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Mastering Mass Transit

​EARLY ONE AUGUST MORNING LAST YEAR, New Yorker Darius McCollum piloted an Adirondack Trailways coach bus through the streets of the city, purportedly picking up a group of flight attendants and transporting them to John F. Kennedy International Airport. He headed back to the company’s depot in Hoboken, New Jersey, where police stopped him on Queens’ Van Wyck Expressway and arrested him. The reason: He was not a driver for the company; he had stolen the bus, and was on his own strange version of a joy ride. In separate but similar incidents that occurred in Washington, D.C., and Chicago in 2010, individuals donned stolen transit agency uniforms, walked into depots, drove off with buses, and made their way along the routes, even picking up passengers, before crashing their vehicles.

Fortunately, no one was hurt in any of those incidents, but they highlight the extent to which one key pillar of the transportation infrastructure in the United States—buses—remains rife with vulnerabilities that a would-be terrorist could potentially exploit.

While terrorist threats to the United States have largely centered on commercial aviation and bombings in public venues, buses have been a favored target in other parts of the world. A recent study by the Mineta Transportation Institute found that since 1970, 51 percent of terrorist attacks globally targeted buses or bus facilities. The possibility remains that terrorists will bring that targeting tactic to the United States. Even if the terrorist threat remains low, other concerns regarding passenger and driver safety and operator liability merit attention to bus security.

Despite funding and logistical challenges, some bus operators are rising to the challenge and finding ways to mitigate these risks.

Easy Pickings

Last year’s incidents didn’t demonstrate a failure of security as much as its absence in these particular instances. In the Washington, D.C., case, a teen who was reportedly obsessed with buses, with access to a roommate’s Washington Metropolitan Area Transportation Authority (WMATA) uniform, simply walked through the open, unguarded gate of an agency depot, boarded a parked bus, and knowing the fairly simple succession of switches that had to be hit, started the engine. Driving the bus, however, proved more difficult than he had anticipated. After picking up passengers, he hit a tree and fled on foot.

The Chicago case followed a similar narrative, but the suspect actually completed a route and returned to the depot. Once there, however, he hit another bus and similarly fled. In the New York case, McCollum found buses parked at an unsecured depot, with their doors open, and keys left in the ignitions.


While those cases exemplify what can happen without security, there are some impressive examples of operators using state-of-the-art technology to secure buses and facilities. And for operators who are yet to get on board but who are looking for a way to rev up their security engines, there are several recommended best practices they can look to.

Facilities. After 9-11 but before the formal establishment of the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA), the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), the unit of the Department of Transportation (DOT) that administers grants to public transit agencies, issued a set of “action items” for transit organizations. Doyle Raines, general manager for mass transit and passenger rail security with the TSA, says these action items can still serve as a checklist of the minimum security measures that organizations should implement.

The list is prescriptive and includes the critical elements of each item, but it does not dictate specific methods of implementation. For example, among the recommendations is the suggestion that an organization should draft security and emergency management plans, to include plans and protocols for response to threats like weapons of mass destruction and explosives, a provision for control centers, and incorporation of crime prevention through environmental design in future construction. The action items specifically call for facility and security access controls guided by written policy—for example, use of ID badges for all employees, contractors, and visitors.

In 2008, the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), which represents public transit agencies working in partnership with federal agencies like the TSA, began issuing a series of standards and recommended practices to offer practitioners a greater depth of guidance in security and risk management. The first set of 12 recommended practices addresses emergency management concerns such as continuity of operations and emergency communications, while four recommendations released in 2009 govern issues such as inspection and suspicious-behavior detection. APTA also developed a complete template for an agency emergency management plan, requiring only insertion of the agency’s name and those of primary security contacts.

In 2010, APTA issued six more recommended practices for security infrastructure covering lighting, fencing, and access control gates. The bulk of the documents provide the fundamentals of each different type of infrastructure and considerations for implementation—in particular strengths, costs, and likely life span.

For example, the guidance notes that full-height pedestrian turnstiles and horizontal sliding vehicle gates provide high security but at relatively high cost. The turnstiles can last 25 years, but sliding vehicle gates typically last only 10. APTA recommends 12-foot fencing, possibly topped with barbed wire, around critical areas, while four-foot fencing is suggested along pedestrian walkways. Recommended practices for electronic access control systems are in development.

