CTA Train Tracker Beta Review

This is a guest post by Daniel X. O'Neil.

Over the last few weeks, I was a part of the beta test program for the Train Tracker system launched by the CTA today. I tested this Web-based application on the Red, Brown, and Blue lines in about six different trips (riding multiple trains) using an iPhone, an iPad, and an iMac. My main mobile experience was using my BlackBerry Curve that is about 6 months old.

In my experience, the system works great and it is a very positive addition to the overall CTA communications regime. Here's why:

SMOOTH DESIGN

It is a native Web application that runs in a browser. That means it's not an "app" -- there's nothing to download, no device-specific versions to cover-- just go to the page on the Web and it works. The menus make sense, the flow is simple, and the interface is what you'd expect it to be-- route-colored bars white familiar typography. Here's a look at Train Tracker start page on the iPhone:

Iphone-train-tracker

I also like the language they use-- not transit jargon, but makes sense for regular riders. Here's a nice example when choosing a station for a particular line on the standard Web interface:

Pick-a-stop

"Pick a stop, get arrivals." In this small screenshot, there are many terms of art (route, stop, arrivals, line, and, of course the color-coded lines themselves), and they are all used in logical ways. It's well-organized and standard enough to make sense to people with no prior knowledge of the CTA while making easy for people to find "their" line. One nice touch is how the background fill of the Stops-list pulldown menu turns to the color of the chosen line.

There are other nice design touches. The standard Web view uses the word "Approaching" when the train is just about to arrive, and on the mobile version it is the truncated to the economically-lettered "Due".

ACCURATE PREDICTIONS

Speaking of the word "due", I found the core service-- telling you when the train will come-- to be higly accurate. In my experience, the predictions were never off by more than a minute. Here's a look at a "Due train" indicator on BlackBerry at the Belmont stop:

Train-due

And, sure enough, here's the Due train:
  Bam

In their announcement, the CTA gave the bare bones on how it works:

Estimated arrival times will be generated through a combination of scheduling information and data collected by the CTA's QuicTrak program, which monitors signaling systems and indicates when a portion of track is occupied by a train. An average transit time is determined by measuring how long it takes a train to travel a portion of track. By averaging the travel times of the last five trains to move across a portion of track, the CTA can calculate the estimated arrival times for trains at each station.

That means that if the trains are on the track, they have a pretty good idea when it will arrive at a given station. It also means that if your train (we always like to be possessive that way, don't we?) hasn't started on the tracks yet, they are relying solely on estimates w/o any live info. This is especially important if you're near the beginning of the line-- I'd be interested in hearing how this works for people.

OPEN ARCHITECTURE

Based on my take on the data that feeds the Train Tracker, it seems like will allow enterprising developers to download the data on the fly. Here's what they have to say in the help & notes section of Train Tracker:

If you're a developer, you may be  wondering about APIs for CTA Train Tracker data. Because this is an early beta and we're still working on certain aspects of the underlying data, we're not ready to give you an API just yet. The good news, however, is that we are working on it! We do hope you can bear with us for just a bit longer so we can give you a solid, reliable and stable API on which to build your apps.

And a cautionary tale to scrape-lovers:

Note that because the Web site (and the code behind it) is likely to change regularly, attempting to "scrape" information off the Web pages is likely to cause instability in your apps, and our site may reject access to anyone making an excessive number of requests to ensure overall availability. We strongly encourage you to wait for an official API. Thank you, in advance, for your patience.

Based on what I know about the Web team at the CTA, and their commitment to developers, they will come through on this front. Having said that, I would strongly encourage developers to scrape the current output and figure out what's going on behind the scenes. Harper Reed did that to pretty good effect with the unofficial Bus Tracker API.

HOW IT WORKS ON MOBILE

So here's the basic steps in finding out when your train is coming:

Choose a route:

Choose-a-route

 

Choose a stop:

Choose-a-stop

Get arrivals:

Get-arrivals

They also have some thoughtful options (on both the standard and mobile views). You can sort the results by Route, Time to arrival, or Platform side, and you can choose how many results to view. The default is to sort by route and display five results per set of arrivals (FACT CHECK):

Train-tracker-options

Based on some of the things I experienced during the beta, the CTA has been very thorough with their testing. For instance, they pushed 796 alerts through the system here:
  796-alerts

Nice stress test!

There are some quibbles to be had. Alerts are not handled as gracefully as they could be, although I'm told that this is not present on the live site. After clicking on an alert, you have to scroll down through the mobile site navigation in order to read the content:

Current-rail-alerts

Another important note, while you're out and about, is that you have to refresh the screen manually in order to see new arrival times. If you're viewing Train Tracker in the standard Web view refreshes automatically. So you can keep a browser window open while you're getting ready to leave work, and the page will keep you updated automatically.

This was just one person testing the beta version of the Train Tracker. The CTA had others testing it, and I'm sure they got lots of real-world feedback on how to improve it. The best part begins now-- when the great mass of regular riders get a crack at it. Based on what I've seen over the years here on the CTA Tattler, you won't be shy in letting them know what you think!

Filed under: Train Tracker

Comments

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  • Nice job Dan. Th

  • I got on once, and also left a comment on the CTA's board, but later on all I got was a spinner.

  • In reply to jack:

    Curious. I tried it out about 15 minutes after your post and then was using it through almost 3 hours of traveling on the Red and Green lines. I had no problems accessing it at all. I was also able to post on the feedback page three times during this period.

    I looked up the arrival times of my train at stations two or three stops away. Then I would check the time when I got there. More than 20 stops - never more than a minute off. Not bad.

  • The Train Tracker seems to be working for me... are you still having issues?

  • I'm so happy to see this up and running.

    The navigation is great. I'm not sure about the design from an aesthetic standpoint (seems a bit dated...like a website from the late 90s), but I won't complain about that.

    I was also initially going to suggest that they show the stops in their proper order, instead of alphabetically, but then realized that might cause some problems (North to South vs. South to North, etc.). Maybe this could be an option for users? It seems more intuitive to me.

  • I had it come back about 5:00.

    As Ed indicates, you can keep it open and it updates automatically. For instance, at one point it said that an Orange and Pink would both be at Clark/Lake in 5 minutes. I was waiting for a crash, but one went to 4 while the other stayed at 5.

    Since, at least on a desktop, you have to pick a route and a stop for Bus Tracker, does the geolocation API get you anything there?

  • i live at the Sheridan station. so far so good. when i check it, and it says approaching i just heard or am about to hear the rumble of the train. although, last night i checked it on my phone and it said "2 minutes" and it was more like 1 minute. that 1 minute accuracy is still pretty good. if it says '1 minute' you probably only have seconds lol. i dont mind no gps, i just have my stations book marked.

  • It worked for me this morning.

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