Monday, August 01, 2005


For all the criticism directed at Assistant General Manager for Public Safety James B. Jordan, and for that matter the SEPTA Transit "Police" Department over recent assaults and other violent incidents on the system, not to mention the seemingly inability to ramp up security when virtually every other transit agency on the east coast goes to Code Orange, Dan Geringer of the Philadelphia Daily News (a fully-paid subsidiary of "move-on-dot-org") reports in today's editions SEPTA's plans to have all subway and el stations equipped with digital surveillance cameras.

The days of blurry, black-and-white, first-man-on-the-moon images from SEPTA security cameras designed to catch turnstile jumpers are giving way to digital recorders focused on life-and-death crimes in these terrorist-scarred times.

In a federally funded pilot project, SEPTA has installed 16 digital recording cameras throughout its Cecil B. Moore [Temple University] subway station on Broad Street that relay the kind of crisply detailed color images to its Center City control room that enabled London police to identify suspects soon after the transit-system bombings there.

There will be 21 more "Smart Stations" here by 2007, and all 60 SEPTA stations will have full digital surveillance by 2010, said James Jordan, SEPTA's assistant general manager for public safety. The federally funded price tag is $80 million to $100 million.

"This is not something you can just go out and buy at Radio Shack," Jordan said. "We need to build a fiber-optic network in 25 miles of tunnel and bring 21st- century high-tech engineering into 19th-century architecture."

SEPTA's police and operations personnel in the central control room can see a continuous rotation of real-time images from station platforms, turnstiles, escalators, elevators and tunnels.

"I have three cases now where we were able to make arrests because of the digital cameras," said SEPTA Police Detective William B. Saunders Jr.

"We coordinate with Temple University, which has cameras focused on the street outside the station. We ask, 'Which way did he go after he left the station?' and they can tell us.

"We help them, too. If there's a retail theft and the suspect runs into the station, we've got him on camera and we work with Temple police to apprehend him."

Digital cameras also are running and recording at the Susquehanna-Dauphin, Allegheny and Erie stations.

These stations are in the particularly heavy crime areas of North Philadelphia along the Broad Street Line.

Images are stored on CD for a week to 10 days.

David Scott, SEPTA's deputy chief of police, said that the strength of Smart Stations is their ability to coordinate all security functions.

"If a fire alarm goes off, a red light on a diagram of the station pinpoints the location and a camera zooms in on the fire," he said.

"Intrusion alarms in the tunnels tell us if security is breached.

"We have 360-degree pan-tilt-zoom cameras that we can maneuver from central control.

"We are looking into cameras so smart that if someone leaves a briefcase for 10 seconds and walks away, there will be an audible alarm in the control room while the camera focuses on the briefcase."

SEPTA's Smart Stations compare favorably with new surveillance systems in other major East Coast cities.

That is almost hard to believe. In fact, that would almost be a first for SEPTA...

At Boston's Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, Jeffrey Parker, director of subway operations, said a similar conversion to digital images transmitted by fiber optics was under way, hand-in-hand with the city's rebuilding of its 65 ancient stations.

Boston's unique twist is that images are monitored inside glass-enclosed booths at its major "hub" stations, allowing riders to survey the surveillance.

"Instead of putting the monitors in the basement of our control center so that no one would see them, we put our monitoring in very public places," Parker said.

"We want to be out in front of the public to show that we are keeping an eye on things."

There's a lot of scepticism about that statement, considering that many in Boston consider the T's Police Department almost as disorganized as SEPTA's ... and that's saying a hell of a lot.

Steven Taubenkibel, spokesperson for the Washington D.C. Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, said that all its 86 stations have digital video-recording cameras that transmit both to a central control and to a manager's kiosk at every station entrance.

Unlike SEPTA, Washington's Metro also has digital video cameras in 100 buses and has just allocated part of a $49 million federal grant to install them in 125 more.

Recently, Taubenkibel said, a camera installed above a driver's head captured footage of an assailant hurling a brick through the open bus door and hitting the driver in the face.

"We showed images from the tape to the public and were able to apprehend the suspect," Taubenkibel said.

"We rely on the eyes and ears of our riders, but those cameras really help."

Recall that SEPTA reportedly had a similar bus surveillance project on the Neoplan artic fleet a couple of years ago. There were stickers on several of the Allegheny artics that indicated that cameras were in place. Haven't heard much about that in recent years, particularly since the VOH program went into effect.

DART First State and LANTA in the Lehigh Valley both have or are in the process of installing video cameras on their respective bus fleets. The DART buses have both interior and exterior cameras - at least on the NABI fleet (I haven't had a chance to look at their Gilligs that closely), while LANTA installed cameras on their New Flyers but not the soon to be retired 8900 series Orion Is (and yes there are still a few of those active).

As far as stations go, I can't speak as to whether or not similar technology would be implemented at key Regional Rail stations (ie. Suburban, Market East, Glenside, Paoli) or at the surface terminals (Bridge-Pratt, Olney, 69 St, Chester, Norristown), but that would make sense in the long run.