In January, the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) launched the public beta testing of CTA Train Tracker, a web-enabled technology initiative that provides estimated arrival times for trains at all 144 rail stations across the CTA’s eight rail lines.
The initiative is the natural progression of the very popular CTA Bus Tracker technology launched in 2006 that provides estimated arrival times of CTA buses along the agency’s 141 bus routes.
Customers can access CTA Train Tracker via the Internet or any web-enabled device, such as a smart phone or laptop computer, via www.transitchicago.com. Both desktop and mobile programs have a simple color-coded display corresponding with each of the eight CTA rail lines.
Once a person is logged into CTA Train Tracker, they can customize it to meet their personal travel needs. A simple click on the colored travel route will open a drop-down menu where the user picks a stop listed in alphabetical order. The selected stop will then list which trains are scheduled to arrive in both directions of travel.
If a customer chooses to view a train stop that is served by multiple routes, all routes will be displayed on the screen so the rider can then see the estimated arrival time of their connecting train. The user can further customize options to show only specific routes they are interested in.
An average transit time is calculated using how long it takes the train to travel a portion of the track. Estimated arrival times can be calculated within a 15-minute time frame.
Estimated by average
The predictions made by CTA Train Tracker are powered by internal CTA software. This software collects data from circuits along CTA’s signaling system, which sends and receives signals through the track circuitry, indicating when a portion of the track is occupied. The data is then calculated into predictions based on the progress of trains along CTA tracks. Results refresh approximately every 20-30 seconds.
An average transit time is calculated by using the measurement of how long it takes the train to travel a portion of the track. The formula calculates how long it takes the last five trains to move across a section of the track. The estimated arrival times for each station can be calculated within a 15-minute time frame.
CTA’s Control Center has been using the same software to calculate train arrival time, and members of CTA’s technology staff spent countless hours integrating it into CTA Train Tracker software to keep costs of the launch in check.
Using existing technology for the foundations of CTA Train Tracker is a perfect example of how CTA is meeting the challenges of limited resources while enhancing service for riders.
Within the first 10 days of its launch, CTA Train Tracker received nearly 200,000 visits totaling more than a million page views. While Train Tracker has shown initial success, it is important for it to be beta tested. Adjustments may be made to improve appearance, functionality and accuracy.
Room for growth
For example, Train Tracker does not currently receive information to indicate when a train is running express. Train Tracker cannot determine the direction of travel of single-track trains for planned or unplanned work or repairs. There are also two instances where Train Tracker can only provide scheduled departure information.
Calculated arrival times can only be predicted for trains once they leave a terminal. On the Yellow Line, the only stops—Skokie and Howard—are the two terminals. Train Tracker will be able to make predictions for the Yellow Line once the new Oakton Street station opens and en-route predictions can be made.
Likewise, predictions cannot be made at the start of the service day, with the exception of Red- and Blue-line trains which run 24 hours. The reason for this is the program needs at least five departed trains to calculate a prediction. Customers who board at the start of service will be provided with schedule information, which will be noted on the screen. As part of the pilot, CTA also is testing electronic signs at stations. There are 13 rail stations offering arrival time predictions on digital/LCD displays.
CTA trains are not equipped with GPS devices because of the age of some of the rail cars. However, the new 5000-series rail cars currently being tested on CTA lines come equipped with GPS. It is the goal of CTA to integrate GPS technology into Train Tracker eventually and will be part of Train Tracker’s evolution.
During Train Tracker’s beta-testing period, the public is highly encouraged to offer their feedback to identify problems and help with ways to improve the application. Any comments, questions, concerns, complaints and suggestions are welcome and are being directed to [email protected].
By implementing the software needed to operate Bus Tracker, CTA staff gleaned knowledge and the experience needed to launch Train Tracker.
Following the bus tracks
CTA Train Tracker is the natural evolution of CTA Bus Tracker which was launched in 2006. Via a dedicated site, www.ctabustracker.com, customers can use their computers or web-enabled cell phones to access information about bus-arrival times, or a specific route. The website offers two options when tracking a route: the estimated-arrival-time display or the bus location map, though customers using mobile web browsers only have access to the estimated-arrival-time display.
For each bus stop along a route, the estimated-arrival-time display offers times of approaching buses within a 30-minute window. Customers select the stop for which they would like to receive information, and arrival times refresh every minute.
Any delays affecting the selected bus along a route due to incidents or equipment defects will cause the arrival-time predictions to remain the same or increase, rather than count down.
The bus location map feature displays city streets with icons that look like CTA buses as they travel along a route. Customers can see real-time locations and directions. They also can choose to activate an alarm that will alert them when a bus is approaching a selected stop.
CTA began testing Bus Tracker on one route in 2006 and expanded it in April 2008 to 13 routes. Additional routes were added by garage, and in May 2009, all routes were active on Bus Tracker. That same year, according to a Google analysis, Bus Tracker was the second-most-searched term by Chicagoans.
It uses GPS technology to identify bus locations and then relays that information to customers via a dedicated website.
Users can access the program via their desktop computers, web-enabled cell phones or two-way texting. Each CTA bus stop has its own four-digit identification code. All customers have to do is send a text message to 4-1-4-1-1. In the body of the text message, commuters must text “CTA Bus <<bus stop ID number>>” Then, estimated arrival times for the next four buses are sent via the Bus Tracker website.
Train Tracker’s evolution, however, could not have been made possible if it were not for Bus Tracker. Technology investments made by CTA paved the way for Train Tracker. By implementing the software needed to operate Bus Tracker, CTA staff gleaned knowledge and the experience needed to launch Train Tracker with existing technology and resources.
CTA added the internal development of GPS technology to its bus fleet over time. The hardware upgrade allowed for a comprehensive software upgrade, initiated in 2003, allowing for location/real-time networking development. Once buses were outfitted with GPS, two key components were added to the fleet.
Automated voice annunciation system (AVAS) was installed in 2003-04. AVAS gathers information using GPS technology that tells the bus where it is and in what direction it is moving. The information is stored on a server on the bus. Then in 2004, CTA added automated vehicle location (AVL). AVL can access historical data from AVAS at a garage and use the information to evaluate the buses’ on-time performance.
The total investment of GPS, AVAS and AVL was a $30 million investment, and the return on that investment is immeasurable to commuters who use Bus Tracker on their daily commutes.
A Federal Transit Administration funding grant awarded to CTA in 2008 for improvements to the agency’s customer websites was used to develop Train Tracker. The FTA grant provided $125,000 for the website presence, and CTA technology staff accomplished the rest.
“One of our top priorities at CTA is to improve the quality of service we provide our customers,” said CTA President Richard Rodriguez. “While we still are conscious of being fiscally responsible, there are things that at minimal cost will provide a significant benefit to our customers.” TM&E