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Metro Transit plans to install new security cameras on light-rail trains that will allow transit officials and police to monitor activity in real time and respond to crimes faster.

The Met Council Transportation Committee this week approved spending $1.3 million to replace outdated cameras with higher-resolution cameras on Metro Transit’s 91 light-rail vehicles. The move to upgrade cameras comes at time when there is growing concern about safety on Twin Cities light-rail trains.

With current cameras, there is no way of seeing in real time what is occurring, said project manager Leah Palmer, who works for the Metro Transit Police Department. And, she said, the images and video have a grainy quality “like on old tube TVs.”

The high-resolution cameras would provide a 360-degree view of each rail car and supply images with a “clean and crisp look,” she said. And because images and videos can be uploaded to a cloud-based platform, transit officials could watch incidents in real time, providing another set of eyes and ears for police, said spokesman Howie Padilla.

“It’s a force multiplier for our police officers,” he said. “We can definitely see what is going on and officers will know what to expect when they get there. We have not had that ability before.”

Metro Transit police have been getting a lot of calls for help this year. The agency has 27 “Text for Safety” conversations per day, with a large majority of them for issues occurring on the Green Line, Palmer said. The Green Line runs from downtown Minneapolis to downtown St. Paul.

Riders can use the Text for Safety feature to contact Metro Transit about suspicious or dangerous situations if they don’t feel safe in calling 911.

Serious crimes, such as robberies, aggravated assaults and theft, were up 35% from January through October 2019 compared with the same 10-month period in 2018. Metro Transit responded to 1,761 crimes in 2019, up about 200 from previous years. A majority of the crimes were lower-level offenses, such as theft, fraud, vandalism and disturbances, according to transit agency data.

Surveillance cameras are often used to identify and track down suspects. Metro Transit police used surveillance video to track down a group of 16- and 17-year-old boys who are accused of beating one man and stealing a cellphone from another passenger the night of Dec. 4 on the Green Line in St. Paul. Cameras also helped identify teen suspects who attacked a TSA agent on the night of Nov. 25 on the Blue Line, which runs from downtown Minneapolis to the Mall of America.

Images have been helpful in cases that are prosecuted and for holding people accountable for their actions, Padilla said. The new cameras will paint a more complete picture of what is going on and “allow for better arrests and better evidence for prosecution,” Palmer said.

Each car would be equipped with four cameras. Each car now has eight.

The new real-time cameras will also help dispatchers see when trains are running late or unexpectedly held up so they can send out alerts to riders more quickly. They will be able to see when a car needs to be cleaned and taken out of service when an incident occurs. The cameras also will allow rail operations personnel to monitor and respond to overcrowding on platforms and in cars during special events, such as Vikings games, when 15,000 people take the train to and from the games.

“What we are after here is the safety and security of our riders, our operators and our officers,” Palmer said. “This accomplishes that.”

Metro Transit tested the system during the 2018 Super Bowl and found it successful, she added.

If the full Metropolitan Council approves the deal, cameras could be installed by the end of the year, Padilla said.

Tim Harlow • 612-673-7768