Translink Buzzer Blog

A little more about the talking buses

A stop announcement from the 98 B-Line, illustrated!

A stop announcement from the 98 B-Line, illustrated!

As promised, here’s a supplement to the feature article in the print Buzzer about the annunciators, the voice-announcement system installed on all of our buses.

I had much more info on the annunciators than could be put into the print Buzzer, so I thought I’d give you a more detailed look at the system, how it came to be, and how it operates.

A big thanks to Richard Brown and Marty Williamson over at the Coast Mountain Bus Company (CMBC), who took the time to explain this all! Richard and Marty have a major role in managing the annunciators, alongside many other staff in different departments who also work with our communications system.

Why did the annunciators get installed?

The annunciators were installed at the end of 2008 as part of a larger communications upgrade—the $44 million Transit Management and Communication System (TMAC), a sophisticated system that provides voice, data, and real-time location capabilities for every bus and support vehicle in our fleet.

We ordered our system in 2005 and at that time, the annunciators were only intended for the 99 B-Line route, to emulate the existing announcement system on the 98 B-Line.

However, in 2007, an Ontario human rights ruling was made regarding the TTC, Toronto’s transit system. The ruling required all TTC transit operators to announce all stops on their bus routes. (Here’s a Toronto Star article on the case.)

At that time in 2007, our communications system was still in the process of being built to order. TransLink and CMBC discussed the ruling, and decided that we would comply too, especially since the new communications system was capable of providing those announcements. So we went back to our supplier and changed the order to bring annunciators to the entire fleet.

Which company built the TMAC system?

The German company INIT built the TMAC system. It was chosen for its open architecture and expandability. The open architecture lets us buy off-the-shelf, non-proprietary components for TMAC and not be limited to one vendor. CMBC staff visited a number of other transit areas to research which communications and announcement system to use, including York and Richmond Hill in Ontario, Houston in Texas, and Phoenix in Arizona.

How do the annunciators know all the stop names?

Marty Williamson was in charge of that project. He is a Systems Administrator with Transit Communications, and his group is responsible for the configuration and maintenance of the various TMAC system components.

Marty and his colleagues assembled each of the stop names out of single word fragments – multiple fragments are joined to make a single announcement. One by one, they put together approximately 9,000 separate announcements, one for each stop and each exterior destination announcement. This took about four months to complete.

Marty then listened to about 4,000 names for errors. After the annunciators were fully deployed, corrections from the remaining names trickled back to him from customers and operators. There weren’t that many — by January there were only about 10 corrections made.

As well, if you’re curious, Marty does all the corrections manually, working with CMBC’s programmers to fine-tune the pronunciations in the speech software, until the final announcement sounds right. The new data is deployed on the system on Mondays.

As a side note, the interior Passenger Information Display (PID) receives its stop name data automatically from our scheduling system, which is separate from the announcements.

How did we choose the voice for the annunciator?

In fact, the speech software offered 18 different computerized voices to choose from, both male and female, in all manner of accents (British, American Southern, etc).

To choose the voice for our annunciators, Marty and Richard Brown, CMBC’s director of service support and security, were given the full set of voices to listen to. Both of them chose the same voice independently of each other. By coincidence, it also happens to be the same voice used on our automated Customer Information phone system. Who knew?

Exactly when do the annunciators make their announcements?

First, the annunciators say the name and number of the bus three times:

  • once on board as soon as the driver opens the doors
  • once at 30 seconds after the doors open
  • and one more time at 60 seconds

For the next stop announcements, the annunciators speak based on the distance to the next stop. The bus will usually announce the next stop when it is 200 metres away.

If the distance to the next stop is more than a kilometre, it will announce the stop twice: 250 metres after leaving the previous stop, and then a reminder when it is 200 metres away from the next stop.

And if the distance between stops is less than 200m, the announcement for the next stop fires immediately after leaving the previous stop.

Have there been any challenges with implementing the announcement system?

Depending on who you happen to be, the annunciators are a modest success… or not so much.

For the visually impaired and those unfamiliar with the region, the annunciators are a great help with navigating the route. For operators, there is a benefit in that automated announcements let them focus on the road, rather than constantly calling out the stops.

However, for some who live near a bus stop, the external announcements of the bus name and number can be quite disruptive.

There is also a challenge in finding a volume level that helps the sight impaired, but is not overpowering for the operators and the rest of the customers.

The volume level is tough to set because ambient noise levels vary widely on a bus, depending on the time of day and where the bus is on its route. As well, there are 14 types of buses on our system, with audio quality ranging from crystal clear to unintelligible.

