July 5, 2010
The 14 help wanted ads in this week's classifieds offer such jobs as a transit agency general manager and an executive director in academia!
Technology Innovations Cut Costs, Boost Safety in Public Transportation; New Processes Add Visibility, Collision Warning, Antibacterial Support
BY KATHERINE LEWIS, Special to Passenger Transport
Public transportation systems around the country are implementing new technologies to increase safety and cut costs, from a radio frequency-controlled flashing safety vest and “talking buses” to positive train control (PTC) and collision energy management systems.
Whether their purpose is to reduce the spread of bacteria in trains and buses or increase the effectiveness of safety measures at roadway and track crossings, new technology solutions must work in tandem with programs that educate the public as well as bus and train operators, public transportation officials emphasized.
“Technology is great, and the train still always has the right-of-way,” said Deborah M. Freund, a senior transportation specialist at the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. “Although there are a lot of tools on the horizon, we still need to remind truck and bus drivers that they’re the ones who need to take special care when they’re at a highway-rail grade crossing.”
Federal officials are working to more effectively measure dangerous crossings, such as those that would hinder low-clearance vehicles, and install warning signs, Freund said. They’re also working with Operation Lifesaver International to distribute visor cards to remind motor coach operators of safety concerns, and looking at improvements to Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) systems and mapping systems to warn of crossings and track locations.
Talking Buses in Cleveland
In Cleveland, safety officials developed an audible alert triggered by the bus’s steering system in hopes of reducing left-hand turn collisions between buses and pedestrians, which happen three or four times a year, according to Pamela McCombe, director of safety at the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority (GCRTA).
After the public responded negatively to buses making a loud beeping sound, the GCRTA settled on an announcement audible within and outside the bus: “Caution, look both ways. Pedestrians, bus is turning, bus is turning.” Strobe lights installed just above the light signal alert pedestrians who may be hearing-impaired that the bus is turning. McCombe said no bus-pedestrian collisions have occurred since the systems were introduced.
The authority also implemented a new training system, in conjunction with the union, emphasizing the real-world impact of collisions and training operators on a “rock-and-roll” method of seeing around blind spots during a left-hand turn.
“With any safety initiative, it has to be a multi-pronged approach,” McCombe said. “It’s not just the technology. It has to be an evaluation of all the root causes.”
Transform Buses into Mobile Training Units
To help safety officials determine the causes of problems, La Mesa, CA-based Vigil Solutions equips buses with cameras, motion sensors, and data recorders. By providing hard data to evaluate bus operators in real-world situations, transit agencies can identify the weak spots of a given employee, bus route, or highway intersection. Mystery riders can also board the bus with a Pocket PC and the data systems will show acts or concerns they identified as unsafe.
“The real reason that piece of technology is so effective is that we don’t simulate the world; we go out and validate the person’s ability to operate a bus,” said Vigil Solutions President Mark Anderson. “We have a record of it. We add a great deal of clarity to training.”
Overlaying the collected data onto maps in the bus system’s GPS can highlight problem areas and may even prompt a change in bus routes to circumvent a dangerous left turn or identify an accident-prone spot.
“We allow you to become smarter and push that information out to the bus operators,” Anderson said, predicting a 20 to 30 percent reduction in accidents immediately and 60 to 70 percent reduction after training and a year of use.
“Emerging technologies that relate to protecting operators on buses and providing more vision enhancement tools are good for our industry,” said Thomas M. Greufe, senior vice president, safety, Forsythe Transportation Inc. “Video technologies have really helped us provide a safer environment for the bus operator and help deter crashes by allowing us to analyze driver actions and responses to emergency situations.”
Warning Systems for Light Rail Trains
Los Angeles Metro officials knew their most major safety problem was motorists making illegal left turns over the light rail tracks that run alongside the road. They replaced passive “no left turn” signs with an actively flashing “train coming” sign and added photo enforcement cameras at 17 locations, thus reducing the number of left-hand turn accidents by close to 60 percent, said Abdul Zohbi, manager of system safety.
