NJ Transit Centralizes Passenger Communications Operation

As a native Philadelphian, NJ Transit has always been my preferred choice for transportation to New York City. The company delivers what I need in a regional train connection: fast, efficient, clean and inexpensive. 

NJ Transit is hard at work in other areas of customer service. The company is building out a statewide public address and display system that will soon have a presence in every station in the NJ Transit system. Currently passengers on the River Line, Northeast Corridor Line and at certain bus stations are seeing and hearing the results.

“As part of our effort to improve customer communications, we are improving the display quality of our passenger information systems, as well as adding displays at locations where they previously didn’t exist,” said David Rountree, manager of Public Address Communications Technologies for NJ Transit.

“We’re also improving the quality of our public address systems to ensure that customers can hear announcements in the rail station environment. This new system is very clear and concise.”

A general overview of the system only hints at the massive undertaking behind the initiative. This isn’t as simple as replacing ceiling speakers or adding a few signs. It’s essentially a complete overhaul of a complex system that includes migrating away from proprietary server platforms and expensive vendor contracts; and toward a standardized, self-owned and operated network built to disseminate audio and visual information from one to many points.

Rountree and his engineering staff are looking to the IP environment to achieve their collective vision. The team is handling the majority of the integration process, with Baran Design Associates, a consulting firm based in Bergenfield, N.J., assisting in design and equipment selection.

Both companies are also working with hand-picked vendors to deliver IP-friendly systems with open standards. This includes Loquendo and its unique text-to-speech engine; Barix, an audio over IP specialist that enables flexible audio distribution across the network; and Harman Music Group, the parent company of signal processing, amplifier and loudspeaker brands at the various stations.

“Transit systems in general are very slow to change,” said Mark Ramsay, president of Baran Design Associates.

“NJ Transit is on the leading edge of a trend toward installing systems that are no longer based solely on equipment,” said Ramsay. “NJ Transit’s new structure, based on end results now, delivers computer-generated messaging via an IP network adds new tools to what was before an audio-only discipline. This opens up many possibilities for integrating audio, text, video, monitoring and logging in the wider messaging system.”

Ramsay added that in the process of bidding on other transit jobs in the United States and internationally he has seen NJ Transit drawings show up in specs for other systems — particularly on the audio side.

“A lot of people who are in charge of audio messaging for transit systems have been looking for new ways to increase the quality and coverage of PA systems,” he continued. “The added expense can be hard to justify even though it creates a much better system. The fact that NJ Transit is actually proving this works is making them a linchpin of sorts in getting other systems upgraded.”

New Vision

The core data center, located in Newark, currently houses a mixture of server platforms that supply passenger information to signs. At one point vendors included Penta Technology and Arinc Technology for the commuter rail system, GE for light rail and Alpine for the bus system. Some of these systems have since been scaled back and others are close to disappearing completely as NJ Transit implements its new vision.

“We had a lot of different vendors with different methods and databases to populate information, which made it difficult to provide customers with useful information,” said Rountree. “We decided to centralize our data, so that we can provide clear and up-to-the-minute details about their commutes.”

NJ Transit receives its train and bus data from the IPS rail database management system, which provides feedback from track circuits and other real-time information including train locations. That information is fed into NJ Transit’s various server/database platforms on a continuous basis, with hundreds of new updates per hour. NJ Transit operators then select the information to broadcast over public address and signage.

The new design calls for NJ Transit to soon use a single system for all aspects of its intermodal transportation systems that is easier to maintain, operate, amend and update.

“As time goes on we’ll have more and more control over the different aspects, and fewer contracts with outside vendors,” said William Loucas, Technical Specialist, Public Address Communications Technologies for NJ Transit. “For now, we have standardized the doorway that all of these systems come into, which means that as one vendor leaves, it is quick and easy to eliminate that part of the system.”

