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Seeing Is Believing

Seeing Is Believing

State transit authorities in the US have been including surveillance cameras in the design of their newest train stations for security reasons. But as one state discovered, the technology delivers other benefits too . . .

From its light-filled atrium and waiting area, to the commissioned murals inspired by its marsh-like setting, to the Art Deco flourishes on its wall sconces and oak benches, New Jersey Transit's Secaucus Junction is a marvel. The airy new station of stone, glass and steel harks back to the days when train stations were not merely utilitarian but also monuments to travel. Yet it has one decidedly modern architectural element: a network of more than 220 video surveillance cameras that collectively record and analyze the goings-on in nearly every one of its 30,000 square metres.

The cameras are a sign of the times. As probably the largest new train station completed in the United States since the terrorist attacks of 2001, Secaucus Junction opened its doors in 2003 to a world where train stations had come to be seen as targets not only for pickpockets but also for terrorists. Attacks on the transit systems in Madrid and London have made this vulnerability painfully clear. The Secaucus Junction station may have a low profile nationally, but it provides a crucial link to New Jersey's transportation infrastructure, connecting bus routes and 10 of the state's 11 commuter train lines. Tens of thousands of passengers ride through the station each day, most of them on their way to New York's crowded Penn Station, a 15-minute ride away.

But this is not a story about New Jersey Transit's efforts at crime prevention, or counterterrorism, or even - when it comes right down to it - security. This is a story about surveillance in its broadest sense. What officials at New Jersey Transit discovered at Secaucus Junction is that the real business case for good surveillance isn't in security at all. Instead, the benefit comes from keeping watch over transit systems for other purposes, like business operations and customer service. Security is only a starting point.

"It's not [a question of], 'OK, we're going to put this camera there because of this return on investment,'" says Michael Slack, CTO of New Jersey Transit, which is the nation's largest statewide public transportation system. "It's a question of, 'How do I take [the video from the cameras] and make it sharable?' That's where the benefit is."

Joseph Bober, New Jersey Transit's chief of police, puts it even more bluntly: "When we're spending this type of money," he says, "we want to get the biggest bang for our buck."

A Whole Lot of Lenses

While airports across the country have focused on locking down access with ever-increasing security at their entrance points, the nation's train stations have had to take a different approach. "The system is by nature, and cannot be changed from, an open and accessible system," says Chris Kozub, associate director of the National Transit Institute, a federally funded training institute at Rutgers University. Like others who focus on transit security, Kozub is fond of pointing out that more people pass through New York Penn Station in one morning's peak period than pass through Chicago O'Hare International Airport in two and a half days. "Introducing any kind of airport-type technology into the system would basically shut the system down," he says.

Instead, all that transit authorities can do is try to watch what's going on in stations, on tracks, on trains and on buses. And the most efficient way to do this is with cameras. Lots of cameras. Cameras fixed on platforms. Cameras pointed up and down the tracks. Cameras at the kiss-and-ride. Cameras installed in elevators. Cameras pointed at escalators, and benches, and ticket booths, and ticket vending machines, and lines for coffee, and pretty much everything everywhere except the restrooms.

Train stations have long had CCTV (closed-circuit television), of course. What's different in Secaucus Junction is that the surveillance system was built into the plans for the building and was intended from day one to be a high-quality, accessible and smart network of cameras.

"You gotta remember, we had CCTV way before [9/11] ever happened," Slack says. "We had 800 cameras [systemwide]. But they were unusable. Meaning, if you had a customer service complaint at Metropark [Station], you were going to throw somebody in a car, go to Metropark, walk into a room, and maybe or maybe not play back a VHS tape from a complaint that happened 30 days ago."

As Slack says this, he's sitting in a conference room at New Jersey Transit headquarters across the street from Newark's Penn Station. At one end of the long, narrow room is an ordinary desktop computer, hooked up to the ordinary network for New Jersey Transit. At the other end of the room is a large projection screen. Slack logs on and punches a few things into the computer, and then starts pulling up video feed. Every camera in Secaucus Junction - as well as at other train and bus stations where the old VHS CCTV system has been upgraded - is now at Slack's fingertips. In an instant, he can access not only real-time video but archives. He pulls up video of a ticket counter at New York Penn Station from that morning's rush hour. A passenger hands a New Jersey Transit customer-service representative money, and receives change and a commuter-rail ticket in return.

