C-Tran plans to upgrade video security technology

$1.35 million improvement will streamline system

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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photoC-Tran now uses docking stations to download and view video taken from bus surveillance cameras. Some of the equipment dates to the mid-1990s, but will be replaced as part of a system upgrade planned for the coming year.

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They've captured major traffic accidents, wayward goats and everything in between. By the end of next year, surveillance cameras on board C-Tran buses should also be capturing a clearer picture.

The agency is planning a $1.35 million upgrade that will replace the cameras and bring them into a more streamlined system. C-Tran now uses clunky technology dating to the mid-1990s in some cases, requiring plenty of leg work to review even the shortest clip. The entire process often takes two to three hours, said C-Tran Field Operations Manager Bob Medcraft.

Instant replay? Not quite.

"It's really time-consuming," Medcraft said. "We try and only do it when we have an event that's worthy of doing it."

The broad upgrade aims to quicken that process, giving all buses new video technology with the help of a federal grant. The project — 80 percent paid through the federal State of Good Repair program — will equip buses with higher quality cameras and automatic wireless downloading capability.

The idea is to make the process less burdensome and less costly, Medcraft said.

"It's just a better utilization of time," he said.

C-Tran routinely pulls bus surveillance videos for review. Usually the reason is fairly mundane, Medcraft said -- customer questions or complaints; for example, people who say they were passed by at a bus stop without being picked up.

The agency also reviews passengers' injury claims and every crash involving a C-Tran bus. It may also assist with the investigation of an incident that doesn't involve C-Tran, if a bus camera happens to catch it. That was the case last month, when a car sped past a bus on Highway 99 before losing control in a crash that killed one person and critically injured another.

"We work really collaboratively with the Vancouver Police Department and the sheriff's department," Medcraft said.

Medcraft insists the vast majority of what C-Tran's on-board cameras record is quite boring. But not all of it. In 2009, cameras captured a pair of persistent goats boarding a C-Tran bus in Vancouver's Minnehaha area. (They did not pay fares.)

"They just got right on and walked on down the aisle," said Scott Patterson, C-Tran's public affairs director.

The resulting video ended up on YouTube and made national news. Medcraft still chuckles when talking about it.

C-Tran buses generally have either six or seven on-board interior cameras. Depending on the vehicle, video is stored on one of three types of hard drives. To retrieve it, workers must remove the drive from the bus, then take it to be viewed through docking stations at C-Tran's administrative office.

Most footage is never reviewed, Medcraft said, unless there's a reason to review it. Video may stay on file for about two weeks before the system starts recording over itself, he said.

Medcraft described the surveillance system as a crucial cost-saver for the agency, particularly in terms of liability. He said on-board video has debunked some claims of people who said they were injured in on a bus, for example, but the evidence didn't match their story.

The upgrade is part of a series of technology upgrades that C-Tran has in the works, including a move toward an electronic fare payment system. The new cameras could be fully installed by the end of 2013, Medcraft said.

Eric Florip: 360-735-4541; http://twitter.com/col_enviro;eric.florip@columbian.com.