long prided itself on its trains, the Paris Métro stands out. It's fast, easy to navigate, clean, inexpensive and, with 16 lines serving 297 stations, remarkably dense—leading many transport experts to consider it the world's premier metro. Since the first few lines entered service at the turn of the 20th century, the Métro has grown into a 218-kilometer network that carries 1.36 billion passengers a year. A train sweeps through the 25 stations of Ligne 1, the city's busiest, every 105 seconds. Paris's Métro authority, the RATP, is apparently not satisfied. Last summer it began an ambitious effort to slice 20 seconds off train headway time and increase rolling speed. It plans to do it by automating the entire line—eliminating drivers and replacing them with computers.

Paris is not the first city to install a driverless metro line—30 or so cities, such as Ankara, Copenhagen and Vancouver, already have automated lines, and 20 more are under construction. But these lines were built from scratch. What makes the Paris Métro's effort so extraordinary is that it's planning on renovating the line's aged infrastructure—replacing switches and control networks and so forth—without so much as a single day of downtime. Engineering work must be limited to four hours each night when the Métro is closed. "This is a world first," says Yves Ramette, the RATP's head of rolling stock and leader of the conversion. The $150 million project, to be finished in 2010, is expected to boost passenger capacity by a third, cut operating costs by a third, and pay for itself in 10 years.

The RATP and its industrial partners are in a lead position for contracts to automate metro networks worldwide. Paris engineers are acquiring expertise in the art of replacing old cables, computerizing tracks with sensors that exchange data with the trains they carry, reinforcing rails to handle higher speeds, installing new signal equipment and tunnel cameras, and building operation-control rooms. This know-how is already generating consulting fees from 10 or so other metropolitan authorities. Late last year, the RATP and its engineering firms signed agreements to build and operate automated metro lines in Rome and São Paulo, which would be Latin America's first driverless line. Barcelona's metro authority, Transports Metropolitans de Barcelona, plans to automate its Línia 2, a major 17-station line, also without stopping traffic. Ramón Malla, a TMB line manager, says the "technologically mind-blowing" engineering in Paris is now the world's "most avant-garde, innovative challenge" in urban transportation. "Success in Paris will be a reference for all of us," he says. "Everybody is eager for the results." About 40 percent of all metro systems worldwide will likely choose to automate sometime in the next 13 years, according to the Brussels-based International Association of Public Transport (UITP).

The "big bonus" of automation is eliminating drivers, says David Briginshaw, editor in chief of the International Railway Journal. Not only are human drivers expensive, but they don't adapt well to traffic fluctuations. Bringing in additional drivers from other lines—or from home on a day off—is slow and strongly resisted by employees and their union officials, making it difficult to rapidly "inject" trains during passenger surges. With automated lines, "press a button, and instead of 10 trains, now I've got 15—that's valuable," says Albert Busquets, the head of a UITP commission studying the conversion of lines to automated operation. Small wonder that officials from the conductors union delayed the project for two years until reaching an agreement last year. Hiring will likely be frozen, but the RATP will shift most current employees to other jobs, such as assisting boarding passengers.

Platform agents may help reassure jittery passengers, but RATP officials are convinced that people will get used to the driverless systems. For one thing, they may be safer. Since automated trains always stop at the same spot, the RATP will be able to install high glass façades on platform edges to keep passengers from stumbling or being pushed onto the tracks. The façades will also keep fleeing thieves, graffiti artists and homeless people from entering tunnels, and is expected to reduce suicides: about 60 people throw themselves onto the tracks each year. That was a key point in persuading drivers and their union to accept the renovation project—and help keep Paris in the lead.