January 2, 2002

CHICAGO–Passengers riding the 664 daily trains operated by the Metra commuter rail system will be kept more completely informed of their train’s itinerary and location following installation of an $11-million computerized train-information system called GeoFocus. Using software that collects real-time train-location data from a global-positioning satellite network, GeoFocus accurately calculates the train’s approach to each station and makes automatic, taped announcements to help passengers collect their belongings and move to the doors in time for a quick disembarkation.

The payoff: Passengers always know where the train is, always hear at least two announcements of each upcoming station and always have plenty of time to get to the vestibule in time for their stops. If the train is halted or slowed by an emergency or by track congestion ahead, dispatchers will be able to advise crews immediately so they can inform passengers about the probable duration of the delay.

“It’s primarily a customer-service tool, but it’s also an operating tool,” says Sharon Austin, Metra’s chief communications officer. “The satellite-based tracking system knows where each train is within 300 feet, and when the train begins to slow down for the station the system starts announcing the next stop to the passengers.”

Although not a Positive Train Separation (PTS) that interacts with the Automatic Block Signal (ABS) system to keep trains from colliding with one another, the GeoFocus system still can help dispatchers and crews to operate their trains more safely. Partly that’s because it can track a train’s position in real time, alerting dispatchers to any discrepancy in a train’s movement or failure to keep schedule. And partly it’s because train-crew members have been issued cell phones enabling them to alert one another–and the dispatching centers–to their train’s whereabouts and operating situation.

“If train No. 1 hits something, the crew can immediately call the crew of the following train and let them know why they’re stopped,” Austin said. “That means we’re not going to get any more complaints from passengers saying, ‘We stopped in the middle of nowhere and nobody told us why we were stopped or when we would get moving again.’ Passengers hate sitting there with no information. Now the crews will be able to tell the passengers what happened and how soon they’ll bemoving.”

The automated announcements don’t take crew members totally out of the picture, Austin pointed out. Train personnel can override the system at any time and add information not contained in the tapes.

In addition to providing emergency information, GeoFocus will be helping Metra’s operating officials to review train performance so they can do a better job of long-range schedule planning. Because the software records all daily train moves over time, it can create string-line charts showing where each train was at any particular time and how much dwell time it spent at each scheduled and unscheduled stop. Much like a business spreadsheet program, GeoFocus can help planners model new schedules and movement patterns to make the railroad more fluid and flexible and reduce conflicts over track space.

The system was tested last year on Metra’s Southwest and Milwaukee North Line services. “Debugging” was carried out after passengers noted that the system sometimes skipped announcements. In addition, the number of announcements between stations was reduced from three to four after passengers on lines with closely spaced stations complained of information overload. Metra spokesman Frank Malone called the de-bugging “the normal shaking out of a high-tech system that will improve customer information and free up train crews for ticket collecting and attention to passengers.”

Malone said the system will cost Metra $11 million when completed. Over the next five years the current automated-announcement system will be supplemented by automated visual messages in all ADA-accesible cars and automated audible and visual messages at over 200 stations.

Successful introduction of the system demanded close collaboration among Metra officials, GeoFocus engineers and train-crew members. Austin say the UTU members really came through.

“I think the UTU guys have done a spectacular job of letting us know the problems they see out there,” she said. “The system was tested for a period of more than one year on two busy lines, and the UTU members were just great. We really value their input.”