Also, for safety reasons, the operator can’t adjust the volume level while driving. In general, the system is given a default minimum volume level, and the operator can set it to that level or higher at the start of their trip, predicting what the useful volume might be for the rest of their route.

We should note that these issues are not unique to CMBC – all the systems that use annunciators struggle with these challenges at some level.

But CMBC staff are working on these as best as possible, and time and some ingenuity will likely lead to some solutions. After all, the annunciators have only been on the system for a few months now. As well, as the fleet adds more new vehicles and retires older ones, the average quality of the speaker systems should get better.

What if I hear the annunciators pronouncing something wrong, or any other announcement error?

Please send a note over to our Customer Relations department via this web form, or give them a call at 604-953-3040. The messages will be sent to Marty and his staff and they will evaluate and fix the announcement.


29 Comments

  • By Scott, February 10, 2009 @ 12:06 pm

    That picture is from the 160 :P as it’s a PTC based bus.

  • By Jhenifer Pabillano, February 10, 2009 @ 12:07 pm

    Argh. All right, back to you — that’s the intersection of Burrard and Robson. Tell me what the next stop should be on that one, and I’ll fix the photo to reflect it.

  • By Eric, February 10, 2009 @ 12:40 pm

    Your balloon is correct. The bus may have the “P” tag for PoCo Transit Centre, but it is based out of Richmond for the 98 and 49x. The prefix just hasn’t been updated in a couple of years.

  • By Jhenifer Pabillano, February 10, 2009 @ 12:52 pm

    Well, okay, thanks for that, Eric :)

  • By Steven, February 10, 2009 @ 7:09 pm

    As a new person in Vancouver I rely on the messages a lot. If it wasn’t for these who knows where I would end up!!

  • By Deasine, February 10, 2009 @ 11:15 pm

    Thanks for this. Out of curiosity, would you mind telling them about an error Jhenifer? On the 49th bus, Vivian St. stop is displayed correctly as Vivian St. on the LED display, but Crystal says, “Vivian Dr.” instead. Nothing big though…

  • By Jhenifer Pabillano, February 11, 2009 @ 9:02 am

    Hi Deasine, as mentioned in the last item of the article, you can send any announcement corrections to Customer Relations, or feel free to give them a call at 604-953-3040. Your message will be sent to Marty and his staff!

  • By James, February 11, 2009 @ 9:13 am

    Great article! I think the announcers are a really great step forward. When I first came to Vancouver from London the thing I noticed immediately was just how much local knowledge you were expected to have to navigate the system. These make it much easier. Plus now I can have a snooze on the bus on the way to work and listen out for my stop :)!

  • By Brody, February 11, 2009 @ 11:07 pm

    I notice at many stops the annunciator says the correct stop name, but the LED display has “XXXX Block” (With XXXX being a number) instead of the street name.

    I can’t think of any specific examples off the top of my head, but is that related to the data entered into the system, or a limitation of the system itself?

  • By Jhenifer Pabillano, February 12, 2009 @ 9:00 am

    Hey Brody,
    As mentioned in the article, the interior Passenger Information Displays (PID) get their stop name data from our scheduling system, which is a separate system from the announcements.

    So the displays and the announcements are drawing on separate pools of data, which probably explains the discrepancy you’ve noticed.

  • By Tim, February 12, 2009 @ 1:54 pm

    They really need to label all stops with the street and crossroads. Stating one location is rather confusing.

  • By Graham, February 17, 2009 @ 6:39 pm

    Jhenifer,
    I can’t seem to find anything here or in the initial article about the strange pattern of blinking of the ‘Stop’ part of some of the PID units. My initial guess was that this is some kind of Morse Code for the visually impaired who have enough vision to see the pattern of flashes, am I far off? Thank you in advance.

  • By Jhenifer Pabillano, February 18, 2009 @ 10:01 am

    Hi Graham! No, I don’t know the answer to that one. PIDs are a separate system from the annunciators so we never covered that. But I’ll forward your question on and see if there is an answer.

  • By Jhenifer Pabillano, February 18, 2009 @ 1:00 pm

    Graham — I just got word back from Marty on the PIDs. Turns out it’s not an intentional flicker at all! Here’s the full answer:

    The flickering is caused by a voltage differential in the signalling that occurs after the bell cord is pulled. The issue was addressed on many buses during the initial installations and checks. It is not apparent on all models of coach. Those coaches that are now beginning to exhibit the behaviour will be addressed as they are reported to maintenance.

  • By Markus, February 18, 2009 @ 7:00 pm

    The announcements help a lot riding on unfamiliar routes.

