There was a great deal of fanfare Monday, when the City-Suburban Transit Authority (CSTA) unveiled their new real-time transit information system, which will give riders access to bus or subway vehicle locations and schedule changes, via the internet, portable devices and small screens at many of the city’s transit stops. The three-year, $2.7 million project has been hailed as a technological marvel- an innovation, the likes of which has not been attempted by the city’s transit system before.
This is not entirely true.
In the late 1940s, the City Transit Company (or CTC, the precursor to the CSTA), had installed, in the old Central Station building, a massive device that purported to give up-to-date information for most of the system’s transit routes. The board was ten feet high and thirty feet long, mounted on the east wall of the station’s main concourse, updated manually by a team of five people who received updates from the central dispatch office via teletype. In 1954, at a great cost, an improved mechanical schedule board was unveiled, cited nationally as quite an achievement in mechanical digital display technology, even receiving a brief item in Popular Science.
People loved watching the numbers and stop names flip about with that fun ‘clack-clack-clack’ sound. For the subway and rail routes, engineers had devised a way to utilize the mechanical switches in the track system, allowing each train’s location to be sent to the board within seconds. The bus route information, however, depended largely upon drivers calling into the main dispatch, so it was usually a bit off. This ultimately proved to be the schedule board’s downfall.
By the mid-50s, the winds of reform had made their semi-regular appearance in the city, this time in the form of a series of articles in the Clarion-Standard speaking out about the specter of organized crime. Specifically, the focus was a wave of gambling that had swept through town. One of the biggest surprises was that the hottest game in town appeared to be wide-spread betting rings based upon information posted on the board in Central Station. The paper estimated that $60 thousand in gambling funds a day passed hands due to the somewhat unreliable bus route info.
Various bookmakers would distribute official CTC bus schedules to their players, then dispatch operatives to Central Station to watch the board and call in results from the bank of pay phones on the west side of the concourse. Players would bet on the accuracy of the times on the “big board,” which buses would beat others on comparable routes, which ones would break down, etc. In a state which didn’t allow horse betting (at the time), it was the next best thing. You could bet on the Ashton Avenue bus to win, place or show. Those not in on the action were shocked by the revelations, those in high places who were in on the action had to feign outrage and call for action.
The solution to the problem and way to tamp public outcry was simple- CTC could simply make the bus information more reliable and uniform with the subway/rail schedules, thereby taking any element of chance out of the operation. Unfortunately, CTC Head Dispatcher Jim Snyder became a focal point for the story. It came out that Snyder had very, very deep gambling debts and it was strongly insinuated- but never proven- that he had used his position to actually influence the city’s very transit system in a bid to try to make some of the money back. The allegations were that the dispatcher had worked deals with various bookies around town to “fix” certain routes- through last-minute scheduling changes, holding up certain buses, rerouting buses without reason, etc. Snyder was fired immediately, but it was too great of a blow- the whole scheduling system had lost the faith of the people and more importantly- the city and state elected officials who held the agency’s purse strings. It was announced in November 1955 that the board would be dismantled. It was gone by mid-January 1956, replaced with a large advertisement for Camel cigarettes.
– RJ White