Information Flow

The flow of passenger information begins to take shape after NJ Transit operators mine the appropriate data from the IPS system and enter it into the NJ Transit database system. The messages appearing on signs at the various stations and the NJ Transit Web site are converted to voice using an automated text-to-speech engine that produces a robotic voice message. While this may bring visions of an old Kraftwerk album, the result is extraordinarily lifelike and natural. Delivery of the text and audio messages to each station continues throughout the day on a scheduled basis.

NJ Transit selected the Loquendo Text-To-Speech (TTS) software engine to convert the database information for public address. Rountree notes that many text-to-speech engines are very cumbersome and challenging to fine-tune. Many also burden the user with reams of programming tools that are required to even slightly tweak the system.

“Loquendo has a very simplistic approach to adjust cadences and punctuations,” he said. “It’s fairly easy to alter the operation of the engine and how it relates to speech. It’s faster to correct, faster to set up and it supports 16-bit resolution audio streams to more effectively reproduce the original message as voice.”

Many text-to-speech systems are designed for telephone and consequently work fine for audio conversions using 8-bit resolution. At twice the bit resolution, the Loquendo system essentially provides far more information in the same slice of bandwidth to reproduce voice at far greater quality.

“8-bit resolution is simply insufficient for full-range audio at a rail or bus station,” added Rountree. “Our peak intelligibility is greatly enhanced with 16-bit resolution streams. The quality is much better because we can adjust the amount of data we are putting into the voice we are streaming.”

The Audio Element

The IP network infrastructure that starts with the database systems and the Loquendo engine extends onward to the audio distribution, processing and playout at each location.

The text-to-speech process produces a WAV file that is converted to mp3 for Web distribution en route to a Barix Exstreamer 100 IP decoder. The Exstreamers are IP-addressable, and mp3 files are sent to one or more devices assigned to each specific message.  

Generally speaking, there is one Exstreamer at each location to receive the streams. Each decoded stream is passed to the local audio processing system before playing out over the station PA system. (The text version of the same message is simultaneously displayed on nearby signs, making it ADA-compliant; and also posted to the NJ Transit Web site.)

Rountree first discovered Barix through his work with Ramsay, which dates back nearly a decade when the two collaborated on speech generation system for a new rail transfer station in Secaucus, N.J., just south of New York City. Ramsay’s experience with Barix also dates back several years, including Web jukebox applications where his clients would use Barix encoding devices to stream music over the Web.

“Barix gave NJ Transit both a very good price point for audio distribution as well an openly programmable box that can use different firmware to build custom functionality,” said Ramsay. “They can point this box in different directions for different operations. We considered other IP delivery systems but they would have been more expensive and more difficult to customize and change.”

The Barix Exstreamers decode and pass the audio to the cluster of Harman Music Group products. The first stop is a BSS London BLU-160 Series (or London BLU Series) unit for digital signal processing. Ambient noise compensation is employed to automatically adjust announcements based on the level of background noise around the local rail platform.

From there the audio is pushed into Crown CTs Series power amplifiers, with integrated Crown USP3 PIP cards to add IP intelligence. JBL loudspeakers are installed every 10 to 15 feet along the platforms. The 60-watt speakers fight the sound of diesel locomotives, which can be as high as 103 decibels at the station. The combination of the ambient noise compensation in the BSS unit and the power of the JBL speakers allow the public address system to win the battle.

“The system is programmed so that the PA turns itself down when there are no trains in the station,” said Ramsay. “When a loud locomotive rolls through, the affected speakers automatically raise the volume. This preserves intelligibility no matter what is happening on the platform.”

Rountree said that while one Exstreamer is capable of serving multiple zones, he expects to install one for every zone or platform in everyone station. For example, River Line light rail service has 21 stations; currently, that system has 21 Exstreamers, one for each station in the system.

“We considered purchasing AMX software to assign each announcement to a location, but that becomes unwieldy and time-consuming to process,” said Rountree. “The Loquendo-to-Barix sequence offers very low latency. The messages go straight to the Exstreamer. So the plan is to use an individual Exstreamer for each physical audio zone that is receiving and playing out information.”

