Metrorail control center undergoes renovation

 <span class="cutline_leadin">OBSCURE ROOM:</span> Rail traffic controller Kevin Petit works in the Miami-Dade Transit control center in downtown Miami, where employees monitor Metrorail, Metromover and Metrobus services.
OBSCURE ROOM: Rail traffic controller Kevin Petit works in the Miami-Dade Transit control center in downtown Miami, where employees monitor Metrorail, Metromover and Metrobus services.

In a semi-darkened room inside the Miami-Dade County government building in downtown, rail traffic controllers sit before banks of television and computer screens, consoles full of buttons and switches and walls that display red bands or dots moving up and down or stopping periodically at points marked with abbreviations for place names like Vizcaya, Government Center or Palmetto.

The room, which resembles the NASA space command center, is the little-known Miami-Dade Transit (MDT) control center where employees monitor Metrorail, Metromover and Metrobus services.

Workers are now renovating the facility and building a new control center, which will be chiefly dedicated to Metrorail, which are expected to be completed by year’s end at a cost of approximately $26.3 million, MDT officials said.

It is the first full-fledged renovation of the control center since Metrorail began service on May 20, 1984. The renovation is also an effort to move the system into the 21st century with new digital technology as Metrorail awaits the arrival of 136 new cars now being designed by the Italian firm AnsaldoBreda. The first prototype trains are expected to arrive by late 2015.

“We are moving from the Flintstones to the Jetsons,” said Greg Robinson, MDT General Superintendant Rail Transportation, who in the past worked for NASA and now manages the control center for Metrorail and Metromover.

In a rare visit by outsiders, a photographer and a reporter for El Nuevo Herald last week were given a tour of the transit control center. The existing facility, which opened when Metrorail started service, is divided into three areas: Metrobus, Metrorail and Metromover.

When you first walk into the center, the first room is the Metrobus traffic control center dominated by giant screens hanging from a wall where the positions and performance of county buses in operation are displayed. To the side sit workers in front of microphones and more computer screens. Those are in communication with drivers by radio.

Once buses depart for service from each of transit’s divisions, they are monitored and commanded from the bus control center, officials said. One of the employees at the center is charged with dispatching mechanics to a location where a bus has broken down. Other supervisors dispatch personnel to accident sites and monitor drivers’ on-time performance.

Adjacent to the bus control room, sits the semi-darkened Metrorail and Metromover control pods. Two pods are dedicated to Metrorail, one focusing on stations and the other on train operations. A third pod accommodates Metromover.

Multiple television screens line the walls showing trains arriving or departing at various stations and passengers boarding or getting off trains. The images come from the almost 700 closed circuit television cameras around transit facilities.

When you hear announcements in stations, they come from the employees staffing the Metrorail and Metromover pods.

Robinson said that while the system has operated well for three decades, it is “becoming archaic.”

This is why control center personnel are moving to the upgraded command post by year’s end.

One key difference between the old and the new centers is that while transit officials have separate displays in the old control room for train movements and television monitors showing stations, in the new command post, the trains and station images will be displayed on one giant digital screen mounted on a wall.

Another difference is that the display in the new center can be modified easily since it is digital. The old display cannot be changed because it would have to be rebuilt to add items.

When the new Metrorail line to Miami International Airport opened in 2012, transit controllers displayed the route in makeshift digital monitors next to the old board.

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