Behind every bus driver and Link light rail operator is a team huddled behind a crowd of computer screens, monitoring buses and trains as they traverse the region. Sound Transit’s Link Control Center (pictured above) and King County Metro Transit’s Control Center (TCC) are collocated inside Metro’s Transit Control Center Building on the south side of the city.

But when there is a breakdown or a medical emergency, the TCC is ready to respond 24 hours a day. Last week on a rainy afternoon, coordinators spoke in hushed, unhurried tones as the evening commute commenced.

On the bus side, during peak times seven communication coordinators manage the 1,300 Metro and Sound Transit buses on the road. The number of communication coordinators drops to five during non-peak hours and even further on the weekend. A separate group, tasked with sending out emails, texts and Twitter alerts as buses are rerouted or trips are canceled, is housed in the same room as the communication coordinators, allowing for real-time updates and messages to riders.

Each communication coordinator is assigned a set of bus routes. Drivers can also communicate with the TCC through radio, phone and preprogrammed text messages. Each bus is also outfitted with an emergency push-button easily accessible to the drivers. If a driver is unable to speak to TCC coordinators after the button is pressed, an emergency response is immediately activated and support is sent to the bus’ location, tracked by the onboard GPS system.

Lights above each coordinator’s desk indicate how they’re communicating with a bus driver. Green: listening on the radio; red: talking on the radio; blue: talking on the phone.

As buses enter the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel, monitoring is automatically handed over to the Link Control Center — two rail controllers and a duty chief located in the next room over. Separated by a set of glass doors, an entire wall is given over to a large screen that looms over the two rail controllers. On screen, the location of all the trains and those buses currently in the tunnel can be seen proceeding down the tracks.

A duty chief manages the two rail controllers and as the light rail system expands Sound Transit will enlarge its control center operations by adding a third controller and eventually moving into the Operation and Maintenance Facility located several blocks south. Using Holgate Street as the center line the system is split in two with one rail controller monitoring the southern tracks, while the other oversees the northern part of the system.

Seven hundred and fifty closed-circuit cameras are scattered across the light rail system, broadcasting back to the TCC. Because the Link coordinating team is responsible for monitoring all alarms in the system and notifying police or fire in an emergency, two people must always be present in the control room. Monitoring and communication with the TCC is needed even during the fours hours a day the Link is not running, to allow for routine maintenance and inspection of the track.

Another handy tool is a television set (pictured above in the left-hand corner), mounted to a wall on one side of the room, which allows the rail controllers to monitor the progress of sporting events and prepare for the large crowds leaving at the end of the night. The television also apprises the rail controllers of breaking news that could impact transit operations.

23 Replies to “Tour the Transit Control Center”

  1. So, if the controllers know exactly where each bus is at all times, why does OneBusAway only get a position update every few minutes, and only for buses that have been out of tunnel for at least several minutes? Real time info for eastbound route 255 is practically useless until the bus reaches the 520 bridge.

    1. I don’t think they actually know the precise location at all times. The system polls each bus every few minutes (or few seconds when the emergency button is pressed) so they only know where it was and how long ago it was there.

      1. Two follow on questions to this.
        1) On one bus away, when it says “scheduled” does that actually mean that the driver has turned the GPS off? Can they do this, or is this just ill-informed rumor?
        2) Do the folks in the control center ever see that there are, say, 4 E lines within sight of each other and try to move an empty bus (say from a base) into the middle of the route to fill the gap?

      2. 2) in theory, yes. On the RapidRide timetables there is a note that says “RapidRide service is actively managed by Metro to maintain even intervals between buses during peak commute times.” Unlike the rest of Metro’s routes, RapidRide’s real time info is polled every few seconds thanks to the communications network installed along each corridor. Drivers can chime in to tell me if this is still done on a regular basis. Given the ongoing issue of cancelled trips due to the driver shortage, that won’t be always possible.

      3. Why is a special network required to poll the bus every few seconds. Why not just use cell phone towers? With basic apps, the bus driver’s cell phone could provide OneBusAway users much more accurate information than whatever it is they’re doing now.

      4. My guess is security and reliability. The network isn’t used just for OneBusAway. The buses use it to communicate with traffic signals along the corridor for TSP, which actually was the original purpose of the network. The stations use it to connect the info signs and ORCA validators to the backend. Metro can use it to stream onboard security camera video to the control center.

        Here is a pretty detailed article about the network Metro built for RapidRide.

        As for non-RapidRide buses, they don’t have the equipment. That will change with next gen ORCA.

      5. Brendan:

        1) The drivers have no control over any GPS functionality (or even the ability to reboot RapidRide Wi-Fi). Sometimes the scheduled time is shown because the bus was turned off at the terminal, and not all coaches still transmit GPS when off (that’s my observation, anyway). in the middle of a trip. My guess is it’s a coach or coach radio problem.

        2) When I was training on RapidRide over the summer, the DDU (driver’s computer) would show the coach’s headway. When I actually started driving, that wasn’t visible. During peak hours, there is a RapidRide coordinator, but there isn’t always resources for them to always monitor headways. When one coach catches up to another, drivers work to help each other out. The coordinator can instruct the coach which is behind to drop off only or skip stops, but ridership is high enough that we have to stop at every stop, anyway. And traffic is usually heavy enough that passing each other doesn’t work well.

        Oran: the problem of cancelled RapidRide trips these days has a lot to do with the many broken coaches at the bases waiting for parts. Last night, my two D-line trips were cancelled due to lack of coaches. My E-line trip this morning was in an Orion coach.

