Published in February 2008

Info on the Fast Track
By Jim Stokes

Public address and digital signage keep VA passenges 'in the know'.

The line array and subwoofer deployment for the Sabor Latino Dance Ensemble at Bailey Hall.

For an average daily ridership of 17,000, the Virginia Railway Express (VRE) provides train information for all passengers, including those with sight and hearing disabilities, in compliance with Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements. Accordingly, International Displays Systems (IDS), Dayton OH, installed a new Variable Message Sign System (VMS) at the railway’s Operation Control Center in Alexandria VA, and at 18 commuter stations in Northern Virginia and Washington DC. The VMS provides current train status information and passenger information via synchronized video display and audio announcements.

Historic Road

We’ll be traveling down the install road after we get a perspective of the railroad territory. Although Virginia was one of the original 13 colonies, we’ll not be going back that far. However, the key cities of Manassas, Fredericksburg and Alexandria figure significantly in the Civil War. For instance, the Manassas junction of two railroads was strategic to the two Battles of Bull Run. And the Fred-ericksburg rail line suffered a lot of damage but was also key for Union and Confederate war strategies. Those former hotbed areas of battle activity are now part of a peaceful landscape.

On VRE’s map today, Manassas represents the blue line and Fredericks-burg indicates the red line. Their rail paths parallel at Alexandria and continue on into the country’s capital. Most of the passengers are business-people, including government contractors and subcontractors, as well as those in private enterprise in the greater Washington DC area. Furthermore, the VRE is rightly touted as an efficient and cost-saving way to commute. For example, VRE can get from Fredericksburg to DC in an hour and 15 minutes. It’s an alternative to driving along Route 95, where traffic might slow to a crawl.

Three notable restored passenger train stops that serve Amtrak and VRE include Alexandria’s vintage Union Station, the Manassas stop housed in a brick station built by the old Southern railroad, and the Washington DC Union Station. Union Station functions as the southern hub for VRE, Amtrak and MARC (Maryland) trains in a vast complex that houses stores, eateries and movie theaters. (See “Virginia Railway Express (VRE)” for additional information.)


Our interviewees are Rob Keelor, IDS vice president, and Lou Woolner, project manager at VRE. The VRE operations board initially authorized DMJM Harris consulting engineers, Baltimore MD, for technical support regarding Train Information Provider (TRIP) software integration for new Variable Message Signs (VMS).

The board stated that the “existing VMS date back to 1992 and have become technologically obsolete.” Guided by its president Rich Doyle, Turnkey Technology Corp., Mount Airy MD, had been authorized by the board to upgrade the older Orbital Science Corp. (OSC) TRIP system, as well (see sidebar, “Upgrading to TRIP II, Thanks to Rich Doyle”). In turn, IDS provided the equipment list and systems integration for the new project.

From LEDs To LCDs

VRE’s Woolner and IDS’ Keelor discussed the passenger signage changes. “What I like best about the system is that it’s very well done in that we have state-of-the-art LCD signs,” affirmed Woolner. “And, as far as I know, we’re the first to have them in the transit industry, on a commuter rail service. It’s been batted about for a long time that one of the restraints we have on our system is that we don’t have full canopies. But we’re going to be adding full canopies. And, subsequently, we would add more signs, as necessary.”

The top two lines on the moitor feature the largest characters, and indicate the next two trains coming into the station, especially important for a commuter rail system. Below that, any other kind of information can be displayed, such as for emergency or wether details.

Keelor discussed and defined the design concept, working with DMJM Harris, which was under contract with VRE: “So they had assistance in putting together the design. In concept, they knew that they wanted LCDs. They wanted them mounted overhead. And they knew they wanted them ‘talking’ to their existing system. Then, when we [IDS] talked about detail design, we were talking about how the software interface would really work and what it would look like. Many of the changes that appeared at the stations were placements of the displays.”

