Driverless in Lille

Fancy an underground journey with a difference? Then take a ride with E&T on the world's first and longest automatic subway, the Lille urban metro.

As passengers leave the train, they are greeted by smoke, billowing from a nearby waste paper bin. Seemingly unperturbed, they walk hurriedly across the platform towards the nearest exit, waving away fumes as they go.

No driver is on the train to reassure the commuters, and station staff are not on hand to attend to the fire. Welcome to the Lille urban subway, the world's first automatic metro network.

From the control centre of the underground system, I watch the scene unfold over CCTV camera. Jonathan Delannoy, real-time operations manager, is standing next to me. Smiling, he shrugs and explains a 'youngster' has thrown a lit newspaper into the bin. Indeed, seconds later we watch a fight, albeit playful, break out among a group of school children.

"I guess you'll be closing this station now," I say, as I see a man stride across the platform batting smoke from his face with a folded newspaper.

"Oh no," replies Delannoy. As he explains, emergency services are automatically contacted as soon as any such incident is detected. "We will also send a member of staff down to the platform," he adds smiling. "I think passengers may be worried approaching a station filled with smoke."

To say that Delannoy remains unruffled throughout the incident would be an understatement, indeed, 'relaxed' aptly describes the atmosphere across the entire control centre. Is this down to a French laissez-faire attitude? Perhaps, but I suspect the easy ambience is more due to the fact we are standing at the helm of what is arguably the world's most successful automated transit system.

Integrated rapid transit system

In 1971, the Urban Community of Lille launched a competition to design an integrated rapid transit system that could carry students between the University of Lille, now sited at the new town of Villeneuve d'Ascq, to the already congested city centre. The winner, French automotive and aeronautics business Matra, started testing its automatic metro system design dubbed 'Villeneuve d'Ascq-Lille', or VAL, in 1972.

By 1978, construction of the first line had started, with April 1983 seeing the grand opening of the first line, comprising 13 stations across 9km of track. By 1984, engineering works on the first line, which now consisted of 18 stations stretching across a 13km track were complete.

Lille's second line - 32km long and with 44 stations - was finished in 2000, making the 45km network the longest fully-automated system in the world. The subway still holds this record, and in 2008 passenger figures hit a high of 90 million.

The system's operating figures are equally impressive. During peak times the network has a total of 120 trains on it, running at 60-second intervals and shunting some 20,000 passengers between the busiest stations. Outside peak hours, trains typically run every two to three minutes with average speeds of 60km/h and maximum speeds topping 80km/h.

Following on from the success of Lille, VAL, now manufactured by Siemens and referred to as Véhicule Automatique Léger (or Light Automated Vehicle), has been replicated across France and around the world. Toulouse, Rennes, Paris Orly, Turin, Chicago, Taipei and Uijeongbu, South Korea, are all home to the VAL concept, and, as Delannoy points out, his team has travelled the globe helping to install its control systems.

"This is a big challenge as all systems are different. For example, we have to take into account geography, the type of urban network and social behaviour," he explains. "But we are very good with the integration of new systems."

Worldwide system

Good with integration or not, what exactly makes the VAL system attractive to so many cities worldwide? Francis Kuhn, research engineer at the French National Institute for Transport and Safety Research, has the answers.

Kuhn worked as an engineer in the metro department of Epale, the public agency responsible for the design and building of Villeneuve d'Ascq and the first line of VAL from 1979 to 1984. Also an expert in driverless transit systems, he is keen to point out key benefits and innovations.

For starters, the VAL system requires no drivers or attendants which, without a doubt, saves manpower. If manned, the Lille network would need between 400 and 500 drivers alone, but, instead, some 150 operations staff are employed, staggered around the clock with around 24 running each line from the control centre at any one time. As Kuhn points out, this is a clear benefit during times of employee unrest and strike action.

The control staff supervise trains and passengers, and monitor operations. For example, one operator may be responsible for the network's 240 escalators and 100 lifts, another could provide all communications to customers, while a third may be in charge of putting new trains into service. As Delannoy jokes: "We are simply waiting for failure."


