What Goes on Inside a Rail Control Center?

Posted on April 1, 2004

In the following interview, Sheri Gingerich, assistant manager of rail transportation for Metro Transit in Minneapolis, discusses the role of the control center in rail operations. Metro Transit is preparing to open its first ever light rail line — the Hiawatha Light Rail Project — this summer.

1. Briefly describe the physical layout of the control center, including what equipment is contained within?

The physical layout of the control center consists of 3 consoles for monitoring train movements. Each console has 2 computer screens to view the SCADA (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition) monitoring system.

There is also a monitor for the PENTA phone system that acts as the device where a supervisor can speak to customers on station platforms and change the announcements on the reader boards located on the station platforms. This is also the console where emergency phone calls coming into the control center from the station platforms will be answered.

Another monitor is for the computer connected to Metro Transit's local server to access programs and email. A fifth monitor is for our Motorola 800 MHZ radio system.

In the front of the room are large monitors for viewing the entire railroad (see attached photo).

There is also a series of 34 CCTV (closed circuit television) monitors, which allow us to view the station platforms from the RCC (rail control center). There are fixed cameras at each station platform that allow the supervisors to watch activity at each station and send the police if illegal activity is sighted.

2. With specific attention to the most important tasks, what are the core functions of the control center? How are each accomplished?

The core function of the RCC is to monitor all train activity on the corridor. A supervisor (our terminology for a dispatcher) will line trains to the mainline from the yard during pull out time. They will monitor all radio traffic, respond to emergency calls from the station platforms, dispatch police or emergency personnel in the event of an emergency, monitor alarms connected to the SCADA system and dispatch personnel as needed to respond to alarms, and handle calls from contractors working on the right of way.

The software for SCADA is called MISER. MISER software provides the protocol handlers needed for the processors and the field units to communicate with one another. It is a proprietary system with a complete backup system in case the first system fails.

Each function is accomplished with a series of mouse clicks on specific icons on the SCADA monitors, which in turn will remotely move switches for routing trains, de-energize the overhead catenary (electricity to the trains), respond to alarms, etc.

3. Who oversees, administrates and maintains the operations in the control center?

The RCC is managed by a rail control manager and myself, the assistant manager. We have several rail control center supervisors assigned on a 24/7 schedule.

4. With what equipment and technology are trains and other information tracked at the control center?

As described above, the monitor system is called SCADA and is supported by HSQ technology in Hayward, CA. The software driving the system is MISER.

5.How much time, if any, do executive level employees spend in the control center, and what do they do there?

Executive level employees do not spend a lot of time in the control center. They have full access to the center and stop in throughout the day to see how things are going. They are notified in the event of an emergency but generally do not spend a lot of time here.

6.What is the role of the center in transit security? How are emergency crews included in security protocol?

The role of the RCC in transit security is very valuable. The supervisors constantly monitor the CCTV system and will be able to respond quickly to criminal activity should it occur on the platforms.

Metro Transit has a dedicated police force of 12 officers that will respond to emergencies as needed. Emergency personnel including fire and police have been participating in emergency drills and have had several sessions of training by rail staff. They have been taught how to enter trains in an emergency, understanding of the electrical hazards associated with high voltage, and been involved for several months in planning of drills, etc.

7.How would it effect rail operations if something went wrong (terrorism, sabotage, etc.) at the command center? Are there plans to handle this type of situation?

In the event of a terroristic threat directed at our control center, we have a backup system located at the bus transit control center. This building is located approximately 5 miles from the Rail Control Center. We would be able to route trains from that location and not lose a beat.

8.What are the latest technological advances that exist with command centers today?

I do not know if there are more technologically advanced systems than ours.

9. How do you see command centers changing in the future? Are there any special trends that could become more common?

I am sure technology will continue to advance and protection against human error will be built into future systems. I personally do not know of any special trends that will become more common. Time will tell.

10. In your opinion, what is the key to running a successful control center?

Well, this is my answer and not necessarily Joe Marie's. I believe the key is the people who work in the center and their commitment to the safety of the people and equipment they are watching everyday. The decisions this group makes is extremely important in keeping everyone safe.

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