    I have noticed that the announcements are sometimes somewhat confusing. I believe this is partially explained by the Buzzer article (a stop can only have on name across all lines), but the following happens even in cases where there’s only one bus line:

    Case 1: you are travelling west on the #25 on Nanaimo Street, then the bus turns onto Kingsway and it announces “Nanaimo Street” (while the more logical announcement in that case would be “Kingsway”). — On the #19, however, the existing announcement obviously makes sense.

    Case 2: the same happens on the #25 after the bus turns onto Knight (it’ll announce Kingsway and not Knight). — And I don’t think there’s another line stopping at that particular stop. So, I am not sure why it is doing it here.

    Case 3: The #104 in Queensborough is really confusing as it enters the Port Royal loop. It basically always announces the street one just *left*, not the one the bus turned onto.

  • By Markus, February 19, 2009 @ 8:45 am

    Of course, I meant “King Edward” when I wrote “Knight”. :-(

  • By Jhenifer Pabillano, February 27, 2009 @ 2:34 pm

    Sorry for the lateness of this reply, Markus! I think you should really submit this to Customer Relations, who will forward it on to Marty and his team. Since you’ve identified some very specific issues, they can take the info and do an actual investigation, and then respond to you directly without me as a go between :) And you can share the response you get with us if you like.

  • By Sean Turvey, May 17, 2009 @ 9:26 am

    For the volume issue, a sound level meter could be installed. The volume would adjust to the noise level on the bus at the time of the announcements. This way if a large, noisy group gets on the, volume would go up. As the bus empties, the volume would automaticaly lower.

  • By ;-), January 5, 2010 @ 9:20 pm

    Has anyone noticed that the Canada Line stations are being introduced as “Skytrain” stations as the bus approaches the stop?

  • By Dennis, January 19, 2010 @ 12:10 am

    I think the Canada Line is branded as a SkyTrain line. See http://tripplanning.translink.ca/hiwire?.a=iScheduleLookupSearch&LineName=999&LineAbbr=999

  • By ;-), January 19, 2010 @ 10:27 pm

    Isn’t “Skytrain” a trademarked name after Bombardier’s driverless linear induction trains?
    http://www.knowledgerush.com/kr/encyclopedia/SkyTrain/

    Can these electric Korean trains really be called “Skytrain”? Why would West Coast Express have it’s own name?

  • By Jhenifer Pabillano, January 20, 2010 @ 4:20 pm

    Hmm… I don’t know if it is trademarked. It’s definitely the name our region dubbed it though: BCRTC’s library has articles from the 1980s showing when/how the system was named! It might just really be a useful shorthand for the Bombardier system now. It’s easier to say “SkyTrain” than “Advanced rapid transit system”.

    West Coast Express is actually a totally different type of train: it’s heavy rail, two floors of seats, and it has drivers.

  • By Jhenifer Pabillano, January 20, 2010 @ 4:21 pm

    Oh, I forgot to say above that we consider Canada Line part of the SkyTrain system (ie: Expo, Millennium, and Canada Lines are all lines on the SkyTrain system, since that’s the regional branding for our light rail.)

  • By Ric, March 3, 2010 @ 7:53 pm

    I have noticed that on buses where the LED display boards don’t display the stop coming up the word STOP wouldn’t show up either after pulling to bell cord or pushing the stop button. Why is this happening? Is it a faulty display board?
    I have also notice that announcements for stops such as skytrain stations, bus exchanges and bus loops the system will announce the stop but on the LED display board, the name of that stop keeps scrolling on the display like an advertisement display until the bus leaves that stop while for the other stops it just displays the stop and it disappears once the bus leaves that stop. Why is it doing this?

  • By Ric, March 4, 2010 @ 7:49 am

    I have also noticed that the LED displays get stuck. By getting stuck I mean that the previous stop stays on the display and will not disappear after leaving that stop causing nothing to be able to get displayed on the LED board not even the word STOP. Is this caused by some communication error between the two systems?

  • By aaron abas, December 29, 2016 @ 6:51 pm

    The LED signs are bad. I like the ones on the Xcelsiors. The luminator horizon signs.

  • By JC, August 13, 2017 @ 9:00 pm

    Wow! I stumbled upon this article because I had always wondered how the bus announcements know what the next stop is! However, I have a follow-up question: How does the bus detect that it is 200 metres away from a stop? Are there sensors on the bus and on the bus stop sign? Or does the bus itself keep track of how far it has travelled? Thanks!

  • By Allen Tung, August 14, 2017 @ 9:32 am

    Hi JC, our buses are equip with GPS so that’s how it knows how far away from a stop it is. I encourage you to check out this post: http://buzzer.translink.ca/2009/02/a-look-at-t-comm-the-transit-communications-centre/.

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  1. The Buzzer blog » TransLink 101: welcome to our February special post series! — February 5, 2013 @ 10:56 am

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