Execution of critical functions such as dispatch, switch and signal control, maintenance, security and vehicle operation have always been critical to the success of a rail operation. But it’s the way in which these duties are now being carried out that has come a long, long way.
Over the years, a series of both natural and unpredictable progressions — technological advances, intensified security concerns, larger and more complex transportation infrastructures — have affected the way rail operations are run. In many cases, these trends demand innovative and efficient ways to manage, maintain, administrate and operate.
Enter the centralized rail control facility, or the control center. Though the control center itself is nothing new, its far-reaching new capabilities have changed the way both operators and riders look at rail transportation.
“The control center is the nerve center, the brain, of the entire operation,” says Joe Marie, assistant general manager of Metro Transit in Minneapolis. “With the state of technology today, it’s a one-stop shop for all the functions of a rail operation.”
First and foremost, the control center regulates and monitors every action being taken on the actual rail lines. This includes knowing where trains are, tracking their on-time performance, knowing about potential problems and delays and making sure tracks are in good shape.
Modern control centers have simplified these tasks in several ways, primarily through data, voice and video communications. This crucial information can be transferred rapidly by fiber optic cables, digital satellite signals and other wireless technology. SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) systems utilize these technologies to remotely perform a range of monitoring and tracking services.
For one, integrating automatic vehicle location (AVL) systems and other sophisticated telecommunication devices into the control center SCADA infrastructure allows the movements of even vast train networks to be followed from a single computer. With special sensing equipment installed on trains and in tunnels, signals are constantly being sent to the control center, providing information on route intervals, train locations and arrival and departure times. The best part is, the information is provided in real time.
“The technology has evolved into a far more useful overall management tool in terms of monitoring operations and performance,“ says Marie. “You can tell by looking at a display screen whether a train is a minute behind or ahead of schedule.” For customer service purposes, this data can also be communicated to waiting passengers.
With these systems, control centers further improve operational efficiency by limiting the number of staff members needed to effectively monitor and track train progress.
“For the most part, today‘s centers are totally self-serving,” says Larry Gaul, assistant vice president of rail operations for Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART). “Most operations in the U.S. only need one or two people in the control center at any given time.” This person in the control center, he adds, can track trains by computer and promptly respond to any potential questions, concerns or emergencies.
Instant repair shop
If the control center is the brain of an operation, then the multiple departments it controls, each responsible for carrying out a specialized function, must represent the nerves. Maintenance is one such area that has been greatly ameliorated by technology advancements. If a problem is detected anywhere, the control center can contact a maintenance crew and dispatch it immediately.
At Metro Transit in Minneapolis, Marie says all maintenance crews, which report to the control center at both the beginning and the end of each day, are on call at all times. “If a ticket vending machine is down on a platform, our SCADA systems report that automatically and the repair workers are sent out to fix it immediately,” he says. And when SCADA reports a problem, it only takes one person to pick up a phone and notify whoever is necessary.
Control center technologies help maintenance workers troubleshoot around conventional problems, too. At the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority (GCRTA), rail maintenance staffers are notified through SCADA when there are false alarms, security breaches and potential police issues in designated protected areas. However, says Bernard Buckner, security systems manager, “to keep the system user friendly for the maintenance staff, blue light phones were installed on both sides of protected areas to allow workers to make contact with transit police and central control before encroaching upon protected areas.”
The security solution
The potential for calculated terrorist strikes upon American transportation systems is by now well documented. So are the aggregate costs incurred in the aftermath of such tragedies. For these reasons, beefing up security protocol is a never-ending mission for transit operators. Thankfully, control center capabilities have taken surveillance, prevention of and response to security breaches to previously unattained heights.
Essentially, the control center is the linchpin in all security-related processes. At the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), the control center plays a major role in transit security, says Jan Mader, deputy chief of Transit Police. It communicates with train operators and stations managers concerning all events on WMATA’s rights-of-way, directly calls in all requests involving the fire department, handles all matters with police and monitors all alarms. WMATA security will only get tighter, as the authority recently contracted to upgrade its central rail operations computer system.
Moreover, with the advent of closed- circuit television (CCTV), cameras can be placed on platforms, on vehicles and at strategic points around the rail line. Linked by fiber optics, personnel in the control center can watch any camera on the network in real time. Says Marie, “Most control centers have a large rear image projection screen that allows you to take any image from a CCTV and display it on your computer screen or on the large projection board.”
According to Buckner, the need for advanced security techniques is most important for the protection of tunnels. The GCRTA has a heavy rail line that services Cleveland Hopkins International Airport. Recently, transit officials decided that the rail tunnel had no significant intrusion protection and was a vulnerability to the system. The agency installed surveillance cameras and electronic sensors in the tunnel but needed a way to prevent false alarms.
Working with the signal department, GCRTA found a unique solution, using its SCADA system to integrate with an intelligence alarm panel developed by Andover Controls to shunt the alarm during train movement, says Buckner. “When an intrusion is indicated, the system immediately brings a video screen active to the operator PC, with streaming video of the intrusion site sent to the transit police, who can verify the tunnel intrusion.”
Coordinating crisis response
Preparation for emergencies goes hand in hand with security, and the control center plays no small part in this process either. In fact, maintaining a fully functional control center during a crisis is a chore unto itself. Most transit agencies have established backup control centers that are prepared to pick up the reins if the main control facility is disrupted. Ideally, the location of this backup control center is esoteric.
“We have a remote backup control center and we don’t disclose the location,” says Marie. “We have it set up so that all capabilities of the primary control center are easily transferred to the backup.”
If it’s worth protecting, the control center must take serious responsibilities in emergency management. “The role of the control center has evolved from monitoring traffic and incidents and coordinating response to a much broader role in acting as an emergency management agency operations center,” says Salvatore D’Agostino, vice president of physical security for CoreStreet Ltd., a Massachusetts-based security information firm. Because of their wide-area surveillance ability, communications and command experience, he says, control centers have the ability to develop efficient emergency plans with assigned teams having access to restricted areas.
In some cases, the technology and expertise of the control center allows for progressive emergency-response techniques, such as the natural disaster provision employed by San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART).
“We have seismic sensors in our tunnels for our trains,” says BART spokesman Mike Healy. “When we pick up activity, we have a prepared response. Basically, we’ve set it up so that we are prepared for earthquakes, which are a natural event around here.”