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At The Controls: Inside SEPTA's 'Nerve Center'

For Ron Hopkins, each day brings its own unique challenges - and adventures.

On a good day, his never-ending quest to keep SEPTA's trains, buses and trolleys running smoothly might include dealing with minor service adjustments due to scheduled repair or maintenance work.

But Hopkins has also learned to expect the unexpected. So, when an unattended package prompts a security alert and forces a service shutdown, or signal problems back up trains on Regional Rail, he calmly switches to crisis management mode.

"It's a lot of coordination, with so many different things going on throughout the different parts of the system," said Hopkins, SEPTA's Chief Control Center Officer.

Due to the variety of services and modes of transit SEPTA runs, many employees focus on their specialized area of expertise. But Hopkins' Control Center - often referred to as SEPTA's "nerve center" - is where they all come together.

"We have to make decisions about how to modify service to deal with whatever the situation is at the present time," Hopkins said. "The first priority is always safety - for our customers, SEPTA employees and whoever else might be involved. But we're also always trying to disrupt customers as little as possible."

"In many ways, it's a balancing act - but you always have to keep safety first."

The safety aspect is a constant, regardless of what type of work is being performed. The Control Center serves as the eyes and ears for those out in the field - determining, for example, where power needs to be shut down if a crew is out doing track replacement work. Control Center personnel will also manage re-routing of trains and other vehicles when necessary, and, through constant back-and-forth communication, keep crews on the alert if there is traffic nearby.

While overseeing most of the goings-on of the fifth largest transit agency in the country is a daunting task by any measure, it's one that is becoming easier, thanks to technology and improvements in communications.

Ten years ago, SEPTA opened its state-of-the-art Control Center, bringing supervisors, dispatchers and other personnel from all different transit modes under one roof - and on the same floor. While technological advancements have undoubtedly improved SEPTA's ability to oversee all-things service-related, being able to simply walk across the room  and talk to someone about issues that may come up has had a major impact on improving the communications crucial to providing outstanding customer service.

And, Hopkins said, it has helped a great deal to minimize disruptions to customers when services do have to be adjusted to accommodate work or unexpected events.

"We're utilizing all available technologies and communications tools to improve the efficiency on all modes of travel," Hopkins said.

While the roles played by Hopkins and his staff are by their nature behind-the-scenes, the results of their efforts are seen by customers.

"It all comes back to customer service," Hopkins said. "If we can minimize disruptions due to scheduled work or unforeseen events, and continue to improve service overall, customers are going to see that in the service that SEPTA provides."

As a 20-year SEPTA veteran, Hopkins has witnessed first-hand the difference the new Control Center set-up has made. He has spent the last nine years as its chief officer, before that serving as Director of System Safety and Manager of Safety and Environmental Engineering. He brought a safety engineering background with him to SEPTA, having previously worked at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard.

He said the Control Center environment gives SEPTA the flexibility it needs to deal with everyday tasks, and emergency situations.

"It provides us with the ability to coordinate and manage any type of event in a controlled setting," he said. "We're utilizing technology to provide more efficiency for every mode of transportation."

Ron Hopkins at work in the Control Center.

The Command Center room in the Control Center is used for meetings and gatherings of transit managers during emergency situations.

Control Center staffers are in constant communication with employees in the field.

A Control Center staffer works in front of a large screen displaying train locations.