Traveller Information Systems. By Kevin S. Hutchby
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Leo Rogers, the Special Assistant to the General Manager of MBTA, provided an introduction to the functions of the company as well as highlighting the important role MBTA plays in Boston's transport system. MBTA are responsible for over 900 commuter buses, harbour shuttle boats and commuter trains as well as the impressive rail subway known as the "T". The company is funded from fares received, advertising and Federal supplements.

Boston's 'T' subway system network

The "T" system is divided into four main lines, as shown on the map, and is co-ordinated from a state of the art control centre built as recently as 1998 out of capital funding. Indeed, it is the first of its kind anywhere in the United States. An existing tower block in downtown Boston was extended by six floors in order to accommodate both the MBTA staff and equipment. The following facts help in gaining an impression of the size of MBTA operations:

  • MBTA serves 78 individual communities in the Greater Boston Area - a population of 2,619,800 people
  • Coverage includes some services from Rhode Island State to New Hampshire
  • MBTA buses carry 362,000 passengers per weekday (10 times the capacity of Fenway Park - home of the Red Sox)
  • More than 1.1 million boardings of the "T" subway take place per day
  • In 1999 MBTA buses and subway trains travelled over 50 million miles or the equivalent of 5.5 times around the world every day

Boston's numerous commuter and college buses provide excellent alternatives to the car

A visit to the control centre was arranged, and MBTA's Mike Glennon kindly provided a tour. The centre boasts an impressive, composite video wall with the displays managed via a computer controlled video matrix system. The wall had to be convex in shape due to the huge amount of information on show, which can include the entire "T" system as a schematic diagram as well as all of the current subway vehicles en route, and their locations. Selected CCTV images from the vast array of cameras that cover the "T" system can also be allocated to any part of the display. With weather playing a major role in the daily operation of the public transport system, the CNN weather channel is also displayed, this is especially relevant over winter when serious weather causes network disruptions.

MBTA require the information in order to ensure the smooth running of their many services as well as respond to commuters needs for effective public transport. When vehicle breakdowns are reported, or detected, extra vehicles can be quickly despatched.

If there are particular problems on the subway rail line commuter buses can be sent almost immediately to continue the service.

The control room staff monitor the movements of the numerous "T" vehicles and communicate with drivers should problems arise. The location of all the vehicles is achieved by equipping them with AVIs (Automatic Vehicle Identifiers). These are communicated back to the control centre computers via track-side sensors and fibre optic cables installed by a local phone company. The communication costs are not cheap but the installations were achieved as a partnership by allowing the phone company to access the existing subway system to lay part of it's communications infrastructure.

Traveller information boards in Boston In terms of getting network disruption information to the public, MBTA readily share the high tech facilities with representatives from SmartRoute who provide a local traffic and travel information service (they also cover about 40 other U.S. cities but have their headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts). The SmartRoute staff occupy the control room to monitor for incidents and are equipped with direct links from the MBTA facility to the local Channel 5 television news. Any incidents occurring around the "T" network are communicated back to Channel 5 and also to SmartRoute H.Q. for inclusion on the Internet site.

There exists at MBTA a culture of non-profit making information sharing, emphasised by their partnership with SmartRoute. Indeed, this was the first of many examples of partnerships and data sharing that I witnessed throughout my tour of facilities across the United States, with a positive onus being placed on getting information to commuters / travellers as quickly and as effectively as possible via various media. Such partnerships seemed imperative for such quality, comprehensive traveller information services to exist.

SmartRoute Systems publish information from MBTA on their impressive Internet Site There are additional "hotlinks" to the Boston control facility of Amtrak National Rail Network, MBTA commuter bus services and MBTA harbour shuttle boats for information sharing. This culminates in a virtually complete picture of Boston's public transport services, processed by MBTA and shared by SmartRoute Systems and, systematically, Channel 5 news. There also exists a communication with the Massachusetts Highway Authority who are responsible for managing the variable message signs (VMS) installed on the Boston highways. MBTA utilise these signs to indicate commuter parking areas near to "T" stations in case of serious congestion or incidents. The idea is to encourage commuters to park out of town and transfer to public transport. The signs are also used for information about special events such as the Ryder Cup and Boston Tall-ships.

There are definite enhancements to the Nottingham Travelwise Centre that are achievable through closer co-operation and data sharing with local transport operators. MBTA's main duty is to provide the best public transport for Greater Boston, they have however recognised the need for traveller information and even if they do not provide real time information themselves, their levels of co-operation with other organisations is commendable.

Inside an MBTA Transit vehicle MBTA do provide static traveller information on their Internet site, which includes timetables, maps, fares, news and general information about MBTA. In terms of this travelling fellowship there is no point focusing on Internet content because this is of course accessible from anywhere in world. My advice would be to look at any potentially relevant sites for yourself. Most, if not all of the organisations I visited across the U.S. had Internet sites and I will indicate the Internet addresses throughout the report as well as summarising them in a separate section along with other Internet sites of interest. This particular site can be found at

Publicity for MBTA's buses, subway and commuter rail is available all over the city. "T" maps are readily available free of charge and these include a comprehensive list of all relevant transportation contacts. Local and global "T" system maps permeate the "T" system at ticketing points, platforms and inside the vehicles themselves. This ensures it is virtually impossible to get lost whilst travelling around Boston and makes interchanging lines as easy as possible. Also whilst spending some time using the "T" subway you discover the in-vehicle scrolling variable message signs which indicate destination and current location information. These are nicely backed up with digitised voice announcements to aid the visually impaired or commuters on particularly busy trains with impaired views. At present these systems are available largely on the Blue and Red lines but further expansion is planned.

Travelling on the Blue line between Bowdoin in downtown and the Wonderland beach area north of the city is a good route to see station platforms equipped with scrolling VMS. The information sent to these includes service information, contact information for MBTA and the Internet address. They are not yet used for advertising / income purposes largely due to the limited income that this would generate. The company has plans to expand its use of automatic voice announcements and VMS, both in-vehicle and at stations. These are currently available on the Red and Blue lines but the plan is to equip the entire subway fleet with such features (the green line currently has none of this equipment). This is in line with current U.S. A.D.A. disability legislation (Americans with Disabilities Act).

Similar VMS systems are already being installed on the latest U.K. rolling stock and can be seen on several Central Trains and Midland Mainline services, among others. Automated voice systems were being introduced in 2001.

Other future projects for MBTA include a massive global positioning system (GPS) project for its 900 strong fleet of commuter buses. This would, more than likely, also be coordinated from the existing control centre and provide real time information about actual bus positions compared to schedules

Red Line from downtown Boston to AlewifeOverall Boston has an impressive public transport system, and one which is relatively cheap to ride. The 85 cents per journey has been maintained since I last visited Boston back in 1996 and in actual fact has been at that level since 1991. There is hassle free interchanging between different "T" lines and /or buses and at no extra cost. Tokens can be purchased for journeys and season passes are readily available at even cheaper prices. Current levels of advertising income, together with the patronage level, doesn't offset the huge revenue costs involved with running such a system. To this end there is currently a proposal to increase the standard journey fare from $0.85 cents to $1.00. A decision which will not be popular with commuters but which is seen as essential to MBTA who have not increased the service prices for nearly ten years. This increase will still leave Boston with one of the cheapest public transport systems in the U.S. and London Underground's cheapest standard fare is £1.50 (approximately $2.15 - year 2000 figures).

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