Saturday, January 27, 2007

Where is my train?

Bostonians who have visited Washington, London, Tokyo and San Francisco have marveled at signs on the subway platform that announce when the next train will arrive. Now word comes from New York that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has rolled out train-arrival message screens at 14 stations along the L line and expects to have all stations on the numbered lines installed by the end of 2009. The New York project has had major problems being implemented and long time Boston transit observers will nod their heads at the reason. The MTA awarded the contract to Siemens in 2003 to install the screens at 157 stations on the numbered lines at a cost of $160.6 million but technical difficulties held up the project. The NY Post wrote a few days ago that Siemens has solved the problem. Now perhaps Siemens can focus on all the problem they currently have with the MBTA which we wrote about last month.

So now New York will soon join the modern transit age so why not Boston?

The General Manager of the MBTA, Daniel A. Grabauskas doesn't think it is necessary.
In May of 2006 Mac Daniel wrote in the Boston Globe

The system can count down the minutes until a train arrives, but Grabauskas said that isn't necessary.

''You don't need 15 minutes lead time for a rapid transit train," he said. ''If you know you have enough time to get down the stairs, that may be all the information our customers need."

The T is in the process of spending $35 million dollars to upgrade the PA system in the subway including $3 million for new signs that at present simply say "Train Arriving" when they work at all. So the T has the ability to show real time announcements on the Red and Orange lines but won't because Grabauskas doesn't think we need the information.

We can't blame Grabauskas for the Breda streetcars, the phantom Siemens Blue Line cars or even the choice of Scheidt & Bachmann to install the new fare equipment as those decisions happened before he came to the T but we can call him on this. I would think most passengers would be delighted to know how long they have to wait on the platform. If you know it will be a few minutes you might decide to sit down and take out a book. This is not a case that they would have to go out and spend money to implement it, they already can but just won't do it. I also take issue with the way the signs are being installed. As you can see they face the platform instead of being on the platform overhead. The problem with doing it this way is unless you happen to be on the platform directly in front of the sign you can not see it. Overhead signs like the example in New York lets everybody on the platform see them.

The irony here is Grabauskas when he ran the Registry of Motor Vehicles touted the improvements in customer service including a service that you could check on the web to see what the wait time is at any branch and signs at the branches giving the same information. So why did he think Registry patrons needed the information but not provide the same for the T?

Even on the low tech Blue Line there is one station that offers train status information now. When you enter at Maverick there is a sign hanging overhead that shows the location of every train between Orient Heights and Bowdoin and it has been there for decades. A passenger can see quickly where the next train is and if it is moving. That low tech solution could easily be converted to a sign that could simply say "Next Train in 5 minutes or less" based on what signal has been tripped. With the new signal systems on the Red Line and being installed on the Orange Line the information can be more precise.

For riders on the Green Line however there won't be any kind of messages giving train status anytime soon. The T can tell you when the next train is arriving at a station but not where it is going. A major overhaul to the signal system would be needed to implement that and in the T's current project list that indicates what they plan to spend money on through 2011, the Green Line signals are not on the list. The T is probably wise in waiting to do this as recent trolley signal upgrades in San Francisco and Philadelphia proved to be very difficult to implement. San Francisco trolley riders now get real time updates on signs in the subway stations and it can also be seen on the web as seen below.

Since last spring the T has had computer generated messages informing us that "The next train to wherever is now arriving" as part of the $35 million dollar overhaul. Since the new system began riders have been getting less information about train status. The T used to have live PA announcements that would say "train approaching Kendall, Park St and Broadway" so you had some sense what was going on but those announcements now are few and far between.
What information you do get from the computer announcements is no more than the low tech system the T has had at several stations for decades. Riders at Park St waiting to go towards Alewife can simply glance at the track light on the left side of the tunnel looking towards Downtown Crossing. When the light blinks off it means there is a train at Downtown Crossing and should be at Park in 2 minutes or less. Riders at JFK/UMass have the indicators that tell you if the next train is Braintree or Ashmont. There are others in the system.

It really is simple. Riders may grumble if they know the next train is 10 or more minutes but will appreciate the information. The T says they can do it now so there is no excuse not to do so.

What about the Commuter Rail?

Well back in May the T told the Globe
Daniel A. Grabauskas, general manager of the MBTA, said a similar system at commuter rail stations could be in place in from eight months to a year.
Commuter Rail riders are probably laughing at this after dealing with the $5 million dollar system the T installed on the Commuter Rail 5 years ago that has never worked and now it appears they are scrapping. If the T really wants to find a system that works we are happy to point them to California where Amtrak runs commuter service between San Jose and Sacramento that passes through Oakland with connections to San Francisco. This is how their system works.
About the Passenger Information Display Signs (PIDS)
Most of our stations are equipped with electronic message boards (PIDS), which display the date and time, provide much-needed up-to-date train status information, as well as other service-related messages. The signs provide real time train information status via electronic message boards. The system retrieves the trains location from an on-board GPS system, installed on each dining car, and transmits the data automatically to software programs that in turn send the status directly to the message boards. Starting 30 minutes prior to a trains scheduled arrival at a station, ADA-compliant visual displays provide waiting passengers with train status information every 5 minutes, with audio announcements at the station provided every 10 minutes.