Keelor’s display placement concerns came down to a series of practical “where” questions: “Where does the sun rise and set?” “Where’s it hot?” “Where’s it cold?” “Where’s it bright?” “Where’s it dim?” “Where’s it high or low?” “Where’s the structural integrity?”

Had To Answer The Questions

“So we had to travel to each train station, confirming power availability, data availability, best pathways: all of these elements,” Keelor said. “And then we came in with a recommended design on a station-by-station basis that would meet the minimal functional requirements that were in the specifications.”

The existing system had a series of LED signs, installed in 1992, that were in various states of operation, disrepair or repair. “For LEDs to work over 10 years is pretty doggone good,” stated Keelor. He explained that the old system displayed a single line of two-inch-high text comprised of 20 characters, in red only. Although it was a reliable method of communication, the system had exceeded its lifespan and had to be replaced and upgraded. “The new system built around an LCD screen would allow VRE to present [train information], both graphically and in text. They can vary the text format and the font size, change colors and have a lot more flexibility than the previous [LED] system,” he said.

Keelor explained that the 40-inch NEC LCD screens provide a much larger viewing area, going from only one line of 20 characters on an LED to as much as six lines comprised of 20 to 24 characters via an LCD. The top third of the LCD display is reserved for the next two trains and their statuses, with the earliest train on top and the following train on the bottom. So, now the customers can see what’s happening two trains out. And, in the event more information is needed, the screen can rotate to additional frames. However, Keelor cautioned, “You don’t want to put too many frames on because people don’t want to sit there and wait: (viz) turn the frame, turn the page, wait; turn the frame, turn the page (etc.).”

Woolner gave an example of VRE’s inner stations “where we have both the Fredericksburg and Manassas lines running together, from Alexandria to DC’s Union Station; we could put both of those as being delayed and detail messages for each delay. Or, we could put specific events for each one of those lines. For example, we have ‘Manassas Day’.” Similarly, Fred-ericksburg and Quantico might have events displayed.

“Given that flexibility, we anticipate trying to have our Global Positioning System [GPS] installed by mid-year 2008, so passengers can actually follow the train movement on the Manassas and Fredericksburg lines. Of course, our Variable Message Sign [VMS] would give visual messages accompanied by audio because of ADA requirements.” However, GPS tracking is now in use within VRE for train personnel. We’ll cover that aspect later.

Keelor emphasized that one of the concerns going into the project was that “the LCD [screens] are very high end electronics that a lot of people put in their homes. A lot of retail locations have them. They’re indoors, everywhere.” In contrast, on the VRE lines, they’re put outside amid tough environmental conditions where it would be very hot, very cold or very wet.

“Obviously, those displays weren’t designed to thrive in that environment [on their own]. So, one of our challenges was to create environmental enclosures that were rated to [withstand] the elements,” said Keelor. IDS visited the Integration Technologies Systems (ITS) Enclosures facility at Mt Pleasant PA in search of the right environmentally secure display enclosure. “We reviewed the mockups they’d built, looked at their design floor and worked with their engineers. We were very pleased on the front end and back end. [The enclosures] are handsome cases. They do the job they’re supposed to do.”

Every Station Was Different

As can be surmised, every train station was different. And we’ve already alluded to and emphasized that the optimum display mounting point is critical. Obviously, that applied to the display enclosures, as well. “So there was quite a bit of custom ceiling or wall-mount metal structure made,” said Keelor. “We had quite a bit of drafting in CADD to get it just right. And I think the professionalism shows.”

The VRE's stations are unmanned, so electronic equipment had to be hung about eight feet high, to make it difficult for vandals to reach.

Thus, IDS provided VRE with ITS enclosures in NEMA4-rated cabinets that have both cooling and heating on board. “They’re drip free. They can [withstand] rain up and down. And the dust can blow. The outside cabinet is sealed from the outside elements. And the inside climate is within operating range of the LCD,” said Keelor. Furthermore, to thwart vandalism, the enclosed displays are well within ADA and VRE specifications, so that the base of a unit would not go beneath eight feet over a person’s head. “We built a 20-degree tilt into the metal framework [of the enclosures] to optimize the viewing angle because they’re sitting eight feet in the air.”

