Your Questions for Neil, Round 3, Part 4 – Potpourri

In the final segment of our conversation with TriMet General Manager Neil McFarlane, we discuss a range of issues, from regenerative braking to electronic fares.

A transcript of the interview, prepared by Engineer Scotty, follows the jump.
CS: All right, our final area of questions is sort of a potpourri area, so excuse me for skipping around a little bit…

NM: Is this the speed round?

[laughter]

CS: Well I don’t know, we’re doing pretty well on time, so I don’t really have to rush. A couple years ago, TriMet received a grant to put regenerative braking energy storage system on, I think 20 MAX vehicles. What’s the progress on that?

NM: Actually, we had a pilot installation, more earlier this year. My understanding is we’re monitoring it, and it’s progressing well. I haven’t had a full report on it, it’s.. some of our vehicle engineers continue to work with it. It was kind of a thing where I think there was going to be a certain level of tweaking associated with it, and so that tweaking was going on with the prototype installations that we had. But moving ahead, and will be in place before long.

CS: OK, I’m sure our readers would love to hear about it. A question that comes up, probably every time you do service planning. Today we have an Alder-Washington couplet, I’m sorry, an Alder-Salmon-Washington couplet, very far apart, people keep asking why can’t we do Alder-Washington instead?

NM: Well, that’s a really excellent question, and it probably goes to more history than I have, about why these routes are on these particular streets they have. I do know that the 15 that we’re talking about here, the number 15 line, also serves the Goose Hollow station (sic). Well, there’s a lot of transferring that goes on between the 15 bus line and the MAX line, and so then… once you get that far, where you’re really providing a close transfer connection to the westside portion of the MAX line, then Salmon is about the first street you get to that heads east, so that’s one notion. And, you know the other consideration I think we’ve got is that Alder is a pretty busy street, a lot of businesses, a lot of parking, it’s kind of an onramp to the bridge, at one end, so I think there’d have to be a little bit of research and study as to whether or not it’s worthy of really looking at. I’ll ask Service Planning the question again, if they’ll actually look at that. I guess the other observation I’ve got is that there’s a pretty excellent couplet one block over at Morrison and Yamhill, or two blocks over at Morrison and Yamhill, which I think serves that east-west travel through downtown pretty well, it’s almost a moving sidewalk of trains these days, with all the different combinations of lines on it.

CS: TriMet’s been a pioneer in real-time arrival, and services around that, I personally participated in some of the software development around that, but the question we get is that while the busses have GPS, as I understand it, the predictions for the MAX trains come from circuits in the tracks, and are not always as accurate. Our readers would like to know, is there a prospect for better accuracy on the MAX arrival predictions?

NM: Great question, and I’m afraid that I don’t know the answer. But I would tell that in the, over the rest of this calendar year, we will be updating our AVL (automatic vehicle location) system and our radio system on the bus system, so rather than having what is now I think is a satellite update every three minutes, we’ll be compressing that, it will be even shorter. So for the busses themselves, we will be getting more accurate information here out to customers, probably by the end of the year. That’s combined with another one of our major, frankly, re-investments in the bus system, which is a new automatic dispatch system, new radio system, and new consoles on the busses themselves. Part of that, again, later this year, we’ll begin to see a new printer for transfers as well. And one of our long term.. a lot of people say, well how come you have, as I call it, the best of the 19th century technology for our current transfers on the bus, whereas we have much more elaborate printing devices for the MAX, and this will begin to equalize between the modes, and I think will be a great asset, both for our riders and for our operators, particularly who right now have to be careful how they tear that little piece of paper.

CS: And our last question is also a technology question. Last month, you released a white paper on electronic fare technologies. What’s the timeline in which our readers can look forward to seeing some of that technology deployed?

NM: Well, believe it or not, it’s probably about five years. Later this year, and the budget does include a little bit of a stipend for this, is that we’ll be releasing an RFP (request for proposals) looking for some technical assistance for this. Meanwhile, we’ll be continue our conversations with many others in the transit, many of our peers in the transit industry. And this is a really hot topic in transit industry nationwide. I think one of the great advantages of moving from, as I say, from the 19th century to now, to the cutting-edge technology that’s out now, is we’ll be skipping whole generations of technology, and the old smart card technologies that frankly, a couple years ago, we would have thought was cutting edge, may not be cutting-edge by the time we actually implement this. But believe it or not, five years is probably about as fast as we can do this, just given the need to develop the specification carefully, to do research for some of the different providers, to actually begin to prototype some things, and then do the actual procurements related to the contract, and the installation. I’d also expect that as we start, we’d do some pilot projects where we might not do the whole system all at once, we’d try a segment of it, maybe give Portland Transport readers access to it, and TriMet employees, and begin to see how it works for us, subset, before we make it ubiquitous across the system. It’s a big deal. There’s nothing more difficult for a transit agency than fare technology, because it, it is literally touches every element of our operation, from our operations, to our finance division, to the legal division, to the IT division. It takes incredible coordination and communication to be able to pull this off well. We’re committed to doing that, and as you know, I’ve made this a bit of a priority, that we begin to really focus on this as an agency.

CS: So what do you see as some of the key benefits to riders, from the transfer to electronic fares?