      6. Until we get anything like a comprehensive network of reserved (not BAT) lanes, with every light signal-pre-empted, it’s unrealistic to depend on One Bus Away for anything important. Remind your elected officials that you always leave dropping off ballots ’til the last minute.


      7. Brendan,

        Re #1, I doubt that the drivers are turning off the GPS. Rather, I imagine it’s just not turned on or OBA doesn’t have the right trip data. The eastbound 44 that leaves at 5:49AM and gets to Stone Way at 6:01AM hasn’t had any real-time data for years, even though it’s the middle of the route and the trips before and after it do, along with the 62 that arrives at 5:59AM.

      8. That sounds to me more like it is a missing lie in the timetable data in the system,

        For some reason, all of these GPS arrival systems have to reference timetable slots.

      9. That may explain why the Diagonal Avenue stop on the southbound 131/132 and the Costco stop after it, the onboard display used to say “Diagonal Ave S” and “4300 Block”, but now it says “Diagonal Ave S” and “Diagonal Ave S” as if the second stop weren’t there.

  2. Zooming in on some of the computer screens, it looks like they’re using Windows 7. Good for Metro for finally getting off XP.

  3. Lizz, thanks ever so much for this posting. In the world’s every life and death operation, I think vast majority of either operating disasters or successes owe to communication. That’s why my own first work-order tomorrow morning would to be to remove one glass wall, to put DSTT bus and rail controllers in the same room, preferably sitting right next to each other.

    And then do same with ST and KCM offices. Bus-side and Rail-side should have been same Division the day the first train left Westlake in 2009.

    Thirteen years’ transit driving experience, five of them on DSTT routes, tell me that STB needs to get the stats on 27 years of operating delays, multiplied by the cost of one minute of lost Tunnel operating time. And a fair and reasonable idea of how many of them resulted from missed or misunderstood communications.

    Which the designers of Tunnel operations considered a given for joint use, and on which the system permanently gave up on in a matter of months. Past events indicate that trains may be sharing the Tunnel with buses long enough to cost transit a lot of money it needs for something else.

    So good chance that once this information goes public, voters of our service area will convince their elected officials to give the system what it needs to to cover those work orders. Or to make the Tunnel into a slowly-moving parking lot like the rest of our region’s street and freeway grid.

    Mark Dublin

  4. Yet, despite knowing where every train is at all times, ST refuses to have real time info at any stations but
    Cap Hill and UW. “Next train two minutes is useless”

    1. Can we have a similar posting explaining exactly why this is so? Unlike buses in GP lanes, I can’t think of any explanation whatever. Am I right that the Sound Transit Board is composed entirely of elected officials? Does anybody know if a single ST board or County Council member has ever bee thrown out of office over bad performance on transit operations?

      Like for every other piece of deferred maintenance that we call the United States of America, complaints and street protest have like worn out like BART brakes. Constituents have to organize, educate themselves on facts and understandings, and put each other in the positions where we write laws.

      Not hearing much from the Transit Riders Union. Very likely I’m missing something in more than one sense. Seems like an ordinary personwho’s receiving an un-ordinary amount of money from the very activities that interfere with transit the worst should be any lobby’s dream of a donor.

      But I think we’re overlooking some other officials on our payroll, probably because we hear out of them only the loudest of the worst. The very worst of the worst whose salary we help pay, whether we like it or not. So those of us responsible for a vital public utility can get some use out of their chief political value.

      As a credible threat. Steve O’Ban doesn’t count because his attacks on transit so are theatrically flawed that nothing transit related about him is credible. Maggie Fimia’s associates lost theirs over their 27 years of complete absence of assistance to the system that should have been their strongest argument for the benefits of bus transit.

      I’ll testify under oath that Maggie has the experience to know better. Troubling that Bob Hasegawa us supposed to support Bernie Sanders. But in as Lloyd Benson said about Dan Quayle….anybody know if Steve O’Ban is any Bob Hasegawa?

      Personal score I’m just starting to get the feel of settling. If treats are Sound Transit’s chosen tool of persuasion, it’s Unsportsmanlike not to respond in kind. Am I right that my address outside the ST service area doesn’t exempt me from paying a lot of license tabs’ worth of wrong-tap fines for the salary of every legislator mentioned here?

      Mark Dublin

    2. It comes down to costs and ST’s priorities. The original contract required only 2-minute announcements. Replacing the displays in the DSTT or feeding real-time data to them in a compatible way costs more money, as does installing displays in the other stations. They’re supposed to come in ST2 I thought, so maybe by 2024.

  5. Incidentally- can’t we do a red-pencil icon for a “bloop?”- I wasn’t suggesting that anybody in the Transit Riders’ Union has a hundred billion dollars. Or would use it to block transit, when there’s such a long line in front of them.

    Just that I can think of somebody who does who should join the TRU instead of just being a secret contributor. Though if he’s like that newspaper tycoon in “Citizen Kane” who has a sled called “Rosebud” (great for cleaning snow out of switches) he’s entitled to his privacy.

    Isn’t there a streetcar line it would be really great if he could personally ride to Ballard if he really wants to put his second corporate office there ? Wouldn’t it be great to watch a drone de-ice some catenary on the way to Nordic Heritage? Go Transit-Riders’ Union.


  6. And “Threats” not treats! The carpet is enough of a mess as it is. Gimme back my slipper, I’m outta here.


Comments are closed.