Please bear with us, there may still be some lingering "bugs", and if that is the case, please let us know! We'd love to hear how the signs are working - please tell us what you see and hear. Call us at 1-877-9-RIDECC or E-mail us at
They admit there are still some bugs but when I was in the Bay Area last spring it worked perfectly at the Oakland Coliseum station. I hope that whatever system the T buys this time they will only install it on the new Greenbush Line that opens this summer and see if it actually works before installing it system wide. Look my $100 cell phone can find me within 100 feet, the T should be able to find a locomotive.

Really all I want to know is where my train is. Is that asking too much???


Irving Brookline said...

I swear Cliff Clavin runs the T. You mean to tell me these idiots bought a system that can do it and then does not use it? Of course we want to know how long the wait is.

Dani B. said...

The seimens blue line cars aren't phantoms anymore! The first two arrived at wellington for testing this past week according to NEtransit.

Jamie said...

prolly afraid it will say next train in 53 minutes

Chris said...

You made a very good point about Grabauskas and how he helped bring real time information to the unfortunate souls who have to go to the Registry. What amazed me about his statement is not so much that he thinks that but he would actually share that thought with a Globe reporter.

New York, London, Washington and other major transit companies seem to think it is important information to share with commuters. I think it shows the problem of not having somebody with an urban transit background running the system.

His bio on the T's website shows his background. Romney made him Secretary of Transportation then switched him 2 years later to run the T. Deval has to get rid of the guy and get somebody in here that actually knows how to make trains run on time.

My best guess is Grabauskas was given the T job to deal with the unions who many think really run the T.

I fully understand that public transportation in America is in sad shape and Boston is certainly better off than many other cities. I grew up in Detroit where public transportation was considered a slap in the face of the auto industry.

The T could be a source of civic pride instead of a civic joke.

Jack (Cambridge) said...

The stupidity of the MBTA continues to astound me.

Jen said...

Irving please don't insult Cliff. I think the T is run by the 3 Stooges

Some Assembly Required said...

The degree to which the T doesn't get it is simply astonishing. The London underground had this feature when I visited there TWENTY YEARS AGO. Of course riders want to know how long until the next train; it might mean the difference between making a connection and missing it. If I knew I wasn't going to make my bus, I might be able to adjust to a different route, or do an errand along the way to fill time before the next one.

But the T won't do this because it has a history of not putting riders' needs first. Beyond that, giving train time info implies a sense of accountability; that is, if you know the next train isn't coming for 15 minutes when it should be less than five, you're going to expect an explanation, but the T probably isn't going to want to give you one. And worse (for them), if you know the next train isn't coming for 15 minutes, you might decide not to wait around for it. You might think to yourself, I'm sick of this, I'm driving next time.

In my opinion, one of the biggest problems with the system as a whole is that there is no accountability for lapses in service. But for thousands of us every day, there is no other choice for how to get around, so we just have to suck it up.

I guess my fantasy of GPS tracking for buses is never going to happen...

Glenn said...

does anybosy have Grabauskas' email address?

I can't believe he would say something that idiotic. If New York has been able to figure out how to do it in their maze of tunnels it should be a cinch in Boston.

BTW Charlie the signs are over the platforms in the Orange Line portion of Downtown Crossing and it is much easier to see

Sophia said...

Some Assembly Required said...
The degree to which the T doesn't get it is simply astonishing. The London underground had this feature when I visited there TWENTY YEARS AGO.

The oldest subway system in the world can do it look at this

Elephant & Castle station

My grandfather said the T ran better in 1927 than it does now.

Charlie said...

Chris said "His bio on the T's website shows his background. Romney made him Secretary of Transportation then switched him 2 years later to run the T. Deval has to get rid of the guy and get somebody in here that actually knows how to make trains run on time."

For what it is worth Washington has just hired a new GM with 26 years of running trains behind him.

John B. Catoe, Jr. was sworn into the position of General Manager to lead the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (Metro), today, January 25

The T is the 5th largest system in the country, for the transit planners out there you would think it would be a coveted position.

The fact that we even have to have the discusion about real time signs is sad, it should be a no brainer issue since they have the abilty to do it.

Anonymous said...

The MBTA is not only broke, it is broken, yet it plans to expand the Green Line. Ford lost 12 billion last quarter and they will close plants, lay off workers, downsize, whatever it takes to cut costs.
Is it time to privitize the MBTA?

Ron Newman said...

No. How would privatizing the T help them expand the Green Line any better or faster?

Lis Riba said...

Personally, I think it should be a requirement that the GM of the MBTA (and other high-ranking MBTA execs) be a public transportation user.

The City of Boston requires most city employees to live within the city; this would be rather less onerous -- just make them live somewhere T or commuter-rail accessible and use it to get into work.

I think that simple change -- forcing the decision-makers to actually experience the results of their choices -- could greatly improve service.

DC Night Out said...

Don't forget the audio:
The new system that announces that a train is arriving is an improvement especially for people who are blind or visually impaired. A blind person cannot see some light going out in the tracks, etc. Of course, it would be better if more information was available, and those old announcements on the red line were good. But don't forget about having information available both via audio and visual methods. For instance screens with no audio announcements would not be good for the blind either. All too often systems are not set up with what is called "universal design," meaning in lay terms it can be useable by most all people.