There are plenty of variations on the aphorism, “That’s no way to run a railroad!” (The actual source quote is from a 1932 political cartoon in the humor magazine Ballyhoo and is, somewhat archaically, “Tch, tch! What a way to run a railroad!”) Nonetheless, the sentiment remains ubiquitous in urban transportation: There has to be a better way to manage what has become a massive logistical, control and security challenge as urban cores become more densely populated and rely more than ever on public transportation.
On the seventh floor of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) headquarters in Boston, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s Operations Control Center (MBTA OCC) thinks they’ve conquered that challenge. There, a combination of AV and IT technology and design has brought the newly renovated OCC to life, with a huge new videowall and much deeper integration between AV and IT systems designed to keep Greater Boston’s transportation hubs more secure and efficient.
The $6 million renovation of the agency’s existing control room, paid for through grant funding from the Department of Homeland Security, was prompted by a number of factors, including outdated display technologies and poor lighting. But its main drawback was an inability to display information and data from a wide array of sources, such as other state systems for transportation, security and other functions, in a coherent and quickly actionable manner.
“The existing systems didn’t give them the flexibility they needed to make decisions quickly and accurately based on the available data,” explained Jim Ferlino, one of the principals of Vistacom (vistacominc.com), the Allentown PA-based AV systems integrator who took on the project. The installation commenced over the summer on a 10-week compressed timeline after a 10-week demolition of the room’s old systems.
For instance, Ferlino said, the city’s transit system has more than 10,000 video cameras, but trying to bring up specific ones in a timely manner was cumbersome and could have led to minutes lost during an emergency, a caution not lost on the city in the wake of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings. “There were ways to get other types of data into the control room, like weather reports and traffic information, but not in a way that made sense, that could be used to make informed, comprehensive assessments of unfolding situations,” he explained.
Some of what the OCC needed was obvious, such as better imagery and improved workspace lighting. But before they could begin to plan out the upgrade, they had to understand the nature and dynamics of this particular control room culture, offered Dan Gundry, Vistacom’s Control Room Team specialist. “We had to take the time to understand MBTA’s particular concept of operations there, how they needed to share information with other stakeholders in the building and elsewhere, as well as how they took in information from other sources, and what their protocols were for making decisions and action. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to understand how they wanted the systems to operate.”