OC Transpo's $12-million automated bus stop announcement system is failing so often it's practically useless to visually impaired riders, according to the blind man whose complaint triggered the system's adoption in the first place.

The Next Stop Announcement System relies on GPS to detect the location of a bus. As the bus departs each stop, an audio announcement in English and French is supposed to notify passengers of the next stop, with the same information displayed on a screen at the front.

But Terrance Green estimates the audio announcements function on only about half of his trips.

"I've been phoning the complaint line regularly from the bus, advising them that the system is not working, and I continue to do it," Green said. "Hopefully at some point the system will be working."

Complaint led to CTA ruling

Green, a retired lawyer, complained in 2006 to the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) about the lack of stop announcements on OC Transpo buses. The agency upholds accessibility standards for transit agencies that operate between provinces, as OC Transpo does.

At that time, there was no automated system, and Green argued OC Transpo's own policy required drivers to call out the stops. The CTA ruled in Green's favour, ordering the bus company to ensure all major and requested stops were called out clearly.

OC Transpo began installing the automated system in late 2010, but not before the CTA slapped it with two fines totalling $17,500.

'You never quite know'

Green's concerns are echoed by his wife Lorraine, a regular OC Transpo user who is also visually impaired, and by other blind passengers who rely on the system to navigate.

Last Friday Jeffrey Stark was midway through his commute home on the No. 8 bus when he realized the stops weren't being announced. When he informed the driver, he said he was told the system was down, but the driver did not begin calling out stops.

"You never quite know whether they're going to be announcing the stops," said Stark, who estimates the announcements don't work on a quarter of his bus rides.

Jeffery Stark

Jeffery Stark, who is blind, was commuting home from his office recently when he discovered the bus's automated stop announcements weren't firing. (Julie Ireton, CBC )

The following Monday, Stark's 14-year-old daughter Abigale — who is also blind — experienced another system outage aboard the No. 61 bus headed for Stittsville. Fortunately, she was in the company of a sighted companion.

"I'd rather not end up halfway across town, thank you," said Abigale.

Her companion had been teaching her how to get around the city independently, so the outage interfered with the lesson.

"A 14-year-old teenager should be able to travel on their own and travel safely, and right now [the announcement system] is definitely one of the barriers," Jeffrey Stark said.

CBC confirmed the spottiness of the service last Thursday afternoon by taking brief trips on seven buses in and around downtown over a period of an hour and a half.

Only three buses had both visual and audio announcements operating flawlessly. Two others had no audio, while one had neither visual nor audio announcements functioning.

The last bus seemed to have audio operating during only part of the trip, or at such low volume that some stop announcements were impossible to hear over the noise of the bus. 

Complaints poorly received

Flagging the issue to drivers often doesn't help, Green said. 

"Normally I'm told they have no control over the volume of the system," he said.

Yet in some cases, Green said the audio has kicked in partway through a trip after he called OC Transpo's complaint line from the bus.

"I suspect the person at the complaint line contacted dispatch, and dispatch contacted the driver, and told them they'd better turn the machine on," Green said.  

In one case, the volume shot up to an ear-splitting level that provoked complaints from other passengers. The driver told them it was loud "for the blind person," Green said.

"When I got off, I did tell the operator that I was blind and not deaf," Green said. "At least I was not deaf before I got on his bus."

Pat Scrimgeour OC Transpo

Pat Scrimgeour, director of transit customer systems and planning at OC Transpo, said the Next Stop Announcement System is routinely checked and is 'working consistently.' (CBC)

System 'working consistently,' OC Transpo claims

The complaints seemed to come as a surprise to Pat Scrimgeour, OC Transpo's director of customer systems and planning.

"My experience is it's working, working consistently, for everyone's benefit," Scrimgeour said in an interview.

Scrimgeour could not explain the multiple reports of missing audio on the buses, but suggested if the on-screen display is working, the problem could be with the vehicle's speakers.

"If you encounter it, let us know so that we can have that bus repaired," Scrimgeour said.

In Scrimgeour's view, the system is meeting the requirements laid out in the CTA's ruling on Green's case. In a follow-up e-mail to CBC, he said staff inspectors have been monitoring the system and found it is functioning properly about 98 per cent of the time. 

The e-mail also said when the system malfunctions, bus operators "will audibly announce major stops over the onboard public address system until the issue is resolved." However, Green and others said that frequently doesn't happen, and it did not happen during the malfunctions observed by CBC.

CTA could issue fines

It's up to the CTA to keep tabs on whether OC Transpo is meeting its responsibility to passengers with disabilities.

In a statement, the agency told CBC "the CTA, like all public agencies, has a finite budget to discharge its responsibilities, including compliance, monitoring and enforcement." Information from CBC's inquiry would be forwarded to the agency's monitoring and compliance directorate, it said, which has the power to issue fines as high as $25,000.

Green said he's thinking about making a follow-up complaint to the agency, and said it could be useful for others to do the same. 

"If the CTA gets enough complaints that the system is no longer functioning the way it should, then that may encourage CTA to act faster."