Platform Screen Doors NOW

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.

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    1. City Council tends to not have much to do with SEPTA, as SEPTA is a state agency with minimal financial support from the city. (Actual photo ops and ribbon-cuttings are, of course, well-attended. SEPTA also tends to handle its own PR in-house, and unlike other agencies (NJ Transit, New York MTA) tends to not attach the names of politicians to its news unless those politicians actually made direct actions, like drafting or signing legislation, that led directly to the positive development (e.g. Governor Corbett, not normally named in SEPTA press releases, got a lot of name-checking in the immediate aftermath of the signing of Act 89).

  1. Platform safety doors are a nice touch, but they’re a maintenance nightmare. They involve very large, moving doors that have to open and shut quickly so that the trains aren’t delayed and continue to be able to move thousands of customers. When I was in Paris, I noticed that a couple of the lines have the PSDs, and there were malfunctioning platform doors on several platforms. That’s not so bad for the person on the platform, since you can move to another door, but it’s a real problem for the passengers inside the train.

    Yes, every human life is precious, but the main reason to install PSDs is to prevent suicides or people being pushed onto the tracks. The trash really isn’t an issue, and it certainly has nothing to do with how the trains are operated, because train operators don’t arrive in stations any slower because they think someone might jump. For Philadelphia and other US transit systems, this really sounds like a very expensive solution in search of a problem. Yes, TIS might very well install the doors and maintain them for a while, but what happens when TIS pulls out? Or if they get bought? Or any number of other potential occurrences? Philadelphia is left with an expensive, maintenance-intensive platform-door system.

    Maybe the displaced operators could be trained to be PSD maintenance people.

    In any event, Washington has a system that can be operated without operators; the trains operate automatically today, and the operators only make announcements and open and close the doors. Those two functions can certainly be automated. But it’s good to have a employee on a heavily used subway train. It’s good to have eyes and ears and a point of contact on a crowded train that makes multiple stops.

    1. I’m worried about the door maintenance too, but I’d hesitate to call them a “nightmare”, even in the worst case; the door failure rate should be on the same order of magnitude as door failures on the trains themselves. Even if I mentally double the number of times I encounter a broken subway door every year, I’m still not counting higher than I have fingers. It’s true, though, that trains can be taken out of service and substituted for while being repaired, assuming that anyone calls it in (reporting things like that to maintenance is my favorite feature of the @SEPTA_SOCIAL Twitter account), while platform doors have to be repaired in-place. Actually, the door maintenance issue is a strong argument in favor of aggressively reducing consist size in the off-peak hours, to reduce the wear on the moving parts of the doors.

      There’s one benefit to PSDs I didn’t mention in the main text: it increases the area on the platform that can be used/occupied safely. At many stations, but especially City Hall BSL, every square foot counts. I know I navigate the platform at City Hall very gingerly, and even so still feel slightly unsafe there.

  2. I’m not sure if we need platform doors for automated trains here. The platforms are not ever particularly crowded, so it’s easy to stay away from the edge. I think if we were really worried about safety, there are many more accidents on the streets than there are on rail tracks.

    I would say maybe they are useful in New York, where people throw a lot of garbage onto the tracks, and from what I hear, the track fires are a major cause of delays. For some mind-boggling reason (Philadelphians don’t litter as much? No, that can’t be it…), the el/subway tracks in Philadelphia are relatively free from litter.

    I remember seeing platform doors on some lines in Tokyo (I think on the Tama monorail and maybe the Marunouchi line?), but not on the most crowded ones (Yamanote, Yokosuka etc.). People jump in front of trains all the time there; it’s a daily occurrence and probably the biggest cause of what few delays there are over there. But yet, they don’t seem to be in a rush to install them everywhere. And of course most train service in Tokyo is already much more frequent than we will ever see here.

    But besides that, I think Oh must be embellishing what this Korean company wants to do. Installing platform doors would be pretty expensive, and SEPTA is not seeing that much demand for advertising as it is. I suspect it’s not a serious offer.

    So I can’t say it’s a bad idea, but it seems very unlikely and not so useful to me.

