The new hotness today comes from the unlikely place of the office of City Councillor David Oh (R-At Large), who told free-tabloid Metro yesterday that South Korean company TIS Inc. wants to install platform screen doors on the Market-Frankford and Broad Street Lines.
Platform screen doors (PSDs) are an old and mature safety technology in Asia and Europe, but they have yet to see a major deployment in the United States, apart from a handful of airport circulators and the Las Vegas Monorail. (The Honolulu Metro, under construction, will open with them in 2017.) They often go hand-in-hand with driverless systems, since PSDs require a signaling system that can stop the train in exactly the same spot (to within an inch or two) every single time, and also remove the possibility of a person falling, jumping, or being pushed onto the tracks, which removes the necessity of having a person watching out to apply a (probably futile) emergency brake. In addition to the obvious and well-promoted safety features, PSDs also keep trash and detritus off the tracks, which SEPTA would otherwise have to remove during the off-hours, or risk having it become fuel for a third-rail-sparked track fire. In addition to the increases in reliability, PSDs also allow for more aggressive train-handling, which shaves time off of the schedule and makes everyone’s trip faster.
TIS’s pitch to SEPTA is that they will install PSDs on SEPTA’s platforms gratis, in exchange for the right to sell advertising on the doors to recoup their investment. If this is true, even in broad outlines, then SEPTA should be looking to sign on the dotted line as fast as it can find a pen. Because if subway frequencies are uncoupled from labor costs, then SEPTA can run trains as frequently as the signal system permits, throughout the service day. Other writers, including Jarrett Walker and Emily Washington, have delved into the link between driverless operation, high frequency (especially high off-peak frequency), and higher ridership, but suffice it to say that having a train that shows up every 5 minutes or less is pretty much the ideal scenario for transit. And if TIS weren’t offering to foot the bill, and there weren’t a slew of other things SEPTA needed to take care of before they break (trolleys, trains, bridges and viaducts, substations), I’d rank PSD installation as a strong candidate for #1 Capital Budget Priority.
The devil, of course, will be in the details. The signal systems on the Subway and El might need upgrades to be compatible with automated operation, as might the control systems on board the M-4 and B-IV fleets. There is also the slim chance that the system turns out to be buggy or just a lemon, like the CBTC system installed by AdTranz in the Subway-Surface tunnel years ago. If that happens, which is unlikely, but possible, SEPTA would need an exit clause to tear out or replace the PSDs, without getting sued for TIS’s expected revenue from future advertisements. Speaking of advertisements, some people will hate them, but they’re for a good cause, and are hardly as disruptive as renaming an entire station.
TWU 234 will also be a stumbling block, insofar as they can be expected to object to anything that is potentially the first step to automating any of their members out of a job. However, automation, even driverless operation in daily service, does not mean the elimination of all train driver positions. For example: trips in, out, and within train yards are typically always handled by humans. Also, TWU leadership might want to talk to veteran operators among their rank-and-file about the psychological toll of being at the controls of a train involved in a passenger fatality incident. Mostly, it will be worth whatever fight SEPTA and its riders have to wage with the TWU, to get to driverless operation. I hope it won’t require much of a fight, but if it should even precipitate a strike, so be it. PSDs are the best improvement SEPTA can make for itself, its workers, and (most importantly), the public it serves.