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A look at T-Comm, the Transit Communications centre

A look at T-Comm, the Transit Communications centre

A glance at T-Comm, the Transit Communications centre out at the Surrey Transit Centre.
A glance at T-Comm, the Transit Communications centre out at the Surrey Transit Centre.

When a transit operator talks on their radio, have you ever wondered who’s answering at the other end?

It’s the men and women working at Transit Communications, which is located out at the Surrey Transit Centre.

T-Comm, as it’s often called, is like an air traffic control centre, but for public transit instead. Twenty-four hours a day, three to seven T-Comm supervisors are constantly monitoring the buses on the system. They manage the flow of bus traffic as much as possible, and provide information and support to operators as needed.

I was lucky enough to visit T-Comm, meet the fine folks who work there, and see their brand-new real-time communications system in action. So, let’s take a closer look and see what managing a bus system is all about!

The T-Comm centre

Just thought I’d do a video of the T-Comm centre for you, to better show what the room looks like. I’m standing at the back of the room here.

David Doney, one of the duty managers at T-Comm, gave the tour and pointed what everyone in the room is doing. The three desks at the front are devoted specifically to managing buses in the City of Vancouver. The two on the back left are managing Port Coquitlam, North Vancouver, & Burnaby. The two on the back right are for Richmond and Surrey.

Every day, T-Comm receives 1,000 calls from operators a day – on a busy day, that number can double. Seven supervisors staff all the desks during the peak hours, and late at night (10 p.m. to 6 a.m.), four staff man the posts. The average response time for non-emergency calls is three minutes, and David says they’re even working on taking that down to 90 seconds.

The three info screens hanging from the ceiling at T-Comm. Another set hangs along the wall to the left of this photo.
The three info screens hanging from the ceiling at T-Comm. Another set hangs along the wall to the left of this photo.

Also, along two different walls in T-Comm, three screens hang from the ceiling to give everybody access to crucial information.

The leftmost screen holds key updates about the system, inputted by T-Comm supervisors.

The centre screen is tuned to television stations that might be transmitting important information – it’s currently on the weather channel right now. And the rightmost screen shows any known bus cancellations and the reasons why.

The new communications system

Downtown Vancouver’s bus traffic at a glance. Owing to new communications upgrades, supervisors at Transit Communications can now watch bus traffic throughout the region like this in real time.
Downtown Vancouver’s bus traffic at a glance. Owing to new communications upgrades, supervisors at Transit Communications can now watch bus traffic throughout the region like this in real time.

The screen above might look like a videogame, but it’s actually a real-time look at the bus traffic in downtown Vancouver. (It’s not this morning’s traffic – this photo was taken a few weeks ago, sorry!)

Duty manager Tony Madrid stands at the manager's desk, in the back of the T-Comm centre. Each supervisor has a row of screens like this displaying data from TMAC and more.
Duty manager Tony Madrid stands at the manager’s desk, in the back of the T-Comm centre. Each supervisor has a row of screens like this displaying data from TMAC and more.

Real-time region maps and data are what T-Comm supervisors now monitor, thanks to the brand-new, highly sophisticated Transit Management and Communications System (TMAC), which completed installation at the end of 2008.

The new system supplies real-time data about every bus and support vehicle in the fleet, through Global Positioning System (GPS) technology. The buses now constantly send signals to the system, identifying their location and their status – opening doors, passing a stop, etc. Obviously, this opens up some really powerful ways to manage and monitor the system.

Maps like the one above are just one example of the useful information now available to T-Comm supervisors. Since the data displays in real time, the map updates every two minutes, and you can track the buses as they follow their routes.

An example of the colour code used on the real-time maps.
An example of the colour code used on the real-time maps.

The eagle eyes among you can probably see that all the buses have different colour codes, too. The codes show which buses are ahead or behind schedule. Here’s the key:

  • Red – ahead of schedule by 30 seconds or more
  • Green – On Time (this is where we want buses to be!)
  • Yellow – Less than 5 minutes behind schedule
  • Purple – Less than 10 behind schedule
  • Blue – More than 15 minutes behind schedule

(As you can see, most buses are green, so they were doing quite well that morning!)