The Washington bus theft lent urgency to ongoing efforts to strengthen depot security, Ron Pavlik, deputy chief of the WMATA’s Metro Transit Police, tells Security Management. The financially strained agency now posts at least two guards to depot entrance gates so that they are covered at all times, and the agency further uses roving patrols.

Part of a $184 million American Reinvestment and Recovery Act grant to the agency is being spent on improved fencing at a Landover, Maryland, depot, while another $18.5 million in federal Transit Security Grant Program funding will go toward additional fencing improvements, Pavlik says.

Vehicles. As the Washington case illustrated, starting a bus to steal it can be as simple as flicking two switches—“run” and “start.” Why don’t transit buses have keyed ignitions? Simple: drivers can be assigned to any of a number of vehicles on a given day, and even if a transit authority’s entire fleet used identical keys and slots, drivers would inevitably lose keys. Transit agencies can’t afford to have buses sitting silent in depots because drivers can’t start them.

But starting a bus could be made more secure without the use of bus-specific keys. Agencies that employ magnetic strip or proximity ID cards could retrofit buses to require card verification before buses are turned on, vendors tell Security Management. PIN pads and visual touch screens can similarly strengthen vehicle security. The latter are already used widely by transit agencies for drivers remotely logging into intelligent transit systems (ITS) used to monitor vehicle locations and other data.

WMATA plans to issue a request for proposals for a PIN access control system for bus ignition, Pavlik says.

Remote monitoring. While riders might not realize it, most modern public transit buses are completely wired. They not only have GPS receivers to track speed and location but also are able to wirelessly transmit data on every conceivable vehicle metric from engine RPM to oil pressure to tire air pressure. This information is sent to dispatch centers via radio or cellular signal. Occupancy, plus rider boardings and departures, are tracked by optical sensors on doors.

The business case for these features is well established: increasing efficiency and boosting ridership to add revenue. The most tangible benefits for riders are increasingly common bus-monitoring Web portals and mobile applications that show bus locations on a map and when the next bus is due at their stop.

The Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) uses BusTime for its Web site, which Google rated as the second-most searched-for site specific to the city. Within six months of implementation, CTA ridership rose 16 percent, says Art Scanlon, chief technology officer of Clever Devices, developer of the BusTime program. “When you’re in Chicago in the dead of winter, you don’t want to sit out there for 20 minutes and wonder if the bus is going to show up,” he notes.

In house, these ITS technologies are applied to computer-aided dispatch and automated vehicle location (CAD/AVL), which Scanlon describes as “air traffic control for buses.” The ancillary security benefits are clear: situational awareness of where buses are during emergencies and how many passengers are on board. For example, while Adirondack Trailways may have flunked physical security in the McCollum case, a GPS receiver on the stolen bus alerted company dispatchers to its whereabouts, leading to McCollum’s apprehension by police.

Another security-related ITS tool is the panic button. Most transit buses now feature a discreet panic button easily accessible to the driver. In most agencies’ buses, the button not only sends a silent alarm to dispatchers, it opens the driver’s radio microphone—and in some cases others throughout the bus—to transmit live audio from inside to dispatchers and supervisors. Further, when a vehicle’s panic button is depressed, its external route signs can be programmed to display an emergency message to those on the street, such as, “Emergency, dial 911.”

Also in Illinois, Pace Suburban Bus, which provides service in the northeastern suburban areas of the state, has implemented second-generation CAD referred to as the Transit Operations Decision Support System (TODSS). TODSS, developed by the Trapeze Group for the FTA, features two elements beyond basic CAD/AVL, explains John Braband, Pace’s operations department manager. On the vehicle side, drivers are required by procedure to log on to the agency’s system before departing depots, which they do via a touch screen console. If they don’t log on and the bus is activated, an alert is sent to the dispatch center.

The console also serves as an interface for ongoing easy communication with dispatch once the driver is underway; it offers a second overt alert button for nonlife-threatening emergencies and other reports. When drivers hit the button, they are presented with a pull-down menu of “canned” text messages to transmit to dispatch, relating issues such as mechanical problems, buses behind schedule, and sick or unruly passengers.

Those messages, plus more common automatic system messages, are rated by importance on a scale of 1 to 100. Messages with a priority rating of 50 or higher—for example, a driver’s failure to log into the system before departing a depot—are visible on dispatchers’ screens as items requiring action. In the most critical situations, such as life-threatening emergencies or disturbances on a bus, dispatchers are immediately presented with a list of instructions for handling the incident, including contacting police or emergency medical services.

