Time Machines

My weirdest compulsive quirk: When I’m entering or exiting a Metro station, I must look at the clock on the kiosk. Sometimes it’s busted. And there’s the occasional hurdle, such as at Farragut North, where the clock doesn’t face the L Street entrance. (The extra steps are totally worth it.)

But my ritual never completely failed until a recent trip between Navy Yard and McPherson Square, when I couldn’t find the time at either station.

Had the clocks been stolen? What were these big, blank screens that seemed to have taken their place? Would I need to start wearing a watch?

“The time will come back,” WMATA spokesman Dan Stessel assured me. He solved the mystery of the missing clocks by explaining it’s all part of Metro’s new customer service action plan, a host of steps intended to improve reliability and communication. Although Stessel and his staff have beefed up Metro’s Twitter presence and continue to promote the heck out of the Metro Alerts system, riders aren’t getting their messages.

“We know the vast majority [of customers] — upwards of 80 percent — don’t know what’s happening until they show up,” Stessel says. So these LCD screens, which are replacing every ancient LED clock, will tell you absolutely everything about what’s up with Metro. There will be an “at-a-glance look” at the status of all five lines, a panel devoted to elevator outages (with shuttle info) and a background that changes color to indicate service disruptions.

Of course, there already are electronic signs in all of Metro’s stations. But those small public information displays are no match for the amount of info they’re tasked with conveying. “The PIDs we know and love have to scroll through eight screens to the detriment of their primary purpose,” Stessel says.

Once the new kiosk signs start doing the heavy lifting, the PIDs can focus solely on arrival times.

Stessel, who is bracing himself for the inevitable complaints when the system launches, emphasizes that the setup will be easily modifiable. The long-term goal is to make the technology station-specific to address issues that are affecting only parts of the transit network.

It sounds pretty cool, but for now, all you’ll see are blank screens. WMATA expects to finish replacing each of those old clocks with screens — so far, 65 and counting — by the end of the year, when the system is scheduled to turn on.

Until then, I’ll have to figure out some other way to fill my time. Maybe with brainstorming? “There’s no cute name for them yet,” Stessel says. “I don’t think SKIDS — Station Kiosk Information Display — is going to work.”

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