NM: Well, I think ease will be one, first of all, if one is using either a proximity credit card or a near-phone, near-field connection from a cell phone, I think it would be very easy for both regular riders, as well as occasional riders, to use the system. The other thing is I think there will be some advantages in terms of fare evasion, and I think we’ll be able to catch it, because what happens in these systems is you walk on the bus, you flash your device, and you get a green light or a red light, and it’s very clear, and there’s no level of interpretation on the part of the operator, about whether or not the fare instrument is right, because the computers make, defines the rules, in that regard. So I think there’s some advantages to that as well. It will reduce the leakage, I guess you can say, in the current fare system. I also think that there will be incredible advantages to us, to those of us think about planning and transit development in terms of information that will be available. We get incredible origin-destination data from those systems, so I think will be very help to planning systems in the future. So I think there are really some substantial benefits. Another one, and I’ve asked our project staff for the Portland-Milwaukie project to look at this, is whether or not we can begin to prototype a closed station design, much like you see at the Washington Metro or the New York City subway, and begin to prototype that at the Bybee station, on the Portland-Milwuakie line. And that might be a prototype for other stations in suburban areas, particularly where there’s accesses, we can actually constrain the access to the stations, so only paid fareholders can access the platform or the station.

CS: So, if I recall the City Club discussion–I think you got that question at the City Club about open vs closed platforms, and you made the point that certainly in the central city, the stations are part of the urban fabric, and it would be very hard to segregate them. Is there a value to being able to close some stations without being able to close all of them?

NM: I think there is. I think for example, some of the stations that where they’re a bit removed from the street, like along the Banfield, I think people would feel more secure if they knew only other fare-paying passengers were there. And while we have done a lot of work in terms of cameras and lights, the access control would be one additional improvement related to security. And I think, in some of those situations, you know, frankly, just making sure that anybody who’s able to access the trains, or get off the train, because it’s the same situation, has paid, is, will help with the leakage question, that I raised earlier.

CS: We’re talking about the benefits of potentially closing some platforms. I think in the past, 82nd Avenue, I think, has been a suggested location for security reasons for that. Any comment as to whether that would fit within this scheme?

NM: It would, in the future. I might note that we’ve completed a pilot project for 82nd Avenue, working with the neighborhood, and Portland Police, and Portland Department of Transportation, and ODOT all part of that, and what we did was improve lighting, we made sure that the platforms are clearly marked as fare-paid zone, that allow our fare inspectors and transit police to do more inspections to make sure that people who are on the platform are, do have a legitimate fare, i.e. and a legitimate reason to be there. So a number of improvements were taken, have taken place, but that’s a little different than having the closed physical barrier, and we obviously just don’t have the technology in our fare system to allow that right now, and that would be the innovation that we improve.

CS: I’d like to thank you very much for sharing this time with our readers.

NM: All my pleasure. Thank you, Chris.

6 Comments

6 Responses to Your Questions for Neil, Round 3, Part 4 – Potpourri

  1. al m
    March 29, 2012 at 11:17 pm Link

    re; new radio avl system-$38,000,000 (bonds)

    38 million dollars could have bought 76 new buses.

    New radios for old decrepit buses.

    Makes sense to me.

  2. dwainedibbly
    March 30, 2012 at 5:35 am Link

    The problem with waiting for a newer & better technology for an electronic fare system is that there is ALWAYS something else coming “real soon”. Sure, we might have gone with a smartcard system a few years ago and it would no longer be cutting edge, but, and this is important, we wouldn’t be stuck with a paper system now.

    Planning lead times are so long that you’re almost never going to be installing the best and greatest. Accept that as fact, pick something, and do it with the realization that something better will be out soon. Plan for the next-generation as soon as you have amortized the cost of the one you just installed.

  3. EngineerScotty
    March 30, 2012 at 10:10 am Link

    I hear that in a few years, they will have telepathic fare-paying systems: You get on the bus, the device reads your mind, finds your credit card number or bank account number, and deducts the fare. If you don’t have one (or don’t have enough money), it uses the same technology does a Jedi mind trick on you at which point you tell yourself “This is not the bus I’m looking for”.

    A white paper should be forthcoming in a couple years.

    :P

    More seriously–the new radios, once installed, can be moved to new busses as they arrive, so it’s mainly a question of priority.

  4. al m
    March 30, 2012 at 10:30 am Link

    mainly a question of priority.

    I believe this is what all the arguing is about-
    PRIORITIES!

  5. Jason McHuff
    March 30, 2012 at 10:45 am Link

    Also, it’s really the FCC and their requirements for narrowbanding that’s pushing the purchase of the new radios and dispatch system. It’s not like TriMet is upgrading to keep with the latest and greatest version. In fact, the current system dates to the mid 90’s–in other words, comparable to Windows 95 or even 3.1 vintage, which of course no one uses anymore except for extreme necessity.

    Overall, it’s not prudent to look at a budget shortfall, panic, and decide to stop moving forward. As a non-transit example, it doesn’t make sense for a state hiring freeze to prohibit the annual re-activation of forest firefighters and tax return processors.

    Also, regarding the new fare system (as well as the new dispatch system), I’ve read that it’s designed to be open and to an extent future-proof.

  6. AL M
    March 30, 2012 at 7:02 pm Link

    [Moderator: Personally-directed remark removed. Al, knock it off. - Bob R.]

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