Integrating TRIP II

Now let’s look into the technology behind the LCDs. “One of the challenges we had was to write a custom interface with the existing LEDs that VRE used in its head-end, called TRIP II.” It’s the database and data entry port at the railway’s control center in Alexandria that allows operators to update train status and general messages. And, again, this harkens back to the limitations of the LEDs, which would work well within the parameters of just one, 20-character line to identify a train number, its destination and its time: noted as delayed or 10 minutes out, for instance.

But adding the condition that identified “why” the train was late, putting on an emergency message, a cancellation or anything of length surely would test the patience of expectant passengers. “Imagine getting your newscast on a ticker you’d see on Wall Street or in Times Square,” declared Keelor. “It gets trying after awhile: reading this traveling text, trying to keep up with it, or wait for an update.”

He explained that IDS had to interface with the existing LED system so all their existing functionality would remain intact, but would also enhance all the displays’ presentation. “We were able to go in on a station-by-station basis to do that. And the way it was organized in our contract is that we had pilot stations identified that served as the test ground for the mockup for the rest of the stations. Once we established a mockup of a working pilot station, we were able to replicate that and put it in with the smoothest of transitions without any interruption.”

ADA Compliance

In order to be ADA compliant, part of the challenge in making it all work was that there’s not only a visual display at each station but there’s also an audio component that’s heard via a public address system for the hearing impaired. Thus, when the TRIP II would initialize a text message, it would also trigger an audio message. “A function called ‘text speech’ takes the text and creates a Wav file that’s played back at the station. It’s critical to synchronize what appears on the screen with what audio is playing overhead, so it makes sense,” said Keelor.

VRE’s Woolner hastened to add that another function of the TRIP system is that it enables GPS to talk to the trains. Thus, VRE can track its trains with GPS “and have constant communications back and forth [with train personnel] on certain way points that we picked along each of the routes. That includes the Fredericksburg run to DC’s Union Station, as well as the Manassas run.” And, as to how the signage information gets to the monitors at the stations, he explained that the display messaging is sent via a backbone system using EO (End Office) T1 lines from VRE’s Alexandria headquarters. Specifically, it’s an IMA3 group comprised of T1 lines.

Additional Improvements

In further improvements and in addition to the text plus audio message feed from the Alexandria control center, the IDS-upgraded Bogen V250 250 watt power amplifiers at each station came equipped with a telephone interface module, which allowed VRE to continue to call into a POTS (plain old telephone service) line, if they wanted to make a separate call-in message at a specific station. Related, Keelor noted that the newly installed amplifiers also came equipped with an ambient noise sensor module not in the previous system. “With the new sensor added inside the station, we can separately adjust the audio output inside and outside the station,” said Keelor. The V250 drives a pair of Bogen horns, as well.

According to Keelor, IDS has been using Extron products for video distribution for more than 20 years. “Over time, that has changed from a lot of coax and broadband to accommodating the new fiber network Cat5e and Cat6 standards,” he stated. In this project, high-resolution transmission matrix devices included Extron and Magenta Research. While Extron was used for distances up to 600 feet, Magenta Research was used for distances up to 1500 feet.

No Glitches

Woolner said he is pleased with the current upgraded system. “We’ve had no failures after each station was installed, tested and accepted. Right now, we’re under warranty until November 15, 2008. Even though we’ve gone through some seasonal changes since mid Summer [2007], there have been none of what everybody likes to call ‘glitches’.”

With regard to taking the train, he quipped, “I have a little slogan here: ‘If people don’t ride us, they have another job’!”


Upgrading To TRIP II, Thanks To Rich Doyle
VRE’s Woolner pointed out that Turnkey Technology president Rich Doyle was instrumental to the upgrade because the railway had an existing TRIP system. In turn, Doyle made TRIP II and modified the system’s program source code in order to identify the messages coming from TRIP for IDS’ use. “IDS was then able to pull those off and push the message out into the sign [display] and also give us a status that confirmed everything was working and reporting back to TRIP again.

