by Alan Joch, August 2014
For more than 2,000 years, Rome’s Via Appia has stood as one of the earliest and most important symbols of public transportation in a sprawling capital city. Also known as the Appian Way, this ancient road served as a prime trade and military route stretching from Rome to the heel of Italy’s boot on the Adriatic Sea. It’s an engineering marvel fashioned from stones and gravel that still attracts visitors from all over the world.
The tradition of transportation innovation continues today at Cotral S.p.A., a public transportation authority with an exclusive contract to provide bus service for the greater Lazio region near Rome. The area’s students and commuters travel to and from Rome and 376 far-flung municipalities separated by mountains, plains, and great distances. Cotral plays a unique role in the region’s economic and cultural life—because many of the towns aren’t served by rail lines, Cotral’s buses are the only form of public transportation connecting these communities to Rome.
But now Cotral’s status is being challenged by a number of forces, including a combination of demand for new services along with government budget cutbacks resulting from the economic downturn. Economic priorities have forced Cotral’s managers to make tough spending choices. For example, despite serving 104 million travelers per year, the executives haven’t been able to invest in any new buses since 2008.
However, Cotral executives are maintaining the status quo. “Our company invests approximately 8 percent of what it bills every year in technology,” says Vincenzo Surace, president and chief executive officer at Cotral. The goal: provide new services to customers and gain greater efficiency in internal operations.
“Despite the downturn, we are working hard to satisfy new customer demands and improve our transportation services,” says Diego Ponzi, manager of intelligent transportation systems (ITS) and mobility technology at Cotral. “We don’t think of our customers solely as passengers anymore. We see them as colleagues who need access to much of the same data as we do.”
That means offering riders detailed scheduling information and service updates via mobile apps and the internet. It also includes a host of complementary services, such as flexible options for obtaining tickets electronically or accessing onboard entertainment that can make a commute seem faster.
In the process, Cotral’s leaders are creating a blueprint for intelligent transportation systems for municipalities and metro regions throughout the world and the digitally savvy travelers who rely on public buses, rails, and subways.
The role of public transportation systems like Cotral’s will continue to grow in importance as the world becomes more urbanized. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that as of 2010, more than half of the world’s population lived in urban centers. The percentages will continue to rise, according to WHO, so that by 2030 60 percent of the world’s residents will be city dwellers and by 2050 the proportion will reach 70 percent. The implications are significant for a public transportation authority such as Cotral, which is already experiencing high demand for services. The Cotral system runs 1,600 buses operating 20 hours a day and making more than 2.6 million trips per year.
The IT investments we make are strategic choices to help us see continuous improvements in our operations.
To serve its current riders and prepare for the future, Cotral’s managers began embracing innovation in earnest in 2005 when they launched an ambitious IT modernization project aimed at improving services, cutting costs, and modernizing business processes. Officials overhauled an internal operations center and launched ITS capabilities for centralized vehicle monitoring and management, as well as tools for diagnosing mechanical problems and optimizing transportation schedule and planning. The efforts couldn’t have come at a better time. The endeavor helped prepare the organization for the fundamental changes brought on by mobile apps, wireless networks, and widespread access to the internet.
The new platform, which premiered in 2006, is built on a number of technology pillars, including machine-to-machine (M2M) communications; advanced business intelligence; and global positioning system (GPS) devices combined with mapping software, mobile apps, and industry-standard communications (see “A Solid Technology Foundation”).
“The IT investments we make are strategic choices to help us see continuous improvements in our operations,” says Antonio Ricevuto, technical manager at Cotral. “If our buses are always late, maintenance isn’t performed properly, and our managers don’t have the information they need to do their jobs, we fail. To avoid those problems, we must have the right technology stack.”
Cotral managers worked with professionals from Oracle Consulting to help design and implement the Automatic Vehicle Monitoring (AVM) system for gathering and analyzing bus performance data. The solution uses multiple Oracle technologies, including Oracle Database, Oracle Real Application Clusters, Oracle Spatial, and Oracle Fusion Middleware MapViewer.
From the start, Cotral planners wanted a flexible platform based on an open communications protocol that can support any device employees might be using to access and analyze information. A tightly integrated system was another must-have. “We decided to implement an infrastructure that could centralize data and support electronic processes,” Ponzi says. “That represented a significant change from the past, when operations were highly departmentalized and paper-based.”
The new infrastructure not only gives the Cotral staff centralized access to key data, it’s more scalable than the former proprietary processes, he adds. “Oracle technology has given us the ability to create this foundation, including all the related data for service programming, maintenance, and managing public transportation,” Ponzi explains. “We can now manage all this information within a single data infrastructure.”
