TMB: four years of operating three automated lines
In December 2009, Transports Metropolitans de Barcelona (TMB) began operating its first automated metro line, subsequently adding two more in the months that followed. The past four years have proved to be an excellent experience for TMB as an operator, demonstrating that opting for automated lines as well as evolving the organisational model were absolutely the right decisions to improve customer satisfaction. This article provides a review of the four-year operational experience as a whole from various perspectives, starting with a brief introduction of Barcelona’s automated lines, continuing with a performance comparison to conventional lines, and subsequently moving on to analyse the service from a customer and employee perspective.
A commitment to automation
Barcelona’s automation journey began a number of years ago, specifically around the early-2000s. The idea of opting for an automated line came along with the development of the construction project for a new line. However, this was not destined to be just another line; its scale, covering a distance of almost 50km, would make it one of the longest metro projects in the world. Its impact on the existing metropolitan area transport network was also a significant consideration, as in defining the characteristics of the new line, Barcelona was actually deciding the future of its metro service, since the line would account for more than half of the city’s entire network, which at that time was only 86km-long.
L9 and L10: two new automated lines
The new line would play a key role in the city’s mobility due to its length, and also its route, which would need to connect key points within the city and therefore meet high transportation demands (airport, trade fair, university, football stadiums, etc.), in addition to the fact that almost half its stations would have connections with other metro or railway lines. These characteristics clearly emphasised an automated line’s flexibility in adapting supply to demand, and this was a crucial factor in the decision.
Moreover, the line was planned to have a unique route, passing from one side of the city to the other, with the addition of two branch lines at each end, which only added to the complexity of the operation – a complexity that automation would be able to mitigate.
The L9-L10 is further characterised by a unique infrastructure, both in its tunnel and its stations. The main length of the tunnel features two levels for circulation separated by an intermediate cement floor with ramps connecting the two levels. In addition, the stations are very deep, in some cases descending to almost 70m. This project held other technological challenges, such as being one of the first radio-based CBTC implementations for a heavy metro line, or a full-featured train SCADA system for real-time monitoring and recovery of on-board disruptions, to name a few. As stated above, this long automated line was commercially conceived as two different lines for easy customer reference: L9 and L10, which basically corresponded to each of the branches sharing a common central section. Eleven kilometres of L9 and L10 are currently in operation, featuring 12 stations, an automated depot area and an integrated OCC for automated and conventional lines. Construction continues, albeit slowed down by the economic crisis of recent years.
In summary, TMB not only faced the challenge of fully automated operation, but also, because of its infrastructure, a new line concept. The criterion was, therefore, to understand automation beyond the circulation of trains and also address ‘station automation’ in order to enhance customer experience with more efficient operation. This required a specific project management methodology with a roadmap that would allow this broader vision to be addressed.
L11 – a pioneering conversion project
TMB’s commitment to automation is deeply rooted and extends beyond the addition of the new L9 and L10 lines, with the city of Barcelona deciding to take on a conventional line conversion project at the same time. L11 also began operating in automated mode in December 2009, just a few weeks after the first section of L9 was opened.
L11 is 2.3km-long and has five stations. In addition to it being short in length, L11 provided the correct framework for a pioneering conversion project that would act as a test-bed for future line conversions throughout Barcelona’s metro network.
Since L11 was already in operation, the running of the current service alongside the technical activities in progress while minimising their impact was a big challenge. The installation of the platform screen doors was vital in this regard, due to its notable impact on the existing infrastructure and its effectiveness in meeting the integration requirements for the signalling and the train. Of course, the rigorous testing, performed at night outside hours of operation, was another one of the most difficult challenges which had to be overcome.
The budget plans required to phase out the conversion project with a first stage of driverless operation (GOA3). The actual implementation in fact exceeds the characteristics of a pure
GOA3 system, as the personnel on the train are totally focused on customer services and system availability, being freed from repetitive tasks, even at the time of boarding the train, when train doors and platform screen doors are automatically closed without manual intervention.
A three-dimensional assessment
As a metro network operator with conventional and automated lines, TMB is able to compare the performance levels of both. Today, after three years, the automated line performance is without doubt superior to that of the conventional ones. The indicators of periods of service interruption provide impressive results, with the automated line concept’s high level of reliability being unequivocally demonstrated.