The picture quality is pretty good, although the cameras themselves are nothing fancy. Even with the security funding that followed 9/11, Transit couldn't justify buying IP-based cameras, and wireless cameras would have raised reliability issues as well as the price tag. Instead, Slack and Bober focused on camera density. They invested in dozens and dozens of inexpensive, fixed cameras, and in a handful of more expensive pan-tilt cameras that swivel and zoom. The whole system (not counting the network) cost about $US1.5 million to install and deploy - not a huge chunk of the $US26 million worth of technology that went into the $US450 million station.

For every 15 or so cameras, there's a digital video recorder in an onsite data centre that holds more than 7 terabytes of data - enough for at least 90 days of video. The DVRs are then hooked into Transit's wide area network, so that anyone with access rights can log on, view live or archived feed, select a length of footage not to be overwritten, or pull footage back onto the central network.

But wait, as they say on late-night infomercials - there's more. The DVRs run software from Nice Systems that does intelligent video analysis. This means that the software can be set up to count customers, detect dropped bags, track intruders in secure areas such as tunnels, monitor cars stopped in no-parking areas, or detect unusually large crowds that might indicate some kind of problem.

Slack pulls up a stream of video he's downloaded from a DVR. It shows Secaucus Junction's passenger drop-off point. A yellow circle appears around an idling car in the kiss-and-ride area, and then later automatically turns red. Slack won't share specifics about how the system is set up, but he says the software can automatically trigger an announcement on the public-address system that parking is not allowed in the area. More important, it can send alerts to either a pager, mobile phone or wireless PDA. Then, an officer onsite can investigate what's going on, and either make sure the car gets moved or override the alert if the idling vehicle is a police car.

Bober says that during the Republican National Convention last September in New York City, the software also helped prevent an entire station from being evacuated. Transit police were able to quickly trace back, see who had dropped a bag and determine that the person was not a threat, just a forgetful employee.

That's not to say that New Jersey commuters - an often cranky and sleep-deprived lot who faced a summer fare hike on July 1 - have appreciated the difference. "Terrorists should just leave NJT alone," wrote one visitor to NJ.com's Transit forum several days after the London subway blasts. "[NJT is] perfectly capable of disrupting service and screwing up operations without any outside assistance."

But Slack, at least, is confident that Transit is doing the most it can with what it has. "New Jersey Transit has been a business that has continued to increase services - more trains, more trips" - without adding to its staff, he explains. "We put so many technologies in over the years because we couldn't have the eyes. Now you take that single eye" - the camera - "and share it with everybody, and it's very valuable."

Next Stop, Payoff

Outside New Jersey Transit's heavily air-conditioned headquarters, a sweltering June lunch hour is heating up. It's the grungy kind of city day that air-conditioning was invented for - muggy with too little breeze, too much concrete. Ernie Pawling, principal technical specialist in New Jersey Transit's IT department, has just come back from fixing some cameras at New York Penn Station. A sweat-drenched shirt pokes out from underneath his orange safety vest, evidence of why the surveillance system has become so popular with employees who need a window into the stations: "They don't have to leave their desks," says Pawling, who is the only IT employee who works full-time on the surveillance system. "The more people use it, the more people want it."

And use it they do. In fact, says a spokesman for Transit, only half of the benefits of the system are related to police activities and security. There are as many other examples of benefits as there are passengers. If a passenger says the last train of the night blazed by, customer service can view the video of the tracks just after midnight and see whether the train did indeed fail to stop. If a passenger says a ticket booth operator was belligerent, customer service can pull up the video of the transaction. If a late-night train is running a little behind schedule, train operators (at least in theory) can hold another train to give passengers enough time to make their connection. If there's a storm, the maintenance crew can see how much snow has accumulated on the tracks. If an escalator breaks down, operations could even have the Nice software calculate how many people have travelled on the escalator since its last maintenance.

Slack couldn't provide specific numbers, but he says that the number of customer injury claims that are filed and paid out has decreased significantly. Once, for instance, Slack says that the cameras recorded a man try to catch his train by jumping off a platform, crossing Amtrak's high-speed train tracks and climbing up the platform on the other side. As Slack remembers, the man fell and cut his head, was nearly killed and missed his train anyway. "Without the video," Slack predicts, "he would have walked upstairs to station management and said, 'I tripped and fell and cut my head. Give me a claims form.'"