“The clutter for the dispatcher is resolved, and priority is given to what must be done,” says Braband, who says that the FTA may someday require TODSS functionality in all new federally funded CAD/AVL systems.

One technologically feasible option that transit agencies have not adopted is what Raines calls remote disabling devices for stolen or hijacked devices. While trucking companies in high-crime regions of the world employ the technology, transportation agencies have not done so for the sake of safety.

Scanlon explains that existing ITS technology could easily bring a vehicle to a gradual stop by slowly “derating” its engine’s power. The risk, however, is that when the vehicle finally came to a stop, it would do so in the middle of an intersection or at a railroad crossing.

Looking in Live

Not so long ago, installing a camera to stream video live from a moving bus would simply not have been feasible, but advances in cameras and wireless transmission technology have made this option both possible and affordable. Deployment of video cameras on transit buses has, therefore, increased vastly in recent years, though most applications do not include live remote viewing.

In the older, rudimentary analog camera installations on buses, the video feed simply goes to an on-board digital video recorder (DVR). Triggered by sudden stops—usually collisions—the DVRs are typically set to save video immediately before and after the event. The primary benefit is to avoid liability and costly settlement payments in cases of baseless injury claims.

More recently, digital IP cameras are being used in buses, making it possible not only to conduct on-board recording but also to save and then wirelessly upload the full route’s video to a stationary server once buses return to a depot or garage.

Security managers say the cameras serve both as a deterrence and a valuable forensic tool with regard to petty crimes and assaults on, or attempted robberies of, drivers. “Anyone who wants to steal [from] or assault our employees—we’re going to have them on videotape, and we’re going to make an arrest,” says Rick Vines, risk manager for the Capital District Transit Authority, which serves four counties in the Albany, New York region, and operates cameras on 90 of its fixed-route buses.

And this is one case where employees don’t mind being watched. Not only is the drivers’ union happy with the cameras, it welcomes them, says Vines.

One thing the camera systems on buses are still not likely to offer, however, is a way to stop crimes in progress via live monitoring. Bandwidth limitations—not only on agencies’ terrestrial radio networks but also on cellular networks—and the costs have thus far restricted implementation of real-time monitoring, even on-demand real-time monitoring for use only during potential emergencies. But technological advances and positive market forces are changing that.

Rodell Notbohm, general manager of Woodinville, Washington-based Apollo Video Technology, explains that the H.264 video compression format has made live, remote video streaming via cellular signal far more practical. Costs for service, however, are still relatively high, Notbohm says, noting that $40 per month per vehicle, in a typical big-city fleet of 1,500 buses, totals $60,000 per month.

“That’s the challenging thing that keeps them from doing live look-in on all of the vehicles,” he says, “but I think that’s one of the things where return on investment is going to be changing over time, and I think it’s going to get cheaper and cheaper to get these connections.”

Apollo’s live video streaming software product, ViSS, runs on both cellular and Wi-Fi connections. Generally, bus links function best with cellular connections, while transit or rail agencies are more likely to construct a continuous Wi-Fi zone along their lines for constant connectivity with trains, Notbohm explains. Bus-borne Wi-Fi mobile hotspots, however, could offer their own benefits, he adds, in both life-threatening emergencies and in smaller incidents that breed fraud.

Any approved user with a line of sight toward a vehicle that is transmitting Wi-Fi and equipped with Apollo’s technology can tap into the vehicle’s video feeds using standard software on a notebook computer or using an Apollo iphone app. For law enforcement or first responders, the technology means they can see what’s going on inside a vehicle before they enter, which would help in directing emergency response.

The Wi-Fi functionality delivers another antifraud benefit that archived video cannot. Notbohm explains that after minor transit bus accidents, some transit agencies’ legal staffs would respond to and write settlement checks to passengers on the scene in exchange for waivers of future liability claims. The unintended consequence is called the “ghostrider” phenomenon: immediately following bus accidents, bystanders would cram into crashed buses before authorities arrived on-scene in hopes of collecting the checks.

With applications like ViSS, transit agency personnel can respond to the scene of an accident and access saved accident video from inside the bus via the vehicle’s Wi-Fi cloud. “The transit agency representative can log onto the bus, instantly review video of the crash, and then say, ‘You, you, and you, stay. The rest of you weren’t on the bus. You can go now,’” Notbohm says.

