Real-time updates due for T, bus riders

Authority to use tech-based system

During a recent service interruption on the Light Rail Transit system, Port Authority played a recorded announcement saying "all rail cars are experiencing significant delays due to a problem on the line," followed by an apology and assurance that the authority "is working hard to fix the problem."

The announcement, played every few minutes, didn't exactly mollify riders waiting at Wood Street Station. They exchanged stories about how long they had waited and grumbled about the vagueness of the announcement.

For the record, the problem wasn't the authority's fault. A power line near a station in Castle Shannon had flamed out and firefighters halted rail traffic as a precaution.

But the incident illustrated a long-standing grievance of rail riders: The authority, despite knowing the whereabouts of all rail cars at all times, has been unable to communicate that information to its customers during delays.

That is going to change with the adoption of technology that will allow the transit agency to use a variety of channels -- including email, text messages, Twitter, voice announcements, its website and display screens -- to give rail and bus riders specific, real-time information about service problems, authority spokesman Jim Ritchie said.

"This really opens the door to solving one of our key customer service problems," he said. "From a rider standpoint, this would be a huge improvement over what's in place today."

The authority has not adopted a timetable for the improvements.

"Over the next few years, probably in pieces, we'll be able to start turning this stuff on," Mr. Ritchie said.

The technology is part of the authority's adoption of a system that allows riders with mobile devices and computers to track the whereabouts of buses and expected arrival times. The real-time system has been pilot-tested on the P1 East Busway-All Stops and P2 East Busway Short routes since last year, and soon will expand to other routes, he said.

When all of the new technology is in place, the authority will be able to tell riders not only where the bus and rail vehicles are, but what's holding them up -- a crash on the Highland Park Bridge or a vehicle breakdown on the Red Line in Beechview, for example. Riders will be able to subscribe to alerts specific to the routes they travel.

Large digital message screens will be installed at key stops and stations, as well as several smaller screens, Mr. Ritchie said.

Although the authority monitors the movement of all rail cars at its operations center at South Hills Village, it lacks a reliable and timely way to broadcast that information, he said. When an announcement is recorded, it takes several minutes to start playing, and can only be broadcast systemwide rather than to specific locations.

Customer service employees staff the rail operations center during rush hours, but their first priority is getting information about bus and rail delays to the authority's call center, he said. Changes in personnel deployment likely will be part of the adoption of the new system.

Meanwhile, new technology already has arrived for motorists, from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, which this month unveiled a mobile app that delivers advisories about traffic delays.

When it is turned on, it provides spoken updates. Users can tailor the alerts based on event type, their location (with a radius of up to 500 miles), direction of travel and how often they want alerts repeated. The application, available for iPhone and Android devices, covers nearly 40,000 miles of PennDOT roads, the Pennsylvania Turnpike and some highways in New Jersey and West Virginia. The application is available for free at the iTunes and Google Play stores by searching 511PA.

MORE on transportation: Panel looks to map future of public transit in Western Pennsylvania

Jon Schmitz: or 412-263-1868. Visit the PG's transportation blog, The Roundabout, at Twitter: @pgtraffic.

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