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Riders wait for an approaching TTC subway at the the Main Street Station on Thursday, May 21, 2009.Randall Moore/The Globe and Mail

The TTC wants to start taking human input out of driving its subway trains.

As a number of transit systems move toward unstaffed trains, the TTC is taking a half-step in that direction, laying the groundwork for largely hands-off operation on one of its two lines within a few years.

Signal replacement work shutting down the University portion of the line part of every weekend this month is an element of a larger plan toward Automatic Train Control (ATC).

Under the ATC model, the operator can press a button to close the doors and then sit back as computers pilot the subway through the tunnel to the next station. Trains will be able to run more closely together, bringing crucial added capacity to the crowded system as riders continue to wait for the long overdue downtown relief line.

The consistent reliability of the computer-run system could allow headways – the time between trains – of as little as 90 seconds, though the models suggest that 108 seconds is more realistic. Trains currently can run no less than 150 seconds apart.

"It takes out that human factor. It's so much more precise in terms of acceleration, deceleration, knowing where to brake," Pete Tomlin, senior project manager, said in an interview this week. "You can take the best performance by an operator, end to end, over the last 50 years, and you will match that or beat it with every single train when you're running in ATC."

Working on the busy transit system is a complicated task, a bit like doing a house renovation while living there and, as Mr. Tomlin put it, having "528,000 people every day staying with you." But the expected payoff, depending on which model is used, is an at least 25-per-cent increase in capacity on the Yonge-University-Spadina line. This is on top of the 8-per-cent increase projected to come once the new subway trains are fully rolled out on that line.

The ATC system is budgeted to cost $407-million for the Yonge-University-Spadina line and is set to go live in 2017, one year later than previously billed. Funds have not been allocated for a similar system on the Bloor-Danforth line.

Train crews generally are a fading presence in transit systems around the world, a modern equivalent of the way elevator operators disappeared as technology improved. But while the system being installed in Toronto is designed to allow for further automation, TTC officials stress that there are no plans here to go the additional steps and remove humans entirely. They cite public perception as one reason, and also the need for expensive platform-edge barriers to prevent people getting onto the tracks. And there is also the reality that the union could be expected to mount strong opposition.

"I have almost no concern that the TTC would go to a fully automated system, cause I do not believe that the general public, never mind the pushback that they'll get from us, I do not believe that the public in Toronto would accept that," said Bob Kinnear, president of Amalgamated Transit Union, local 113.

The union is also against a shift from the current crewing, with an operator and guard on each train, to a one-person operation. Noting that it is the guard who responds when a passenger hits the alarm, Mr. Kinnear predicted opposition to any plans to remove that role.

"I think that the people of Toronto have a high expectation of safety," he said. "I do believe that the public will rise up and raise their concerns as it comes closer, as there's more and more suggestion that we go to one-person trains."

A similar argument has been heard in other cities. Union protest and concerns about safety contributed to a decision to re-instate additional crew members on the L train in New York.

But elsewhere – including the busiest subway line in Paris, the light metro system in Copenhagen and lines in Barcelona, Milan and Lausanne – trains drive themselves without staff aboard. Mike Richard, vice-president of operations for B.C. Rapid Transit Company, which runs SkyTrain, noted that their service had been fully automated from the start, in the 1980s.

"The priorities that the public came out with were safety and reliability," he said recently from Vancouver. "They didn't care if there was a driver at the front of the train."

The lack of crews means they can increase operations quickly, adding new trains to meet capacity needs. During the Vancouver Olympics in 2010 they pulled out the stops and were able to operate at headways of only 75 to 80 seconds, a pace that required special staff on the platforms to facilitate fast exiting and boarding.

Their experience points to a potential chokepoint as the TTC tries to speed its trains: no matter how closely they can drive in the tunnels, it still takes time to cross over from one track to another as the trains approach the end station, to get a quick clean and crew change while there and to process through each of the other stops.

In his book Straphanger , a look at the world's transit system, Taras Grescoe describes the elaborate crowd analysis done to find ways to speed passengers through incredibly busy stations in Tokyo.

The TTC doesn't operate at nearly the same level, but has begun to work in small ways on the same sort of issues.

"It's not to say it's not ever going to be crowded," said spokesman Brad Ross. "Public transit is crowded during rush hour, that's just the way it is. … You may have to wait one train but you won't probably have to wait three or four."

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