I recently took a tour of Metro’s Bus Operations Control Center, simply known as the BOC, and discovered a small collection of dedicated men and women who work 24/7 to keep Metro’s massive bus system running as smoothly as possible. Seriously, these guys are like the Spartans from the film 300, except instead of being vastly outnumbered by a blood-thirsty army, the BOC faces a fleet of over 2,000 buses, thousands of operators, millions of riders and some of the nation’s most congested and unforgiving streets.
It’s easy as both a Metro rider and a snarky blogger to 1) expect the world, and 2) be really, really cynical. When my bus is late, or on the rare but incredibly aggravating times when it fails to show up at all, I get angry, curse and blame Metro’s utter incompetence at performing the simplest task required of them – picking me up when and where they promised.
The anger and cursing is understandable, as is the desire to place blame, but what I learned from my tour of the BOC is that what I thought of as a simple task is actually a massive logistical challenge.
In other words, despite what I’ve often thought, delivering a bus on time is not something I could do better than Metro. In fact, I’ve realized it’s often a small miracle that buses arrive at all.
The basics of bus operations
Located on the sixth floor of Metro Headquarters, the first thing you notice when you enter the BOC is the a large bay of flat screens with quadrants displaying video feeds from the Metro Orange Line route. It’s by far the most visually impressive aspect of the BOC; beyond the screens is a rather drab bullpen of workstations cordoned off from one another by beige office dividers. Not exactly the flight deck of the Starship Enterprise, but rest assured, the advanced technology is there.
Peter Mellon, Assistant Operations Control Manager, gave me the grand tour and filled me in with the basics on the BOC.
The drab bullpen is the heart of the BOC and at each workstation sits a Transit Operations Supervisor (also referred to as a Controller), the front line warriors in this battle.
Their responsibilities include:
- Coordinating bus operations
- Responding to mechanical breakdowns
- Managing on-time performance
- Implementing emergency response procedures
- Fielding calls from operators and customers
During regular service hours (5 a.m. – 9 p.m.) there are 15 to 20 Controllers on duty. Average number of buses in service on a weekday? 2,261. During Owl Service (9 p.m. – 5 a.m.) there are three Controllers on duty. There is also a dedicated transit police officer on site 16 hours a day. Like Denny’s, the BOC never closes.
The BOC floor is divided up by service sectors, which are defined by five geographic regions in Los Angeles County. Metro is now considering re-centralizing bus operations, and it remains to be seen how this will affect the BOC. In addition to the five service sectors, there is an additional space on the floor for the Special Projects Team who develop and monitor alternative bus routes for special events like the Los Angeles Marathon.
Pinpointing problems with ATMS
Remember when I mentioned the advanced technology? Each Controller’s workstation is equipped with ATMS – Advanced Transportation Management System. The ATMS is a pretty amazing multi-pronged piece of technology that combines mobile voice and data communications, Computer Aided-Dispatch (CAD) and Automated Vehicle Location (AVL) using GPS and Terrestrial Communications technology. Basically ATMS gives a Controller the power to find a problem, confirm it with an operator and pinpoint the vehicle’s exact location to respond to the problem.
All of this technology occurs on the three monitors that sit in front of each Controller, providing them a panoramic view of the current status of their service sector.
The left screen monitors and handles calls and radio communications, the center screen monitors incidents and bus performance and the right screen handles the Automated Vehicle Location (AVL). With ATMS and these three screens a Controller can find, prioritize and respond to any problem with any bus in the service sector.
Calls, calls, and more calls
You may be thinking, “That’s fantastic Fred! With all this incredible technology and the ability to pinpoint problems at the click of a mouse, where is my darn bus? It was supposed to be here 10 minutes ago!”
Despite the technology, it’s still 20 versus 2,200.
I asked Peter, “So basically the Controllers just sit here and wait to respond to calls?”
His response, “They don’t have to wait.”
And he was right. On my visit every Controller was fielding calls, and a glance at their screens revealed a queue of calls on hold. Incidents are color coded and given acronyms like SAS (silent alarm system) and PRTT (priority request to talk). Emergency situations – an accident, a crazed lunatic waving a gun, a major injury – understandably get priority over lesser calls like non-emergency mechanical issues. PRTT calls are near the top of hierarchy of priority, and take a look at the number of them in this snapshot I took of the incident queue on a single Controller’s system:
Peter told me that particular day was a slow day.
While I may be angry because my bus hasn’t shown up due to a mechanical failure somewhere down the line, as much as a Controller would love to address that issue, it’s simply not possible because other issues with emergency status are occurring else where in the 2,200+ bus fleet.
Handling the unexpected
One of our readers wrote in asking about an accident along the Blue Line that blocked the tracks. The operator dropped the passengers off at the Compton Station and told them that Metro was sending buses to take them to their final destination. After an hour and a half, no bus had arrived. The passengers were forced to take taxis home.
I brought this up with Peter.
He told me this type of of emergency service is called a “bus bridge” and is often a logistical nightmare. First the appropriate information such as incident location, passenger count and destination location must be collected. Then supervisors must commence to calling the nearest bus divisions, which may not be very close, and find out what buses are available and how quickly they can be ready to move. Operators must then be called upon and sometimes buses must be taken from other revenue service and put to work on the bus bridge, further disrupting the system. Finally, once the buses and operators and have been found and readied, they must actually make the unplanned trip through Los Angeles traffic to the incident location. Obviously, depending on the starting locations of these buses and the time of day, it could take a very long time for the bus bridge to arrive. It’s not pretty, it’s not ideal – it’s just the reality.
Reality is what the BOC bumps up against every single day. The reality of a huge fleet of buses carrying millions of passengers in unpredictable conditions manged by a comparatively small group of individuals. I asked Peter what could be fixed to improve service and reduce calls. He said the elephant in the room is mechanical failures – around 5% of the fleet breaks down on any given day. This strains the system and leaves the ROC struggling to address those high priority emergency calls while also attending to the mechanical issues that leave passengers stranded.
My tour of the BOC gave me a newfound respect for the complexity and challenge that is bus operations. The people at the BOC make no excuses and are dedicated to providing the best service, but like the Spartans of 300, their numbers are small and their opponents are vast… but they are up for the challenge.