NEWTON â€” It’s easy for Derek Zabel to describe his job.
It’s like being an air traffic controller – only with buses.
"You have to be a great multi-tasker," he said between answering my questions and answering his phone at his desk covered with five computer screens.
Zabel is one of four duty managers at TransLink Communications Control, based at Surrey Transit Centre.
Not many people know that behind the walls of this unassuming building on 132nd Street in Newton is a transit communications hub that manages and tracks all of the Lower Mainland’s approximately 1,500 buses – in real time.
He gave the Now a tour of the facility on Friday morning.
With more than 800,000 boardings a day, the Lower Mainland is one of North America’s largest transit service areas. And with construction, traffic jams, car accidents and SkyTrain shutdowns to contend with, getting transit users around quickly and efficiently is no small task.
But in this small room in Newton, a handful of people make it all happen.
How do they do it?
The Transit Management and Communications System (TMAC) makes it all possible. Installed in 2008, it uses GPS, to supply real-time data about every bus and support vehicle in the fleet.
It identifies bus locations and statuses – open doors, passing a stop – you name it. TMAC also uses a colour code to keep track of each bus’s status. Red means the bus is ahead of schedule 30 seconds or more, green means it’s on time, yellow means it’s five minutes behind schedule, purple is 10 minutes behind and blue is 15 minutes behind.
Like a proud papa, Zabel pointed to one of his screens to illustrate how it works.
"Here’s a bus that’s coming towards 152nd," he said, as he zoomed in to a graphic indicating a bus driving westbound on 64th Avenue in Surrey. "Let’s say we had a medical emergency on this bus – maybe an elderly passenger who’s become unresponsive. We have the ability here to send resources directly to this bus right away."
And with that, one click of the mouse brought up two more graphics on the screen – one was a mobile supervisor who was nearby and the other was a security unit at Newton exchange.
It’s just one part of the job that makes Zabel love what he does.
"We run an important service," he said at the end of our tour. "We’re helping people get to doctor’s appointments, we’re helping people get to school and job interviews.
"At the end of the day, we’re helping people. That’s what keeps us going."