MBTA Operations Control Center Undergoes $6 Million Upgrade

More screens, fewer problems.
Photo by Steve Annear

Photo by Steve Annear

Come New Year’s Eve, when thousands of people pack the platforms and MBTA trains to get in and out of the city for the midnight celebrations, the “brains” behind the transit agency’s entire operations will be ready for nearly anything to happen.

On Monday, MassDOT officials showed off $6 million of upgrades recently made to the MBTA Operations Control Center on High Street near South Station, an expansive room of gadgetry where workers attentively sit behind desks and monitor dozens of large screens displaying blinking and flashing lights, and scan live feeds coming in from the hundreds of cameras that hang above riders’ heads at various stops, showing what’s happening along the tracks.

The overhaul, which included the installation of new HDTV screens with optimal imagery and supporting software, an upgraded internal network that allows employees manning the stations to handle more tasks than the previous operating system, and a brand new setup for the Transit Police officers tracking activity from the headquarters, was paid for through grant funding from the Department of Homeland Security. Officials said the equipment installation took five months, and wrapped up in late October.

“This is the brains of the entire operation,” said Randy Clarke, MassDOT’s senior director of security, stressing the importance of the significant behind-the-scenes changes to the control room and its computer system. “We gave it a brain upgrade. The people in here is what makes the brain work, but we gave them more technical and software capabilities for how to handle emergencies and regular service. It’s much more sophisticated.”

The Operations Control Center, located on the eighth floor of the transportation building, is a space daily riders rarely get a glimpse of, but it’s there that employees coordinate with the inspectors and operators out on the system to adjust time schedules and assist with any emergency-related action that might require the attention of the Transit Police.

“They are dealing with very rapid fire tactical issues all day long,” said Clarke. “They have to be on-point all day long.”

And the upgrades will help them do that, he said.

Along a curved stretch of wall that resembles something NASA specialists might use as ground control when launching a rocket into space, screens display passengers boarding trains at the T’s rapid transit stops. There are also views of the trains—the Red, Orange, and Blue Lines on one part of the digital wall, and the Green Line on the other—as they move from stop-to-stop in real-time. With the new software, transit officials can choose what they want to appear in front of them, swapping in a Twitter live feed to monitor rider complaints, or pulling up news coverage on TV as necessary—whatever makes monitoring activity easiest for those behind the control boards.

“What this system allows us to do is, it allows us to build a customized layout on this wall,” said Todd Johnson, the T’s chief transportation officer, referencing the span of screens buzzing with images and maps of the train system. “Before it was fixed—what you saw is what you got. Now we can sit down and pick camera views, wall layout, and create a customized layout for any event.”

Johnson said they now have “10 times” the amount of video displays at the control center than they did with the older system, with clearer shots of passengers, which will especially help during annual events that attract larger crowds, such as First Night on New Year’s Eve, and the St. Patrick’s Day parade.

“It helps us react faster and better manage any situation,” he said. “It’s better decision making” and improves communications with operators.

Photo by Steve Annear

Photo by Steve Annear

Photo by Steve Annear

Photo by Steve Annear


Steve Annear Steve Annear, Digital Writer at Boston Magazine sannear@bostonmagazine.com