When the city of Yakima, in south-central Washington state, launched its public transit system in the early 1900s, its state-of-the-art vehicle management plan involved sharp-eyed trolley drivers and a network of overhead wires. Today, of course, those trolleys are largely gone (a few serve as part of a tourist attraction), but much remains the same. Yakima Transit’s operators, who now drive buses, are still highly trained and eminently skilled. And thanks to an investment in onboard wireless, the city remains on the leading edge of transportation tech.
An early adopter of geographic information systems software for real-time vehicle location mapping, Yakima Transit relied on radio service as its primary means of communication until about eight years ago. IT Services Manager John Carney was in another position at the time and wasn’t involved in the decision-making, but from what he was told, the technology was inadequate.
“With radio service, it was really hard to determine with any accuracy where the buses were at,” Carney explains. “You wouldn’t know how fast they were going or whether they were on schedule.” Similarly, if the agency needed to review video footage from a security camera on board a bus, “you had to go and pull the hard drive out of the vehicle, which meant the bus would have to come offline,” he says.
A growing number of transit systems have followed in Yakima’s footsteps to deploy in-vehicle gateways that bolster their public transportation systems. The use of wireless networks supported by onboard routers provides transit agencies with the means to track and communicate with transit vehicles, support wireless capabilities and enhance safety.
Yakima Transit is able to track bus routes in real time using wireless technologies. Source: Yakima Transit
“It is becoming more and more common” as agencies recognize that having wireless everywhere can go a long way toward improving bus and train management, says Sarah Catz, a research associate at the Institute for Transportation Studies at the University of California, Irvine.
“Not only does it help with communication with drivers and dispatch personnel but it also allows them to be more efficient, more cost-effective and, ultimately, safer and greener,” Catz says. In addition, onboard gateways will likely prove critical as cities adopt autonomous public transit systems, which depend on robust, always-on connections between vehicles and surrounding sensors, Catz notes. “It’s good that we’re moving this way, because if everything is going to work, this is the technology cities will need.”
Yakima Transit Uses Wireless Tech to Accurately Track Its Fleet
The Yakima Transit bus system typically includes 18 to 20 vehicles running routes around the city at any given time, Carney says. With bus stops in about 800 locations, it serves, on average, more than 1 million passengers per year.
Radio-related complications and others were eliminated in 2012 when the city installed 3G mobile gateways in all of its buses, Carney says. Embedded with Wi-Fi wireless access points and routing capabilities, the devices established mobile wireless LAN network hotspots that allow high-speed communication with peripheral equipment.
With the gateways in place, the mobile positioning readings they could attain through GPS saw a twentyfold improvement in accuracy, and if a transit supervisor back at headquarters wanted to pull video off a bus, he or she could do so from a computer.
Using Cradlepoint solutions, Yakima Transit now has automatic vehicle location and dispatch capabilities. Source: Yakima Transit
Yakima Transit’s original wireless system served as the foundation for other improvements. It now had automatic vehicle location and dispatch capabilities and was able to provide passengers with route information. Yakima Transit finally had the technology to conduct ridership counts in real time, Carney says.
“Before, we had data, but we’d have to go and get it,” which limited both fleet management efficiency and the services that could be provided, Carney explains. But today, with Cradlepoint COR Series LTE routers and a solution called NetCloud Manager, “everything has changed,” he says. “Now we can get almost anything we want, and we can get it instantly and anywhere.”
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Valley Regional Transit Upgrades Modems and Communication
Another agency that appears ready for the autonomous public transit revolution is Valley Regional Transit in southwest Idaho. The only public transit provider in the Boise metro area, VRT maintains a fleet of 55 buses, 22 paratransit vans and about 30 other vehicles that provide specialized services to residents across three counties.
The agency has used the same Cradlepoint technology as Yakima for the past three years, says IT manager Nick Moran. But VRT was having connectivity issues with its computer-aided dispatch and AVL GPS system. “It was barely meeting our needs at the time,” he says.
Valley Regional Transit leverages Cradlepoint solutions to communicate with and easily monitor its fleet. Source: Valley Regional Transit
The modem with that platform could only handle about 12 gigabytes of traffic, and the agency knew that wouldn’t be nearly enough as it modernized with tools like live camera feeds, Moran says. And then there was the problem of the agency's latest infrastructure project: the construction of an underground station in downtown Boise.
“We did some testing, and the cell coverage was going to be terrible,” Moran recalls. “We decided we needed to try something new.”
VRT’s new in-vehicle solution is exactly what the agency was looking for. “It’s night and day compared to what we had. Before, everything was a very manual process, so if we wanted to push software updates to our hardware, we had to physically go out to the individual buses and do it by hand,” Moran says.
Now, VRT can communicate with the fleet with ease, and with Cradlepoint’s web-based system, “all the management can be handled on the fly,” Moran says.
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Wireless Upgrades Can Enhance Rider Safety
Management concerns of a different sort led another agency, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, to install cellular routers on its trains. SEPTA’s Communications and Signals Program manages modernizing all aspects of the agency’s transit system, including bus, light rail and commuter rail services across the Philadelphia region, explains Chief Engineering Officer John Frisoli.
Several years ago, the agency installed Digi TransPort WR44 R routers on the majority of its buses, and in 2018 it did the same for its rail lines as part of a system called positive train control.
The percentage of public transit buses that have automatic vehicle locator/GPS
Source: American Public Transportation Association, 2019 Public Transportation Fact Book, April 2019
PTC, as it’s commonly known, involves federally mandated signaling technology designed to reduce the chance of train collisions that may be caused by human error. The nuts and bolts of different PTC systems vary from agency to agency, but all depend on trains receiving information about their location and where they are and are not permitted to travel.
SEPTA’s Digi routers relay PTC data messages via 220-megahertz radio to and from wayside equipment along the track. “If the train is about to enter a work zone where there are people, that’s processed by the system and it’s forced to stop,” Frisoli says.
SEPTA CIO Bill Zebrowski says the agency has been impressed with the utility of their in-vehicle routers on their trains and buses alike and plans to deploy more in the year ahead. “The more wireless service we can get, the more we can help our staff perform their operational duties.”
Photography By Rick Dahms