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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 [1] 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 [2] (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 [3] 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 [4] 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:

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.