Behind the Bus

Share this:
August 27, 2012 // UPDATED 5:48 pm - December 27, 2012
By: Jeremy Zoss
Jeremy Zoss

Taking a ride on a Metro Transit bus doesn’t require much thought. You get on, pay your fare with cash or a Go-To card, take a seat and ride to your destination. It’s as simple as can be. 

Or at least it appears that way. But keeping things so simple for riders actually requires a tremendous technological effort. The vehicles, the bus stops and everything in between are connected through a web of technology designed to keep passengers moving through the network as smoothly as possible.  

When the hard numbers about Metro Transit are laid out, the complexity of the system quickly becomes clear. Metro Transit operates a fleet of 886 buses, 125 bus routes, 1,500 stops, 700 shelters, one commuter rail line, a growing light rail network and over 200 support vehicles. In 2011, ridership topped 81 million.

Metro Transit manages it all with a system that begins onboard the vehicles themselves. Every bus in the fleet is equipped with a Mobile Data Terminal (MDT). Gary Nyberg, Metro Transit’s manager of technology systems for bus operations, calls the MDT the “driver’s office.” While on a route, the MDT sends GPS data back to Metro Transit’s Transit Control Center (TCC), the nexus of Metro Transit’s bus system. Each bus sends its position back to the TCC every 60 seconds and when crossing particular points on its route. Through these updates, operators at the TCC are able to monitor where every bus is and how closely each one is adhering to its schedule.

Every bus does more than simply report its position. Each bus has a passenger counter that counts everyone stepping on or off the bus. Each one is also equipped with high-resolution digital cameras, both interior and front-facing. The footage captured by the cameras is downloaded daily and relevant footage is shared with other agencies. For example, it’s common for a bus camera to capture traffic accident footage that is shared with the police for investigative purposes. In addition to sending data to the TCC, the MDTs can receive data as well. On its screen, drivers can receive text messages about detours, traffic accidents or even police alerts. 

The inside of the TCC recalls a scaled-down air traffic control center. Metro Transit operators sit at a desk ringed with multiple monitors, each screen displaying different information. One displays a zoomable map of Metro Transit’s network, another displays a queue of buses that have deviated from their schedule. From each desk, operators can communicate with bus drivers, request fill-in buses for a seriously late vehicle, file police reports and otherwise monitor the health of the Metro Transit system.

At Metro Transit’s main campus near Target Field, the TCC is attached to Heywood Garage, one of five such facilities around the Metro area. Heywood Garage houses around 250 buses and is far more than a simple garage. Inside, buses can be raised on huge hydraulic lifts to inspect their undersides, run through enormous carwash setups, refueled at the internal gas station and otherwise maintained. 

The TCC at Heywood primarily controls bus traffic, but another of Metro Transit’s high-profile services is also run out of the facility: the Northstar Commuter Rail. The reason for pairing the train with bus service rather than the light rail system is simple: If Northstar were disrupted for some reason, buses would be used to temporarily replace it. Despite the surface similarity of commuter rail and light rail, Metro Transit’s deputy chief operating officer for rail Ed Byers said there are some key differences.

“Commuter rail is very different from light rail or bus systems, because we operate on someone else’s tracks,” said Byers. Metro Transit dispatches all buses and light rail traffic locally, while Northstar is operated by BNSF Railway. BNSF remotely dispatches all Northstar trains from a facility in Forth Worth, Texas, provides engineers and conductors and maintains the tracks, which BNSF owns. Metro Transit performs maintenance on the Northstar trains, which are stored at a facility in Big Lake. 

The facility houses six locomotives and 18 passenger cars, and four trains are run daily between Big Lake and Target Field. Two trains are kept in reserve. Each Northstar car is 85 feet long, has 140 seats, restrooms, worktables and bike storage. 

The trip from Big Lake to Target Field takes 49 minutes and the service has an on-time rate of over 97 percent. Byers lives in Big Lake to be near the storage facility and said the trip between Northstar’s endpoints can take as long as two hours by car in bad weather. By train, it’s always 49 minutes. 

“On the train, rain and snow doesn’t matter,” he said.

Byers oversees both the Northstar Commuter Rail and the Hiawatha Light Rail line — two systems that feature some similar equipment but are quite different in service type and underlying technology. Unlike the diesel-electric Northstar locomotives that run on BNSF’s tracks, light rail trains run on their own dedicated track and are powered by wires that run above it.

“All the power is coming from what’s called a pantograph on top of the car,” said Byers. “Have you ever ridden a bumper car at the State Fair? It’s kind of the same thing. The stick goes up to the top.”

Each light rail car can hold 166 people and run up to 55 miles per hour, although trains on the Hiawatha line rarely reach that speed. Currently, Metro Transit uses 24 of its 27 light rail cars per day to move roughly 31,000 riders daily. With commuters adopting light rail much faster than expected (in 2011, ridership projections for the year 2020 were exceeded by 27 percent), the system has already been subject to some adjustments.

The 19 platforms on the Hiawatha line all had to be expanded to allow for three-car trains instead of two-car trains. The train cars, which are projected to last for 30 years, had to go through their first scheduled maintenance overhaul years ahead of schedule due to heavy use. 

In September, Metro Transit will receive its first car for the new Central Corridor Light Rail Line, which is scheduled to open in 2014. Until then, Metro Transit will begin testing it to make sure it is ready for passenger service. The Central Corridor project is only one of several major projects Metro Transit has in the works. We will examine them in a future edition of this series. 

Reach Jeremy Zoss at 

jzoss@mnpubs.com.