Boston’s Transport System Needs IoT Makeover

At South Station, MBTA Rail Shutdown Caught Some By Surprise

The effects of the winter of 2015 was especially unkind to the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority (MBTA) and its riders—just ask any of the Boston area-commuters who faced weeks of public transportation cancellations and delays due to breakdowns. The impact on the MBTA was so sharply felt that it has polarized opinions regarding Boston’s bid for hosting the 2024 Summer Olympics.

While there is little argument that a major overhaul is needed, sustained MBTA resilience will require looking beyond just laying down new tracks and ordering replacement cars. The Internet of Things (IoT) is capturing headlines for consumer applications like wearables, but it has an enormous potential to revolutionize systems like Boston’s aging transportation infrastructure. In fact, the IoT covers several capability areas that could contribute to a heartier MBTA.

Proactive monitoring and preventive maintenance

According to a recent Boston Globe article, 85 percent of breakdowns during an early February blizzard were due to outdated, moisture susceptible motors. In one week alone, motor repair costs exceeded $175,000. During blizzards like this, these simultaneous failures have a compounding effect, evidenced when the entire MBTA had to cease service. By requiring that newly commissioned train cars be outfitted with sensors, Internet connectivity and service applications for such capabilities as remote diagnostics, the MBTA can transform its fleet into a system of smart, connected products.

Instead of reactive service calls, possibly during peak times or multiplied by weather events, performance can be monitored proactively. Workflows and triggers can detect the warning-signs of failure well before they happen, allowing maintenance to schedule repairs that minimize impact. When failures do occur, remote diagnostics can ensure that on-site repairs are made quickly. Additionally, many repairs could be delivered via software patch updates.

Fleet and asset analysis

While proactive service is one of the obvious benefits of an IoT-enabled subway system, asset management takes system tracking a step further. The MBTA is actually a system of systems, including railway cars, buses, hundreds of miles of tracks and junctions, commuter stations, train and bus yards, and even ferries. The IoT can offer pinpoint precision monitoring of all these assets to optimize fleet traffic. Bus GPS tracking can be combined with passenger volumes to continually measure and optimize schedules, and recommend alternate routes. Repair parts and human resources can be tracked. Vehicle speeds can be monitored, and even remotely overridden if needed.

IoT dashboards can provide dispatch stations and service crews with a holistic view of system performance across the entire system. With the flexibility of software, these views can be as expansive or granular as needed. For instance, macro-trends could be analyzed to measure seasonal effects on peak traffic patterns, or a Green Line technician could zero in on the brake system status of a specific subway car. Another view could allow a service manager to track and measure how his technicians are deployed.

Integrating with MBTA business systems

While the MBTA is the operator of transportation fleet assets, the data generated by these assets could be used by its manufacturers.  As contracts have already been put in place to acquire Orange and Red line replacement subway cars, the manufacturers now have the opportunity to change how they are created and owned.

With Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker making a keynote presentation at the upcoming IoT event, LiveWorx, we can expect to hear how the Bay State is looking to embrace and leverage the economic and infrastructure benefits of smart, connected products. As the MBTA recovers from an unusually harsh winter season, its management would be well advised to consider how it can similarly benefit from IoT.

Photo by Pat Greenhouse for The Boston Globe via Getty Images.

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