The surveillance system has transferred liability as well. In May, when the Portal Bridge near the Secaucus Junction station caught fire, disrupting service for the entire Northeast corridor, Chief Bober says he was able to prove that New Jersey Transit was not responsible. (Amtrak owns the bridge, but New Jersey Transit uses it - part of a delicate arrangement that often leads to disputes up and down the Northeast corridor.) "We were able to go back to the digital recordings and substantiate how the bridge caught fire," Bober says. "If we didn't have that system in place, New Jersey Transit more than likely would have been liable."

Greg Hull of the American Public Transportation Association isn't surprised that the benefits go far beyond security. "We've seen an awful lot of programs being implemented for security across the country, and the value we see doesn't benefit just us for security," says Hull, who is director of operations, safety and security for the Washington, DC-based trade group. "It helps us be able to deal with a whole wide variety of hazards, and these systems have a very significant ROI for mitigating against losses due to claims."

Going forward, the Secaucus Junction station is serving as a model for how future deployments at New Jersey Transit might look, as officials start to set standards around video surveillance. "A lot of [Secaucus Junction] was done with a handful of people's common sense, without policy, without a panel," Slack says. "The concept is very in line with what we're going to have as a policy and standard. We really weren't that far off."

But as it turns out, Secaucus Junction may be a model for a lot more than New Jersey - especially with the heightened public awareness and heightened homeland security alert following the London terrorist attacks. The National Transit Institute's Kozub is confident that New Jersey Transit is doing all the right things to try to prevent a London-style attack, combining a cutting-edge surveillance system with rigorous public awareness and employee education programs.

"You need some pioneers such as New Jersey Transit - who in a more abstract way see and believe in the uses of these systems - to pave the road for everyone else," Kozub says. "It's through their progressive efforts that other people will be able to look at their success and make a case for their own agency."

Fast Facts

Located between New York Penn Station and Newark Penn Station in Secaucus, New Jersey, Secaucus Junction links bus routes and 10 of New Jersey Transit's 11 commuter rail lines. It's what we'd call big.

Opening date: September 6, 2003

Size: 30,000 square metres

Number of commuters who transfer at Secaucus Junction on an average weekday: 5000

Total cost of station: $US450 million

Total cost of technology: $US26 million, including surveillance, networking, personal computers, dynamic signs and ticket vending machines

Total cost of enhanced CCTV system: $US1.5 million

Original number of cameras: 220

Number of digital video recorders: 16

Size of each DVR: More than 7 terabytes

Access: On personal computers using a wide area network

Amount of time video is stored: At least 90 days

Quick & Dirty

New Jersey Transit's philosophy in deploying intelligent video surveillance has been reality first, policies second

New Jersey Transit Police Chief Joseph Bober and CTO Michael Slack didn't spend a lot of time worrying about the ROI of a particular camera. Starting several years ago with New York's Port Authority bus terminal, they instead began hooking up relatively simple cameras to the existing wide area network, and giving people in different parts of the organization access to that video feed.

"Build it, and they will come," Slack says. "I mean, really. Except for the people who have the 'Big Brother is watching' mentality, this is the hottest-selling technology that we have had since we put PCs on everybody's desktops."

What the approach also means, however, is that policies and procedures are still in progress. Right now, Transit has policies around how other transportation authorities such as Amtrak can access the video, and the IT department has logs of who has accessed what. But Transit is still working on defining policies for employee usage, which will be presented to employees once formal training is provided.

The IT department is also in the midst of a software upgrade that for the first time will allow system administrators to set up user rights and privileges. That way, certain users could be given access only to live video, or only to archived video at a particular station. This will help control network traffic as well as reduce liability issues that could arise from an employee misusing video feed of, say, a celebrity sighting or an accident.

As long as the public knows about the surveillance and the video is used only for legitimate business, attorney Ann Kiernan doesn't think that the initial lack of policies raises too much of a concern. "It sounds like more of a management issue in New Jersey Transit than a real privacy issue for the public," says Kiernan, a solo practitioner in New Brunswick, New Jersey, who is involved with Fair Measures, a group of attorneys who train executives and managers about how to prevent employee lawsuits. "The public knows that they could be on a security camera."

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