Gleaming new railcars, fuel-efficient buses, enhanced station lighting. Items like these often come to mind when authorities undertake projects to modernize aging transit infrastructures.
Real transit modernization, however, covers more than better vehicles and brighter bulbs. Behind the scenes, information systems provide much-needed daily support to transit’s railcars, buses and other more public elements. From automated bus and rail dispatch to material and maintenance management, the vital functions these systems perform are the unseen backbone of transit’s ability to provide safe and efficient service to customers.
Upgrading transit information systems as part of infrastructure modernization is a multifaceted challenge. With many automated functions and a range of software products to choose from, these projects require a strong emphasis on planning determining how improved information technology (IT) can help transit organizations meet goals and creating a roadmap for implementing new or rehabilitated systems.
At the Washington (D.C.) Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), we’ve identified a handful of IT planning steps for transit organizations looking to modernize their IT systems. I’d like to discuss these steps, and how we’re using them to improve IT as part of WMATA’s Infrastructure Renewal Program.
Renewing the WMATA infrastructure
The Infrastructure Renewal Program grew out of our desire to ensure that WMATA’s extensive, but aging, infrastructure will meet the future needs of residents and tourists as demand for transit services continues to increase. The D.C.-area population has experienced tremendous growth in recent years, and as it expands, so too does our customer base. WMATA, which has been providing bus and rail service since the mid-1970s, now serves more than 1 million passengers each day (500,000 bus passengers and 600,000 rail passengers) in D.C., Maryland and northern Virginia.
The multiyear, multibillion-dollar Infrastructure Renewal Program is designed to ensure the Authority continues to efficiently serve customers for decades to come by rehabilitating or replacing key elements of our transit infrastructure, including information systems. In keeping with the theme of renewal, we designated the effort to upgrade WMATA’s information systems and their supporting infrastructure as the “IT Renewal” program.
In phase one of the IT Renewal, the authority’s many non-integrated legacy information systems would be the focus. We decided to replace, with commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) software packages, legacy systems that support five functional areas. The areas are financial management, capital program management, payroll and personnel, material and maintenance management and bus and rail scheduling and dispatch.
However, before we started down the road of selecting the appropriate COTS products and hiring a systems integration contractor to implement the new software, we concentrated on planning. A strong planning foundation, we believed, would strengthen our ability to make informed decisions and execute the work that would lead to successful software implementation.
Developing an IT vision
We began planning by developing a vision for improved WMATA IT operations. Our key vision goals included:
Providing a seamless IT infrastructure to support information needs
Facilitating business process improvement through best practices
Improving service levels from IT
Reducing costs by eliminating duplication and manual processes
Investing in IT based upon business strategic value
Providing integrated systems with automated interfaces
We determined there were five critical steps we needed to follow to produce planning documents to guide us in replacing our legacy systems.
To assist us with these steps and the creation of the planning documents, we decided to hire an independent IT planning contractor. After getting approval from the Federal Transit Authority, we used the General Service Administration Federal Systems Integration and Management Center’s Millennia Lite contract to secure the services of the Logistics Management Institute (LMI). LMI, a McLean, Va.-based independent, non-profit organization that provides strategic support to government clients, would work with WMATA staff to gather, assess and compile all necessary information for our planning.
The 5 IT planning steps
With LMI’s assistance, we began to address each of the five IT planning steps.
Step 1: Documenting the “As Is” IT environment
This step entailed gathering information that would help us form a complete picture of the existing IT operation, including details about the type of systems and equipment in use, the IT-related functions they support and the individuals performing those functions. In the process, we even discovered some IT-related functions unknown to our own IT department.
For this step, LMI interviewed employees within the IT department as well as individuals from the rest of the Authority’s staff sections. Our work products formed the basis for recommendations in the next step.
Step 2: Determining the “To Be” IT environment
Including what we gathered from Step 1, several pieces of information combined to form the “To Be” recommendations. We prepared a concept of operations that outlined our building block approach for enterprise-wide implementation of the COTS packages and achieving integration among the COTS packages themselves and between them and other legacy systems. We also developed a risk assessment of the proposed COTS implementation, using input we gathered from WMATA management and staff.
Next, we evaluated WMATA’s organizational readiness for change. We developed change management recommendations and a communications plan to facilitate employee acceptance of all operational and staffing changes.
Step 3: Documenting standards for guiding development of the “To Be” IT infrastructure
Using information gathered from research on regulatory requirements, industry best practices and input from interviews with WMATA IT staff, we developed documents containing standards we would use to implement the COTS packages. They included IT architecture, systems performance, systems testing, systems security, configuration management and change management.
Step 4: Developing functional and technical requirements for COTS
Perhaps the most critical step, we worked to identify the functional and technical requirements for the areas the COTS packages would support. We developed requirements through extensive interviews with WMATA functional area experts, a review of other transit systems’ requirements and use of LMI’s large requirements database that includes industry standards and best practices. Requirements development was also shaped by our observations about vendor demonstrations of COTS products and requirements and validation sessions held with WMATA subject matter experts and related sponsors. In total, we documented more than 1,800 functional and technical requirements.
Step 4 included further work to conduct evaluations of available COTS packages. We looked for COTS software that:
Is offered by financially stable vendors capable of providing technical support and upgrades in the long run
Will fit into WMATA’s concept of an enterprise-wide approach to services
Will satisfy functional user business requirements
Complies with WMATA’s emerging target IT architecture
Is compatible with other COTS selections and with WMATA legacy systems
Step 5: Developing a High-Level Implementation Plan
In our final planning step, we developed a high-level implementation project plan for inclusion in a statement of work that we would issue to potential system integrator contractors.
Again with LMI’s support, we developed a high-level Gantt Chart (a chronological display of the major activities that are expected to occur over the projected four-year implementation period), a checklist of approximately 600 activities to be accomplished during implementation and a summary of best practices, characteristics and essential elements contributing to successful oversight of IT modernization activities. These documents help ensure that implementation includes all of the required activities at the right time in the project’s life cycle.
Following the completion of our planning process, we solicited proposals and selected a systems integrator for replacing the legacy systems that serve our five key functional areas. We’re now moving forward with COTS acquisition and implementation, focusing in particular on complying with intelligent transportation system requirements and working with new technologies such as automated vehicle location and other new programs.
We are confident we have the planning and standards to guide us in overseeing the system integrator’s work. Execution remains, but there’s no question that our step-by-step approach to IT planning has us in a better position to achieve our goals.