It has also become clear in recent years that there are fewer technical incidents on an automated line, although we must also acknowledge that the complexity of incident resolution may be higher. To mitigate this potential complexity, first response recovery and accurate diagnosis is key, the new operational roles being instrumental here, both at the control centre and on the line itself. A new approach to maintenance is obviously required, especially on those systems related to driverless operation. According to TMB experience, integration and coordination between maintenance experts and operations personnel in the field is crucial.
TMB has been convinced since embarking on this process that an automated line would require an appropriate organisational model capable of addressing the differences that automation would involve. A model that would maximise the advantages that technology could offer on a driverless line.
Despite the current number of automated lines in the world, there are still very few conventional network operators that have gone down the road of automated lines. That number was even less in the early-2000s. For a metro network operator wanting to add an automated line, as was TMB’s case, it means initially drawing on previous experience from the conventional network.
One of the most complex challenges in an automation project is the organisational aspect, and, conscious of this, TMB opted to face that head-on from the start. The problem was approached like a change management process, requiring time – years, in fact – but the outcome was a positive one. All areas of the company and the unions were involved. The result was a new organisational model, specific to TMB’s automated lines.
The automated line was seen as an opportunity to define TMB’s future metro service concept and a broad approach covering all business areas was therefore developed. This process of organisational reflection also acted to promote change in the conventional network and was instrumental in the evolution of the conventional network model.
TMB’s automated line model has a different organisational structure throughout all its levels.
One common aspect worth mentioning given its critical nature, however, is the fact that there is only one employee role being performed in the field, that of ‘Operation Technician’. Besides having their own operational roles, these employees also have a high degree of technical knowledge. Since the trains do not require on-board personnel, Operation Technicians’ are free to move between stations and trains, ensuring an appropriate disruption response time.
The model has been consolidated over the past four years of operation. The positive results obtained regarding line availability are due, in large part, to an efficient organisation response as a combination of immediate remote actions from the OCC with field tasks performed by Operation Technicians, when incidents occur. The indicators that illustrate motivation levels throw up some interesting facts – for example, the much reduced level of absenteeism on automated lines as compared to conventional ones.
A common concern in many of those cities for which an automated line is being proposed is what people’s perception will be of trains with no employees on-board. Long-term communication activities were developed in Barcelona, as this was also one of the areas of concern. Any such doubts were dispelled in the first weeks of operation and the driverless lines were fully accepted by the city’s residents. Now, three years later, we can categorically say that the passengers have totally assimilated these new lines into their travel experience.
Again our privileged position of being able to draw comparisons between our conventional and automated lines enables us to observe a higher level of customer satisfaction on the automated services. It is important to mention that this level of satisfaction was obtained under circumstances where not only driverless trains were in operation, but some of the stations also featured a number of automated functions, such as ticketing, station opening and closure, and so on.
Moreover, the customer has a different perception of the roles performed by employees. They see them moving around different parts of the line and this contributes to a sense of proximity and availability with regard to customer service, which is crucial in obtaining these positive results.
During the L11 conversion project passengers were affected by the installation of the platform screen doors. This meant that our customers were involved in this process of transformation on a daily basis. That experience certainly contributed to a more positive reaction when the results could finally be seen and customers found that the train fulfilled all its functions without any staff intervention. Periodic surveys carried out over recent years have demonstrated customer satisfaction.
One aspect to emerge from TMB’s experience is the importance of the passenger information systems. Customers seem to raise their expectations with regard to automated lines and therefore the appropriate level of technical and operational capability is required to meet them. That is especially true on the few occasions an incident occurs.
Finally, according to TMB automation know-how, in order to fulfil the goals for the three perspectives presented, the project management for line development should integrate the operational perspective from the very early stages – an aspect that is commonly overlooked when only targeting the technical issues.
The past four years of operation have provided highly positive results. We believe that TMB’s approach as an operator is a key factor in this, understanding automation as a concept that goes beyond the technology, putting particular emphasis on the organisational aspect, with a comprehensive and integrated vision of the functionalities required from the different systems. In Barcelona we now cannot imagine the future of a metro without the concept of automation, obviously not only on the new lines, but also and especially on those conventional lines that meet the appropriate requirements for their conversion. Four years is a short period of time in the life of a metro line but it has revealed enough to confirm that our commitment to automation was a good decision and to encourage us to continue.
Ramón Malla is the Manager of Automatic Lines at Barcelona Metro, in charge of projects and operations of this type of line. Regarding international activities, Ramón is the Executive Coordinator of the UITP Observatory Group of Automatic Metro Lines that brings together world experts in that field.