But what exactly happens when things go wrong? The system boasts more than 99 per cent reliability, but stringent safety measures must be paramount to any automated subway system.

One key feature is an evacuation handle, provided at the door of each car. When pulled, Kuhn explains, it transmits an alarm to the control centre and, whenever possible, the train will continue to the next station where passengers can be easily evacuated. If not, traction voltage is automatically shut down and all trains located on the same section of line are stopped while all doors are unlocked. Each vehicle is also equipped with a detection bar in front of the wheels, so if contact with a stone, bottle or any hard object takes place, the train is stopped within metres.

In the event of a train failure, vehicles can be automatically removed and replaced within five to eight minutes. And if a train is completely stranded on a line, it can automatically be pushed by the following train, without any need for human intervention.

"The public find an empty train moving to a platform spooky, like a ghost train," laughs Delannoy. "But then you don't have a driver on a lift, this is just the same."

Another key innovation of the Lille network is its 'landing doors', a system of transparent sliding doors between the platform and the train that open only when a train has stopped. These doors separate passengers from the track and are now considered, in France, to be the most efficient way to prevent accidents. And, as Kuhn highlights, the trains on the Lille subway are programmed to stop opposite these doors, to within 30cm.

The Lille system is also more efficient than many manned systems. For example, the minimum headway time of 60 seconds - the time between trains - exceeds that of manned transit systems by at least a minute. As Kuhn asserts, towards the end of a ten-hour shift a driver is simply too tired to drive safely under these conditions.

"On automated subways we run vehicles at intervals of, say, 80 to 90 seconds which means you can have around 40 vehicles an hour and this carries a lot of people," he says. "Compare this to, say, the Paris tramway where you can only operate 15 vehicles an hour... and you also have to deal with, for example, traffic jams and traffic lights."

Given these benefits, what are the pitfalls of an automated system? Unsurprisingly, a key issue is being able to dispel feelings of passenger isolation. Indeed a whistle-stop tour of the Lille network provoked a certain uneasiness, especially when alighting at less crowded stations. Can you imagine trundling round the London Underground without seeing any platform staff and knowing your train doesn't have a driver?

Passenger safety

According to Kuhn, on VAL a passenger never feels alone. "All trains are equipped with easily accessible intercoms, which means that at any time a passenger can contact an operator [at the control centre]," he says. "This also works the other way; if there is an incident the intercom comes on automatically and the control centre can listen to what is going on in the vehicle."

Vandalism is also a fact of life in automated systems. From passengers purposefully placing their feet in closing doors to, yes, flaming newspapers, system operators are continually tackling such mischief.

However, a Lille commuter may take comfort in the fact that an incredible 2,400 CCTV cameras are scattered across the subway system, with additional cameras on each train. Isolated or fearful, rest assured, you are being watched.

Cost is the other key issue. As Kuhn points out, automated systems have to run on segregated rights of way, such as viaducts or in underground networks, which doesn't come cheap. However, reduced staffing costs, standardising vehicle designs and passenger volume gains relative to manned systems all help to make automatic networks more affordable. Indeed, the Lille subway has been operating at a profit since 1989.

Siemens' CityVal

So what does the future hold for automated subways? Siemens has been busy updating its VAL system and just over two years ago announced 'CityVal', what it describes as a new generation of mass transit transportation. In this system, a more energy efficient, higher capacity car will be guided through a network by a single central rail, rather than the typical two-line parallel configuration, and could operate without any overhead lines, cutting infrastructure costs.

Meanwhile, back at Lille, further expansion of both lines is under consideration, with talk of extending the second line into Belgium. But as the situation stands today, Lille will soon lose its title of the world's longest automatic subway system. Construction of the 75km-long Dubai metro system is well underway with a grand opening scheduled for 2010.

As Delannoy concludes: "I am very proud to be operating the largest automated subway in the world. Even if only for another two to three years."

Rebecca Pool travelled to Lille from London St Pancras courtesy of Eurostar [new window] (booking tel: in the UK: 08705 186 186).

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