America’s maintenance departments need open architecture

BUSRide spoke with Brandon Curtis, executive managing director at leading ITS-provider Aesys; and Ed Remly, director of maintenance, Northwest U.S., at Transdev North America. Because of their positions, Curtis and Remly have uniquely informed perspectives about why a lack of open architecture is negatively affecting American transit systems.

In what ways does the maintenance department in a transit agency interact with open systems and
open architecture?

Ed Remly: Currently, in transit maintenance departments, we don’t see a lot of open architecture. Almost all of the systems are separate and have proprietary information from the vendors from whom we purchase them. That creates quite a bit of headache for many different reasons.

As a contractor, Transdev doesn’t have a lot of say in the vehicles that are purchased by the agencies. Occasionally we do, and occasionally we actually purchase the vehicles – but, for the most part, we don’t. Because of that, we have little say what should be done with the systems and standardization. Many clients have gone with the cheapest product on the road; the best deal at the time; or the most aesthetically appealing. Unfortunately, when you’ve got a very diverse fleet that’s not standardized, systems don’t generally “talk” to each other and most of them aren’t interchangeable. That creates a whole lot of issues with spare parts availability, downed buses, training for mechanics and in other areas.

Two systems might be very similar, but they require different sets of cables and tools, and a completely different knowledge base. We spend a great amount of time training our technicians and researching where to get less expensive parts quicker, so it creates quite a few issues. One of the biggest problems that we face right now in maintenance departments is finding qualified technicians.

Standardization would really benefit contractors like us, and it would ultimately benefit the client, because it would create less complicated systems. That would allow us to train a technician once on multiple systems, rather than sending him to multiple schools, spending time and money on extensive training.


Brandon Curtis: Whenever an agency, or contractor like Transdev, receives new equipment, a single point log-on affects the fareboxes, destination signs and all other intelligent systems the agency manages. Transdev is ultimately responsible for getting buses out on the road. A lack of open architecture can make it difficult to find the appropriate person to resolve any issues. In an open architecture system, agencies can “plug in” new equipment and, for lack of a better term, forget about it.


Is a lack of open architecture costly for maintenance departments? If so, why?


Remly: Absolutely. We often have buses that are down awaiting on a proprietary part from a certain vendor, who might be halfway across the world – so it’s not uncommon in the transit industry to have a bus down for weeks while waiting on a single part.

With an open architecture implementation style, one part would be available from several different vendors. That would save us, and ultimately the client and their passengers, many headaches.


Aside from costs, what other complications arise when onboard technology is based on a closed / proprietary system, rather than an open platform?


Remly: One of the downfalls of proprietary systems is that, after an agency purchases them, issues can arise. They’re normal issues, like downed service, production issues or spare parts, but the vendor might be non-responsive.

Now the client is completely locked into this system. They’ve spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in some cases, and millions in other cases, on infrastructure that will no longer do what they need. Perhaps they were sold something that was going to be great and it isn’t, or perhaps the vendor company has gone out of business. This happens quite often. The agency must then come up with some more grants or money to try to replace the entire system. It’s an industry-wide problem.


What’s the prescriptive “next step”? How can agencies demand more from their providers so that maintenance departments can fully realize the benefits of
open architecture?


Curtis: I think it will ultimately be difficult for this industry to move to open architecture when so many of its vendors have built their companies based on the margins available through a closed network. It’s frustrating because, in most cases, the only reason why the controller of a farebox won’t talk to an onboard computer is that the vendor host of the network has modified system protocols so agencies must pay for their systems to interact.


Remly: When an agency is looking to purchase new vehicles, they should work with their contractor (if applicable) to help standardize the fleet. I recommend taking advantage of the contractor’s expertise in the industry. By working as partner with their contractor, I think agencies will cut down on many issues.

Agencies also need to require vendors to have more of an open technology. If you don’t force the industry’s vendors to do it, they won’t, because they want to keep their systems proprietary. Push back against that, and a sea change will occur.