Monetizing the Network

Digital signage is everywhere. It’s hard to think of a business vertical that doesn’t employ it in some way. Retailers, universities, stadiums, hotels, restaurants and museums are all deploying systems.

Public organizations and government are also taking advantage of digital signage’s potential, including the transportation industry.

Public safety, wayfinding and general passenger information are all merits of digital signage in rail stations. This information is being populated through a Web-based application that simultaneously publishes to the Web site. NJ Transit is taking this one step further by incorporating advertisements supplied through an outside agency.

“Our LCD displays show data scrolls on the bottom and Web pages featuring the advertisements,” said Rountree. “In selected areas we incorporate ads into the audio system through both the text-to-speech service and as our scheduled events within our background music system, which is a critical element for new revenue generation.”

Monitoring Capabilities

Remote monitoring is a key capability of IP-based systems. Most every piece of hardware and software in the NJ Transit network is accessible from a corporate computer. This is not only convenient for general supervision but gives operators a reliable troubleshooting guide and an ability to respond quicker to performance issues.

Remote adjustments of volume and other levels can be tweaked from a distance. Ramsay specified System Architect, a software package from the Harman Group, to facilitate remote access to the processors and amplifiers.

“We enabled closed-loop station monitoring to remotely look at every aspect of the public address offering,” said Ramsay. “The London BLU-160 processors sit on the network, so we can remotely access them to look at data, confirm operation and make adjustments. There are also network devices reporting back when there are drop-outs. The PIP cards in the Crown amps, which are essentially off-board DSP units, have important remote error reporting features.”

Rountree and Ramsay worked up a unique idea for verifying live audio quality at distant locations. A Barix Instreamer 100 encoding device is attached to an auxiliary output on every BSS processor, capturing live audio picked up by ambient noise sensing microphones on each platform. The Instreamer encodes the audio and streams it to offices where operators can confirm signal intelligibility on the spot and send test signals as necessary.

“We’re not only adjusting and compensating the PA performance by using these microphones, but also using them to select and listen to individual platforms and monitor the audio transmissions in real conditions,” said Rountree. “We are able to do all of that remotely over the network using the software and have access from anywhere that has a corporate network computer, which saves us a tremendous amount in labor.”

Info on the Go

Passengers with SmartPhone interface capability can access train and bus information via their BlackBerry devices and iPhones direct from the organization’s Web site. The information is propagated to a Web page direct from the database systems. This is the same information that appears on the digital signs.

“The dynamic signage distribution really represents the seamless integration that went into this system,” said Loucas. “We have added new layers of service we didn’t offer before. Anyone who can access the Internet using a Web-enabled mobile device can access our Web site and view the schedules on the go.”

Even with this much going on, Rountree and his team are still looking at other possibilities. Rountree and Ramsay have been communicating with Barix to add a less complex PA element to remote bus depots that cannot be tied to the network infrastructure.

The configuration adds an amplifier inside the Barix Exstreamer (called the Exstreamer 200) and directly connects it to a pair of smaller loudspeakers, removing the requirement and expense of a separate amplifier. A small digital sign is also added, allowing delivery of audio and visual information to the locations.

“We are testing the system at two small bus shelters, and we can send bus information to our customers where before they only had print schedules,” said Rountree. “It’s a very simplistic version of our main PA strategy that allows us to increase our information density at a very low cost. We can also deploy to all of these sites quicker, perhaps in two years rather than ten.”

This is a point that Ramsay hits home on.

“Nightclubs can do it in a couple of weeks,” he said. “Transit systems with 160 train stations, each with its individual upgrade schedule, can take up to a decade to roll though each location. One perspective might suggest that transit stations are changing at a glacially slow rate, but in reality the natural maintenance schedule of such a large system plays a big role.

“But the ability for NJ Transit to be this flexible, make changes on the fly and constantly evolve is really a milestone. To my knowledge, there is nobody that is doing this kind of work in house. The fact that they are pulling this off is their biggest strength.”

Brian Galante is vice president of Pipeline Communications. He can be reached at 570-425-2315 or at bgalante35@gmail.com.