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T Expanding Real Time Tracking To Commuter Rail

Passengers More Impressed With Bus Tracking Than Train
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(File photo courtesy: Adam E. Moreira/Wikimedia Commons)

(File photo courtesy: Adam E. Moreira/Wikimedia Commons)

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BOSTON (CBS) — After a winter in which the MBTA took a beating for its late trains and suspended service, it is now working with programmers who are developing a smartphone app that will allow passengers to track commuter trains in real time. This comes just a few months after apps were released that track the T’s buses and most of its subways.

Since the initial applications were released in the fall, there have been many variations popping up. To this point there are no less than 30 tracking apps for the MBTA, and when asked via Twitter what regular riders of the T use to track their transportation, responders mentioned at least seven apps specifically.

Josh Robin, the MBTA’s director of Innovation and Special Projects, said the T opened its data and started working with developers in 2009. Now that they’ve developed bus and train tracking systems, it seemed appropriate to write commuter rail tracking apps.

“What we’re working to do and piloting is opening up the GPS information for developers and commuters,” Robin said. He said the previous projects have not cost much – saying the train tracking has “basically cost nothing” and the bus tracking about $100,000 a year. The commuter rail tracking, he estimated, will cost less than the bus tracking.

“We think for that cost it’s a tremendous benefit for our riders,” he said.

PASSENGERS TRACK BUSES, NOT SUBWAY

The commuters who responded to CBSBoston.com’s request for information about the real time apps they use said they generally use them to track buses, not the subway. In fact, when CBSBoston.com asked these travelers whether they use the apps they’ve downloaded for tracking trains, one of the common responses was that they don’t use the applications because they typically don’t have service in the T’s tunnels or subway stations.

“I do use the Train Tracker underground, but only where I can get a signal,” Conor Olmstead wrote in an email to CBSBoston.com. He went on to say he can use it in Park Street, Andrew Station and Government Center, but does not get a signal in Harvard, Porter or Davis Squares. Robin said while the majority of T stations have cell service, there are some that don’t and the T is working on expanding cell service.

Olmstead adds that his gripe with tracking the T’s trains is that the service isn’t available for the Green Line, “which I think is the one line that needs GPS timing more than any other line.”

GREEN LINE NOT ONLINE SOON

Robin says this is a common complaint they hear. “As someone who rides the Green Line fairly regularly, it would be a great thing to have. The General Manager (Richard Davey) is a daily Green Line rider, and I know he’d love to have it,” said Robin. The problem is that there isn’t a precise tracking system yet available for that line.

Robin says not only does the subway operate above and below ground, making GPS impossible to use, there are some stations in which multiple branches of the Green Line enter and leave and the tracking would need to know the difference between the B branch and the E branch.

POSITIVE FEEDBACK

For now, Robin says they’re focusing on tracking buses and trains, and the feedback has been positive.

“I think it’s changed the way people look at bus service and how they use it,” said Robin.

“Can’t tell you how many times I checked the app (MassTransit) to find I had four minutes to get to the bus stop from my front door, and 95 percent of the time, I made it on the bus,” said Jaci Donahe.

Emily Hammond said she uses Where’s My MBTA Bus on a regular basis and likes it because it gives her predictions for similar routes at the same time on the same screen. “I have been using it every weekday for about five months now, and for most of that time, it’s been very accurate,” Hammond said.

When bad weather hits, that’s when Colin Steele says the apps come in especially handy. “I can just check the app from my apartment and then walk over to the stop when the bus is getting close,” he said.

SOME HICCUPS

But when the schedule changes, apparently the tracking is affected. Susan Bregman said she encountered some problems using the Catch the Bus app on Route 71 and contacted the MBTA to inquire about why she wasn’t able to track the bus. She said, “Apparently they kill all the historical travel data each quarter and build up the predictions from scratch.”

COMMUTER RAIL TRACKING SOON

Robin said the MBTA is hoping the new applications will be out for the commuter rail service by Memorial Day, or just after that.

“People see the T, every day they ride the T, they wait at the bus stop,” said Robin. “It’s great to see developers make the system better not only for themselves, but other riders.”

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