“We have done our part; we expect the public to do theirs,” he said. “You’re putting yourself against 270,000 pounds of mass with momentum and inertia. ... Trying to beat a train at a crossing is not worth the life of your family.”
LA Metro is now testing pavement flashers at the limit line in the left turn lane, so vehicles will see LED lights in the ground in addition to a red left arrow overhead. “Technology has proven effective,” Zohbi said. “We’re the ones who use it and see the positive consequences. We’re not afraid to try anything new.”
Because light rail trains are quiet, worker collisions are a big concern. That’s why Mount Vernon, IL-based Emtrac Systems developed a safety vest for employees of Houston’s Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County that will light up and flash when an approaching train sets off receivers in the vest. The worker’s location, including whether he or she is at ground level or elevated, is automatically sent to a monitor in the light rail vehicle and the centralized monitor, said Emtrac President Kris Morgan.
“We’re getting requests from every light rail agency in the country about it,” Morgan said. “We’ve got a special radio that the flagmen carry. They can press a button that will alarm the workers as well.”
Emtrac also has a PTC system that can detect a 19-inch spot with 98 percent accuracy and functions in an urban canyon at 100 percent. Through PTC, central computers can keep trains at safe distances and slow down or stop trains. “Just on the stop bar overrun, we were saving close to $1 million a mile on maintenance costs alone” after eliminating the need for loops and switches within the tracks, he said.
Smart Train Warning Systems
GO Transit has equipped 95 percent of its crossings in the greater Toronto area with predictors that evaluate the speed of the train–either freight or commuter--in deciding when to ring warning bells and lower gates and how long to keep gates down, said Grant Bailie, manager, railway corridors.
“You’re getting more consistency with the warning times independent of the speed of the train,” Bailie said. “If motorists sit at a crossing for a really long time, they may think there is a malfunction. That’s what sometimes encourages them to run the gates."
By replacing the old relay-style technology with event recorders and solid state controllers, the system gives a more precise warning of an oncoming train. GO Transit is in the process of replacing its eight-inch incandescent light units with 12-inch LED lights, Bailie said.
In the future, the agency plans to implement remote monitoring and automatic messages sent to maintenance workers’ PDAs in case of malfunction, with all events recorded in a central database for training and reporting purposes. GO Transit has installed cameras in all its locomotives and cab cars to help investigate incidents.
In southern California, Metrolink this spring began testing crash energy management (CEM)-enabled rail cars, which feature collision-absorption technology. “As the latest technological addition to our comprehensive public safety program, these new CEM cars will help save lives,” said Metrolink Board Chairman Keith Millhouse in a statement. With CEM technology, the train is designed so that, in a collision, the passengers will have a nested interior environment that protects them as much as possible.
Tackling the Spread of Germs and Viruses
To prevent germs and viruses from contaminating surfaces, Bombardier is rolling out an antimicrobial surface treatment program to public transportation agencies.
“The program remains effective for up to 12 months and it’s an environmentally friendly product whereby it doesn’t leach off the surface like many of the antimicrobials out there,” said Todd Coulter, manager of project management and engineering for Bombardier Services. “It cannot come off on your hands. It creates an invisible shield over all the interior surfaces.”
Not only does the treatment reduce the need for regular cleaning with harsh disinfectants, Coulter said, it increases the longevity of internal surfaces of vehicles by eliminating molds that can stain or wear down seat cushions and other surfaces.
“Most antimicrobials kill microbes via a chemical kill,” he said. “Ours works on a mechanical kill. It doesn’t produce an environment where there could be superbug adaptations.”
Buses equipped with cameras, data recorders: Vigil Solutions
Safety vest and positive train control: Emtrac Systems
Antimicrobial surface treatment: Bombardier Services
Los Angeles Metro’s flashing signs warn drivers not to turn left if a light rail vehicle is nearby.
An elaborate crosswalk at Pico Boulevard and Flower Street directs pedestrians near a Los Angeles Metro light rail station.
Vigil Solutions provides data systems that can track safety data with a hand-held computer.
The Vigil screen shows problem sites on a bus route.