How Canadian ‘science fiction’ drives subway trains abroad

Toronto-based unit of French multinational Thales makes world’s subways run themselves

Jeff Gray
© The Globe and Mail, 2010–08–19

Inside a north Toronto office building, rows of bulky computers operate virtual subway systems half a world away in Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Dubai, managing trains as they pull into stations, drop off passengers, and accelerate through tunnels.

The action is a computer simulation, a kind of subway video game. But for the engineers at Toronto-based Thales Rail Signalling Solutions Inc., the virtual subways they operate are vital for ensuring passengers in major global centres get where they’re going quickly and safely.

Once perfected in the Toronto office, Thales Rail installs its subway-control systems around the world for real-life use, allowing computers to automatically drive subway trains and even co-ordinate train scheduling, with little or no human help.

The systems, pioneered in Toronto, use radio-transmission technology in subway trains to control their speed and track how far apart the trains are. This allows them to safely run much more closely together—as frequently as 90 seconds apart—than those that use human drivers. Thales says its automated technology can stop a subway train within 10 centimetres of its target.

The virtual versions in Toronto allow Thales to test new features and work out kinks for its clients, transit agencies from Asia to America. With the press of a button, engineers can simulate a delay caused by a jammed subway door in rush hour. The computer quickly takes over, automatically rescheduling trains to run closer together to clear the growing crowds of waiting passengers.

“We can do all sorts of scenarios here,” says Walter Kinio, the firm’s director of research and development. “If something breaks on the train, if there’s a physical problem with the train, the system has to react to that. We can do all of those tests here.”

Part of France’s aerospace-and-defence giant Thales SA since 2007, the Toronto-based rail-signalling division competes for work with European rail giants Siemens AG and Alstom SA, who have developed their own versions of the technology as cities around the world refurbish or expand their subways.

Recently appointed Thales Canada president Paul Kahn points to the company’s recently announced deal to retrofit New York City’s Flushing subway line as a major coup that establishes a foothold in the U.S. subway capital. But the company is also eyeing possible new contracts from San Francisco to Brussels.

Fighting for business around the world from a base in Canada has several advantages, Mr. Kahn says. For one thing, governments support technology and innovation: Thales received a $12.8-million grant from Ontario last year to integrate green energy-saving technology into its systems.

But the talent pool in Toronto is also a major advantage, adds Mr. Kahn, who came from Thales’s aviation division, based in Italy. Not only is Toronto awash in technical expertise, he says, its diversity is a secret weapon.

“When we’re working with the Chinese, we have people who speak Chinese who are integral members of our staff here,” Mr. Kahn said. “When we are working in [South] Korea, we have Canadians of Korean origin who culturally can work very effectively. It is one of the clear competitive advantages of being in Canada.”

The firm has grown rapidly in recent decades and through the recession, moving into more spacious offices this year in Toronto’s Don Mills area to house its 1,100 employees.

But competition is fierce. Siemens edged out Thales as the No. 1 subway-control supplier in the market this year.

And Thales’s battle for world subway-signalling supremacy sees the company run into complex challenges. On any given day, it might be planning for the complex retrofitting of an aging subway system in Europe or North America, which means shutting it down periodically and inevitably angering commuters. The next, it could be showing Chinese officials its latest technology for a brand new subway line being built at a lightning pace.

Some deals have gone off the rails. In 2009, Thales lost out on a major contract in its own backyard with the Toronto Transit Commission, and even unsuccessfully took the transit agency to court. In London, its work installing a high-tech system on the British capital’s Jubilee Line has run over schedule by more than a year, and encountered technical problems.

British-born Mr. Kahn—brought in to ensure the London job succeeds and that relations with the TTC are mended—rejects any criticism of his firm for the issues in London. The troubled project was being managed by a controversial public-private partnership, but London’s transit authority recently took over the operation itself.

“We’re certainly guilty by association, but I wouldn’t accept that in any way it was our fault,” Mr. Kahn said of the delays. “Thales has an excellent record of on-time delivery. In the last 12 months, we’ve delivered on 15 major projects,” he said, citing system installations in Shanghai, Dubai, and at Dulles Airport in Washington.

What the company calls its Toronto “centre of excellence” owes its existence to former Ontario premier Bill Davis, and the state-driven economic ethos of the 1970s. Using a newly created Crown corporation, Mr. Davis pushed for the development of an Ontario-made futuristic transit system to sell to the world.

With government funding, a handful of German and Canadian engineers, then with a unit of ITT, the U.S. conglomerate, were contracted to design a computerized, automated subway-signal system, based on new technology from Germany designed for high-speed rail.

The equipment was first installed on Toronto’s new Scarborough Rapid Transit system in 1985, although Toronto, like many of the technology’s subsequent users, opted to keep human drivers in the cab. Then came Vancouver’s SkyTrain, which opened the following year for Expo in 1986—the first completely driverless urban transit line in the world.

Despite the development of the technology, it took decades to convince the ultraconservative rail industry that the new system, which replaces old-standby trackside signal lights, was safe. It is now considered standard for new subway systems, and is often used in “people mover” train lines installed inside airports.

“When I think about it, back in the 1970s, this was science fiction,” said Mr. Kinio, the company’s research and development director, showing off some of the company’s first refrigerator-sized processors and pizza-like reel-to-reel tape data storage units.

“For the Ontario government to just go and invest in science fiction. Who would ever think that would happen nowadays? But they did.”