U.S. Subway Surveillance Gets Smarter

Aug. 1, 2005
New digital systems replace old as transit industry updates itself

The days of blurry, black-and-white, first-man-on-the-moon images from Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (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.

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.

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."

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."