“Doyle was the interface between IDS and our TRIP system. He’s the one who made it work for us. TRIP is one key area we were very concerned about. If we didn’t get that right, we wouldn’t be able to make the system work.”


International Display Systems, Inc. (IDS)
International Display Systems, Inc. (IDS), Dayton OH, is a systems-house integration corporation, which was founded in early 1982. IDS’ primary business is the engineering, installation and maintenance of flight information display systems (FIDS) and other transportation industry-related information display systems. IDS does not manufacture its own equipment but, instead, acts as a systems integrator. As a result, IDS works with the customer more as a consulting partner than solely as a supplier.

The integration corporation provides the best solution for each client’s information display requirements by not being forced to compromise each system’s functional integrity to fit within the limited capabilities of a single manufacturer. Rather, IDS selects the best hardware and software products to provide the optimum system for each client.

According to the company, “IDS’ success in this competitive industry is due to our ability to competently design and engineer the very best system solution unique to each cus-tomer’s needs. IDS has generated a long list of satisfied customers by taking care of our customers. Our objective is to enter into a long-term business relationship founded on a simple life and business principle: Treat others the way we expect to be treated when engaging in a business relationship or transaction.”

For additional information, go to


Virginia Railway Express (VRE)
Virginia Railway Express (VRE), headquartered in Alexandria, is a transportation partnership of the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission (NVTC) and the Potomac and Rappanhannock Transportation Commission (PRTC). VRE provides commuter rail service from Northern Virginia suburbs along the I-95 corridor, with Fredericksburg as one end and Manassas as the end on the I-66 corridor.

VRE, which began service in 1992, serves Alexandria, Crystal City and Union Station in downtown DC. It is headed by an Operations Board consisting of seven members. A VRE Operations Group oversees the daily operations, which includes many innovative programs designed to make VRE a state of the art commuter railroad.

VRE serves the following areas: Arlington County, Fairfax County, Prince William County, Spotsylvania County, Stafford County, Quantico (Prince William Co.), Alexandria, Falls Church and Fredericksburg.

For more information, go to



1 APC Rack PDU, basic, 1RU, 15A, 120V, NEMA 5-15 (rackmount power distribution)
1 Bogen ANS1R ambient noise sensor module
1 Bogen MAX1R auxiliary input module (link to existing laptop audio out)
1 Bogen Power Vector modular amp V250, 250W (replacement/upgrade station amp)
2 Bogen SPT15A horn speakers
1 Bogen TEL1S telephone interface module (existing POTS line interface)
1 Extron DA4 distribution amp
3 Extron MTP R 15HD A video receiver/extenders over Cat5e
1 Extron MTP T 15HD A video transmitter/extender over Cat5e
3 Extron under desk mounting kits (¼ rack at display mount)
1 IDS custom ASP browser-based application software
ITS Enclosures anti-reflective glass for Viewstation
ITS Enclosures Viewstation, outdoors, 42", power strip (single-sided, double-sided environmental enclosure)
Magenta Research transmission extender (as needed at other station installs)
McLean Thermal T20 series NEMA 4 rated, 2000 BTU AC unit w/500W heater/thermostat
3 NEC LCD4010BK-IT 40" MultiSync large screen LCD monitors
Peerless SF640 wall mount and custom ceiling mount for Viewstation
1 Roxtec RG M63/4 cable seal
1 Seifert NEMA 4 rated, 1700 BTU AC unit w/400W heater/thermostat
*According to IDS’ Rob Keelor, this is a “typical” list of materials for VRE’s Alexandria Station, which is one of 18 VRE stations. Although each station is not identical, each is similar in construct.

List is edited from information supplied by International Display Systems, Inc.

Sound & Communications Contributing Editor Jim Stokes has been involved in the AV industry for more than
30 years as an AV technician and writer.

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