Fixing Philly – Getting SEPTA updates live

Charles Mostoller

For years, riders have complained that Philly’s mass-transit system wasn’t as up-to-date on technology as that of other metropolitan areas.

But, with a new push towards adding real-time data to the SEPTA app – and allowing newly collected data to be open source for other developers to utilize – the mass transit system might finally become the envy of other cities.

SEPTA has goals of adding hundreds of new hybrid buses and electric locomotives into its system, GM Jeffrey Knueppel said in an interview with Al Dia.

But, according to Andrew Busch, SEPTA’s chief press officer, the first phase of improvements that riders will see is an updated real-time information system that will be implemented in all of SEPTA’s busses, regional rail trains and trolleys later this year.

“That’s the first part of what the public is going to see on this,” said Busch on the coming upgrades. “We are getting much closer to real-time data.”

Through a number of projects that will cost SEPTA about $11 million, SEPTA is bringing more accurate location data to all of its services.

“If you’re out there waiting for a bus or if you’re experiencing delays while you’re waiting for a Regional Rail train…. This gives you much better ability to plan your route,” said Busch.

The mass transit company has already spent more than $5 million so far, Busch said, to outfit SEPTA’s more than 1,400 busses, 380 regional rail trains and trolleys with new modems that use a cellular system – similar to a cell phone – to relay up-to-date location info that will be available to riders online and through the SEPTA app in its TrainView and TransitView features. (The Inquirer reported last week that the mass transit company has so far spent $5.6 million on real-time data tech.)


According to Busch, these modems will update about every thirty seconds to provide location data. Currently, because of older equipment, he said that it takes several minutes for location data to be updated on the app.

“It’s a big step and we certainly know this is what riders expect,” said Busch.

Unfortunately, Busch said, the rest of the project to bring real-time data to the Market Street Line and Broad Street Line trains will not be done until sometime next year. He said that, because these trains run through underground tunnels, data collection from the modems that are being installed elsewhere wouldn’t be reliable.

Instead, they are working on a system that will put countdown clocks in stations along the subway lines to give riders a better idea of wait times for their next train.

 “It’s going to take us longer to get to that,” he said.

Also, Busch noted that data generated by these newly installed modems in regional rail trains, busses and trolleys will be open source and available to developers to use in their applications.

“Open data is something we’ve done in the past and this new data should see a lot of activity,” said Busch. “It should be very popular… We have a good relationship with the tech community.”

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