The combination of technologies at Cotral’s back-end data center, embedded inside the inner workings of buses and accessible to travelers via mobile devices, is transforming bus travel. Cotral is now testing an application that uses the AVM infrastructure, Oracle Fusion Middleware MapViewer, and onboard GPS to show riders the exact geographic position of their vehicle via electronic maps sent to smartphones and tablets or displayed on screens at bus stops. The mapping program also helps drivers who are assigned unfamiliar routes.
Constantly updated positioning data provides accurate estimates of arrival times for the vehicle’s destination, as well as the schedule for other modes of transportation. For example, commuters hoping to catch a metro train once in Rome can see what departures will be available upon their bus’s arrival.
The open communication protocol that’s part of AVM ensures interoperability between vehicle sensors and back-end systems, so Cotral personnel can use the central operations console to access the same positioning data for all the buses on the road. In addition to key parameters for each bus, such as its position and arrival and departure times, electronic dashboards on the console can display alerts when data sent from the vehicles indicates potential problems with fuel levels, speed, miles driven, or mechanical functions. The advanced analytics within the AVM platform can automatically compare spatial analyses of bus movements to prevailing traffic conditions to dynamically refine routes to keep buses on time. “We can maintain high levels of customer service by staying on schedule and reducing delays even if it’s a rainy day or there is some other traffic problem,” Ponzi says. “Cotral is using these resources to model traffic and route data, passenger volumes, and other factors to constantly improve the transportation system based on our customers’ needs.”
Call center operators can view data summaries to keep the public updated about schedules and service levels. The infrastructure is also enhancing customer experience by giving riders an open pipeline for communicating service problems through calls, e-mail, and text messages. “It is helping us develop closer relationships with our users,” he adds.
The project is also delivering a significant payoff for internal operations—primarily in two important performance indicators: greater efficiency and lower costs. “AVM helps ensure that there are more buses on the road and fewer buses in the shop for unscheduled maintenance,” according to Ponzi. “The vehicle monitoring devices enable us to provide maintenance in a proactive way and to certify what’s being done. Because we manage public money, it’s important to always control costs to reduce unnecessary expenses.”
We decided to implement an infrastructure that could centralize data and support electronic processes. That represented a significant change from the past.
The detailed information being sent to the control center also helps managers track the work hours of individual bus drivers to ensure that they comply with regulations about the length and frequency of shifts. The system also partially addresses European Union imperatives for sustainable mobility and goals to reduce CO2 emissions. “When we have a bus carrying 52 people, it means we don’t have 52 cars on the road producing emissions,” Ricevuto says.
The modern infrastructure and emphasis on integrated, electronic processes enable the Cotral staff to speed decision-making and collaborate more closely when addressing service-level problems. “In addition to the financial savings, we have more time so we can do higher-quality work,” Ponzi says.
Riders and Cotral managers alike are benefiting from new capabilities that conform to modern lifestyles and evolving requirements for public transportation. But leaders at Cotral understand that to keep the bus line successful, the quest for innovation must continue. They’re already finding ways to build on the AVM foundation to deliver new services.
This year, the organization will expand purchasing options by enabling travelers to buy tickets anytime using an app on a mobile device or via the internet. To accurately determine fares, the electronic ticketing system will use a GPS antenna to determine which service zone a passenger is in at the time of the transaction. “Customers will have much more flexibility when they travel because they won’t be required to buy physical tickets from clerks at bus stations,” Ponzi says. “They’ll be able to purchase them electronically using the internet or an app on their mobile devices.”
He adds that Cotral is working with other local organizations so that eventually customers will be able to use the ticketing system for related services and attractions. For example, travelers might use a single electronic ticket for bus fare, commuter park-and-ride services, and entrance fees to a museum and sports stadium near a bus stop. It’s part of a larger vision to work with other transportation operators and municipalities throughout the region to offer integrated services.
“We will provide continuity for travelers by offering them information not only from Cotral buses but also provided from the Ferrovie dello Stato Italiane [Italy’s government-run railway] and other operators,” Surace says. “All the transportation operators need a shared system to provide a source of continuous information.”
Electronic ticketing will also gather information about customer purchasing and travel patterns that can help the Cotral staff enhance service offerings based on the characteristics of people who use the bus system most often.
In the end, these developments are part of the ongoing efforts by Cotral executives to modernize public transportation for the digital age. “Our customers are becoming more-sophisticated users of technology who want more than basic transportation—they want to personalize their journeys,” Ponzi says. “We will continue to update our technology and operations in the fastest possible ways to satisfy our customers’ demands.”
Alan Joch is a business and technology writer who specializes in enterprise applications, cloud computing, mobile computing, and the web.
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