Fully-automatic metro operation looks set to be widely adopted over the next two decades, if feedback from delegates at the Metro Rail 2006 conference is anything to go by. Organised by Terrapinn in Barcelona on March 28-30, the event drew a wide mix of operators, suppliers and consultants from cities as far apart as San Francisco, Almaty and Manila.

Many heavy and light metros opened in the past 15 years have been designed from the outset for full automation, and others use 'attended' ATO. 'The next step is to recognise that the train operator could be better deployed elsewhere and take them out of the cab', explained Ramón Mala of Barcelona's host operator TMB. Today's metro staff should be interacting with customers, providing information and allaying security concerns, he believed.

Retrofitting of existing lines is underway in Nürnberg and Paris, starting a trend that looks sure to continue, despite a recent report that problems in Nürnberg have put the Rubin project back by at least a year.

A common argument against retrofitting is overcoming perceived public perceptions about safety, although this has probably been overstated. On Météor in Paris and the København Metro, passengers crowd to the front to watch the line ahead, with no apparent concern over the lack of a driver.

Hong Kong's MTR Corp has embarked on 'automation by stealth', moving from ATO to automatic door operation and most recently Fully-Automatic Operation on the Disneyland Resort Line (RG 2.05 p80). General Manager, Operations Engineering Services, Franco Fabbian attempted to quantify the benefits of automation. The biggest payback, he claimed, came from more reliable operation. Standardised running patterns, with optimised traction and braking curves, offered savings of 10% to 15% in energy consumption plus reduced maintenance costs.

Fabbian dismissed the problem of fitting platform screen doors to stations not designed for them. Although MTR announced on April 18 that it had completed a six-year programme to retrofit nearly 3 000 doors at all 74 of its underground stations, he said this was more about the cost of station air-conditioning and managing the station dwell times better. There was no justification for fitting doors on safety grounds, he believed, noting that even with manual driving or attended ATO, by the time a train operator saw someone on the track it was probably too late to react.

Another enthusiastic proponent of automation was Per Als, Operations & Development Director in København. Whilst the Danish model of running three-car small-profile trains at frequent intervals appears radically different from the packed 10-car trains carrying 2000 riders in Hong Kong, Als endorsed the benefits that come from regular and predictable operation. Admitting that ridership is still below projections, he said passenger satisfaction was very high, and confirmed that the city intends to adopt the same model on the orbital Line 4, for which planning is well underway.