If any bus reports that they need help, supervisors can also get the system to immediately show the location of support vehicles in the vicinity. A supervisor could then alert the right support vehicle and send them over to help.

Another way of seeing bus traffic data. Click for a larger version.
Another way of seeing bus traffic data. Here each route is represented by a line of data. Click for a larger version.
If bus 2165 was in trouble, T-Comm supervisors would know immediately which support vehicles were nearby to assist.
If bus 2165 was in trouble, T-Comm supervisors would know immediately which support vehicles were nearby to assist.

You can see that on the image to the right—we selected bus 2165 as the target bus, and the support vehicles nearby were immediately shown.

More data is also available in non-map form: for instance, in the image at the far right, the stats for all the lines are updated in real-time.

Click this for a larger version -- it's every stop on the #8 route plus the status of every bus on that route.
Click this for a larger version — it’s every stop on the #8 route plus the status of every bus on that route.

Each line shows a bus route, and the colour codes indicate how ahead or behind schedule it is. The system also tracks exactly which bus is furthest ahead and which is furthest behind, and how many vehicles are on the route.

You can also drill down further and see even more detail about the individual routes, like the #8 route at right. This screen shows all the buses on the route, exactly where they are located, if they are ahead or behind schedule, and more.

Better communication with operators

The new TMAC system also helps T-Comm better communicate with operators.

First, the system installation at the end of 2008 included a full upgrade of our radio system. Digital radios were installed in all the buses, and we put up our own radio towers, meaning we don’t have to rely on third-parties to transmit our communications anymore. ( Correction: In fact we have never relied on third parties to transmit our communications. Transit Communications leases space on existing towers for our radio antennas and microwave dishes, as do most radio systems like police, fire, and ambulance radio systems. In the past we did however rely on leased phones lines to connect the radio sites with the communications centre. The major difference in our new system is the backhaul (the way the data flows between the radio sites and the communications centre). For TMAC we built our own microwave system (instead of continuing to depend on leased phone lines) so we can directly control the data flow.)

The communications panel found inside the buses.
The communications panel found inside the buses.

What does the communications panel look like inside the buses? At right you can see the panel that operators use. (It’s a test box used for training, which is why it’s just sitting on a ledge).

A red emergency button is at the left of the panel. If an operator is being assaulted, he or she can hit the red button, and T-Comm will be alerted. The radio will automatically kick in and T-Comm can listen in for 30 seconds to hear what is happening, while they work to send assistance. T-Comm can actually listen in for continuous bursts of 30 seconds—the radio stops sending voice for a moment, transmits location and other data, and then returns to the monitor (listen in). This monitoring can continue indefinitely at TComm’s discretion.

Reroute messages can be delivered solely to drivers of affected routes via TMAC.
Reroute messages can be delivered solely to drivers of affected routes via TMAC.

Also of note is the screen on the side. T-Comm can deliver text messages straight to the screen, making it easy to communicate with operators without picking up the radio.

The screen also efficiently informs drivers of any reroutes at the start of their shift. T-Comm supervisors can input a reroute into the system – say, a reroute for bus #10, #16, and #17. Then TMAC is smart enough to only alert drivers on routes #10, #16, and #17 of the reroute via the screen, alerting them after they sign into the system.

New vs. old systems

The new system is a vast improvement over our old transit communications—a hodgepodge of four separate systems, including an original Motorola radio system and a system of cell phones given to drivers.

And while it’s still early in the launch of the system, so T-Comm and our operators are continuing to learn more and more about TMAC’s capabilities and how to use them to better manage our fleet.

What Vancouver Transit Centre looks like on the real-time map. (Ha!)
What Vancouver Transit Centre looks like on the real-time map. (Ha!)

But we do know right now the real-time data and better communications help T-Comm be more proactive in managing the fleet. They’re now able to notice late buses and take care of them before they become a problem. And over time, the collected data will help us better notice traffic issues and respond accordingly.

As well, TMAC is well able to handle our vehicle fleet and the anticipated expansions expected for the future.

I’ll leave you with a fun picture of what the Vancouver Transit Centre looks like on the real time map. If you have any questions, feel free to send them along in the comments!