  3. There are a few major problems with this proposal – 1 the advertising. SEPTA has a contract for advertising exclusive with Titan. Any ad revenue in SEPTA stations is managed by that third party already. 2. Putting the cart before the horse. The key is automation, and I am not sure why we should put money in the trappings of automation before automation actually happens. This looks more like fancy toy than a real improvement

    1. I don’t think the Titan contract should pose a dealbreaking problem. I doubt strongly that TIS has any interest in managing the ad sales themselves, as a small enterprise on another continent with a different cultural milieu. I would imagine Titan would still be handling the day-to-day operations of the ad spaces, but that after Titan takes its cut, it would then pass the rest of the money on to TIS instead of SEPTA.

      Automation is not an overnight process. Paris began retrofitting Ligne 1 for automation in 2007, but didn’t start running automated trains until 2012. I think getting PSDs installed first is the exact opposite of “putting the cart before the horse”.

  4. Ads are less disruptive than renaming a station? What? How in what way? Ads are extremely disruptive, especially in a subway station where there is nothing else to catch your attention, so they are not just distracting, but they take advantage of subway riders who have not much else to look at. If they are on platform screen doors, that makes them even more in-your-face. For this reason, I have mixed feelings about this idea… it has huge benefits, and ad revenue is pretty much a requirement for public transportation to operate, but ads in subway stations are pretty much the worst kind of ads.

    Jefferson Station is hardly disruptive… it’s a fine name. It’s a historical figure and it even marks the location (the station is right by Jefferson). I think it’s a huge improvement from Market East, which isn’t much of a name. And most importantly, no one is trying to sell you a product. If you’re going to go to Jefferson, it’s not because you saw the name on a subway map.

    1. I’m not against the station renaming either, in fact I quite like it. That doesn’t mean I get to pretend it’s free and effortless for SEPTA to swap out every system map it has posted. Nor is it painless for local businesses and residents (and their visitors), whose long-ago published or memorized directions are now obsolete and invalid; unlike SEPTA, none of them are receiving any compensation from Jefferson for their trouble.

      Advertising, especially video advertising, may be more disruptive at the point of installation (video screens interact particularly badly with my ADHD, so I know exactly how bad they can be), but station renamings cause problems over a much, much broader span.

      1. You’re doing the same thing you did in the other thread: going way too much into details that don’t matter to the average individual. I’m assuming “the point of installation” is an unnecessarily convoluted way to say “the customers waiting at the platform”, who are probably the most important people when we’re talking about how disruptive these things are. I agree about those annoyances about the Jefferson Station name change, but those are small problems that are easily fixed; ads in subway stations will always be there, forcing people to look at them and read them as they wait for the train. They are by far the single most disruptive, albeit financially necessary, aspect of transit.

        1. Well, ultimately, thinking hard about details is what I do here, and it’s unlikely to stop anytime soon. Just a question of if I’m doing it well or badly at the time. :-/

          I think you and I are going to have to agree to disagree on the definition of “most disruptive”.

  5. Completely incorrect and BS that the system in the trolley tunnel is a lemon. It works very well. SEPTA is hush hush for many reasons. So you just make up BS like you know what’s going on to think you know something. Better off just not saying anything. The authority kinda knows what it’s doing.

    1. It works now, after years of it hammering throughput capacity through the tunnel. The issues were well-documented. Things got especially bad after August 2008 when they turned the CBTC system on during rush hours. Initial installation was in 2005, if I remember correctly. CBTC was off-peak only until then, until a low-speed collision at Juniper Street forced a reluctant SEPTA to turn it on 24/7. They knew it wasn’t ready for prime time.

      Interesting that you think I’m laying the blame for that failure at SEPTA’s feet, since I’m usually one of their stronger supporters. I would think that the party that comes out worst in this story is ABB AdTranz Bombardier Transportation for giving us the terrible system in the first place. SEPTA management of the day (this story bridges the Faye Moore and Joe Casey eras) did the best they could out of a bad hand and a short chip stack. And SEPTA got a lot of valuable hard experience out of the whole episode, which has served it well in subsequent purchase agreements. So yes, “the authority kinda knows what it’s doing”, because they learned what not to do in the last decade. The ability to learn those types of lessons, and then keep the knowledge alive (so far, at least), is why I’m proud to have them as my transit agency.

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