ViSS has been implemented system-wide by Florida’s Jacksonville Transit Authority (JTA), first on its Skyway monorail system and then on its buses. The cost of deployment on the agency’s fleet of more than 100 buses was approximately $500,000, says Kenneth Williams, manager of Skyway operations. The live look-in function feeds a video wall in the JTA’s operations center, while all employees cleared to access the feeds via a secure virtual private network (VPN) can do so from their desktops.

Among Williams’ favorite features of the ViSS system is an administrator-level log-in that allows him to view a dashboard of feed and recorded data system-wide. “I don’t have time to look in on all the feeds; no one does,” Williams said. “You don’t have to go to every bus to make sure they’re working.”

Fortunately, the JTA has not witnessed a serious incident since ViSS implementation on buses in 2009, but the system has yielded investigative benefits for the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office. In February, a pedestrian was seriously injured when he was struck by a car on a city street. Video shot by an external camera on board a city bus confirmed that the pedestrian, who saw the bus coming but not the car behind it, darted behind the bus and was struck, clearing the driver of wrongdoing.


Various vendors and transportation security officials note the prospect of a converged facility and vehicle security system that brings together CAD/AVL and depot physical security. The benefits would be, for example, that the system could be set so that an automated, depot exit gate would not open except for a logged-in, verified driver who is running a scheduled route or other approved departure.

Before such convergence can work as intended in the real world, however, location technology must become more accurate so that the system can differentiate among vehicles in a cluttered yard environment, for instance, observers say. The concept would also require broader implementation both of smarter CAD/AVL systems and of electronic access control systems at transit facilities.

Another question is reliability—riders can’t be left waiting for buses trapped behind a stuck gate. This, however, is not a problem unique to public transit. Dick Krieger, an architectural consultant with gate and system manufacturer Tymetal Corporation., says that almost all mechanical vehicle gates allow disengagement of motorized drives and manual gate opening. In environments where operators are concerned with both access control and theft prevention, they can further require access control measures such as a key lock or PIN code to disengage a motor drive and open a gate manually.

Terrorist Threat

For now, crimes—such as assaults, theft, and fraud—present a far higher risk than a terrorist attack. Raines, of TSA, speaking about the issue with Security Management notes: “I don’t rule that out—we don’t rule anything out, but when you have limited resources and limited funds, you focus where the intel points you. And right now the intel has not pointed us at that particular threat.”

That’s not to say that TSA completely skips over this sector when it comes to mitigating the terrorist threat, but given the low-risk assessment, TSA currently allocates only about $12 million annually in grants to intercity coach bus operators, and $300 million in grant funding for public mass transit authorities.

Greg Hull, APTA’s director of operations, safety and security programs, called the latter figure “a drop in the bucket versus their needs, which, based on the surveys we’ve done, are more in the neighborhood of $6 billion.”

To mitigate terror threats, TSA funds security measures ranging from physical security equipment to training of explosives detection canines. But addressing the greatest terrorist threat to mass transit—bombings—is primarily a matter of education and training. Transit systems must educate riders to recognize and report suspicious behavior and packages. It must also train buses drivers, “not to let the threat onto the bus,” says Norm Littler, vice president of regulatory affairs for the American Bus Association (ABA), which represents coach companies.

Since its establishment, TSA has funded training of 78,000 mass transit employees, while ABA has directed training with companies that Littler estimates cover 80 percent of coach industry employers. The 9-11 Act, passed in 2007, requires TSA to issue a regulation governing training at intercity coach companies and other fundamentals, such as designating a single company point of contact for security issues. A draft rule is expected this year, Littler says.

Meanwhile, the ABA and its partners are clamoring for a fresh assessment of risk borne by the sector. The last full-fledged risk assessment was completed by DOT in 2002. “That makes it very, very difficult to go out with a revised training program,” Littler says.

Following the August bus theft in Hoboken, New York City Police Chief Raymond Kelly leaned on his counterparts across the river to establish legitimate physical security at the Trailways depot. Ironically, the suspect in the theft has become a tabloid darling in the Big Apple. McCollum, who reportedly suffers from an autism spectrum disorder, has been obsessed with transit vehicles since early childhood and has stolen not only buses but also subway trains, accruing 27 arrests for thefts and for impersonating transit employees.

After his latest arrest, McCollum granted a jailhouse interview to the New York Daily News. “The perfect job for me would be counterterrorism,” he told the paper. “I could teach them how to stop stuff like this from happening.”