TTC's decades-old subway trains, most which date from the 1970s, will soon be replaced with shiny new trains by 2020. However, it's not just the trains that are being replaced. Much like their counterpart the self driving car, a new automated signalling system that can run without human input will drastically improve the lives of Toronto commuters. Below's an overview of the TTC project, highlighting the advantages of replacing our current system with an automatic train control system.
The current system
The TTC's current signalling system is a fixed-block system. In this system, the track is divided into "blocks", in which the status of the blocks are shown along the track using signals similar to traffic lights.
A control center monitors each signal—ranging from caution to buffer, and occupied to open—where the train has to wait for two or more blocks to clear before proceeding. The reason for this is because the system cannot pinpoint the location of a train within a block, so additional blocks are used as buffer zones to ensure a safe distance between trains.
Due to the large buffer that keeps the trains well apart, the number of trains that can be put through the tunnel is limited. As a consequence, passengers would have to wait longer to board a train than they would have if the trains operated more closely.
The new system
Compared to the current system, the new system called communications-based train control (CBTC) can run more trains per hour. You can think of this system as an auto-pilot of an aircraft: The train can maintain a safe speed and double-check its position for each stretch of the track all by itself.
Unlike the current system, the trains can communicate their precise location on a track in a CBTC system. A variable buffer is established around each train, where it's longer at high speed and shorter when moving slowly. That way, the trains can operate more closely together while still keeping the requisite safety.
The CBTC system can accurately determine the location, independent of track circuits, using a bi-directional communication link. Whenever a train passes over a beacon on the track, it passes on its speed, location and braking distance, via antennal to a control centre where all train systems throughout the system are coordinated.
The data from each train is processed by the central computers, which makes real-time adjustments of speed and braking, allowing for safe train separation.
Plans for 2020
According to TTC's website, the transit agency plans to upgrade its decades-old signalling system, including the entire Yonge-University-Spadina line by 2020. In fact, the system is already in place on the new extension of Line 1, which opened on December 17.
Replacing the subway infrastructure is a big project involving numerous subway closures, to allow for crews to install new cables, trackside signalling equipment or special track work in the tunnels. So commuters can expect more subway closures in the near future.
What would this mean for Toronto commuters
With an automatic train control system, TTC trains can run about 32 trains per hour, compared to the current maximum of about 25. This would mean less crowding and wait time.
Here are some additional benefits:
Increased safety—Automating the train speed and distance between each trains with real-time data allows for precision and eliminates human errors.
Travel time improvements—Automatic train control systems drastically reduce travel time as trains travel as close to the civil speed limit as possible.
Lower operating costs—Train electricity usage will become much more efficient.
The future of transit systems
Commuting in Toronto will become less painful once the new TTC automated control systems are implemented. Not only will this improve the lives of commuters, this will also help lower operating costs for the city. This is because only driver will be needed instead of two, even though the trains could operate without human input. Human labour will also be needed for maintaining these automated signalling systems (like automation technicians for example).
The future of transportation is automated, and now is an exciting time to be a part of this transition.