Metro's Got More to Say

Sunday, September 21, 2008

On Monday, Metro is scheduled to take the latest step in an almost year-long effort to improve communications with train riders. The electronic message boards on the station platforms and mezzanines will be able to give riders more information, and display it more quickly. Here's what the communications program involves:

The New Displays

What They Do: Several screens of information can be displayed in sequence to describe the nature of a delay, tell riders what to expect next and suggest travel options. Communications specialists at Metro headquarters are assigned to produce the messages quickly and to update them as the situation unfolds. Each information screen will be displayed for about five seconds. The screens each flash four lines of information. (Riders often complain about having to wait for information to slowly scroll across the screens. The new format offers a much quicker display.)

What They Say: The advisories could offer information on delays stemming from mechanical difficulties with a train, a power outage, a switch malfunction, a sick passenger, a closed station or post-baseball game crowding. After describing the problem on a screen, Metro plans to follow with information about the impact on travel times between stations, advisories about free shuttle buses or about regular bus alternatives along the affected rail lines. The messages will update as the situation evolves, Metro says.

Background: The transit authority has periodically upgraded the information available on the electronic signs in response to feedback from riders. Adding to information on times of arrival, it gave the number of cars in approaching trains. The system also began to display information about elevator and escalator problems, service interruptions or upcoming track work.

The Communications Initiative

One of the transit authority's biggest day-to-day challenges is how to get information to riders during a service disruption. Riders complain that they often get conflicting information, or no information at all. Metro has tended to perform much better in its communications about planned events that affect service, such as July Fourth celebrations or baseball and soccer games. In emergencies, however, Metro tended to focus on solving the problem rather than telling riders how to get where they were going.

Gerald Francis, Metro's deputy general manager, has been shepherding a communications improvement program, and the upgrade to the electronic displays is the latest step. Others included the distribution of handheld radios and portable microphones to station managers, so that in emergencies, they could leave their kiosks while still maintaining the ability to receive information from the operations control center and pass it along to riders. This summer, customized emergency maps were distributed to each rail station.

The electronic message signs are one of the quickest and most direct ways of communicating with riders. But "we were creating unrealistic expectations," Francis said. For example, emergency shuttle bus services sound more helpful than they usually are. It takes time to marshal a fleet of buses, particularly during rush hours, and the bus capacity is easily overwhelmed by passengers from a single crowded train.

"We want to be realistic with our customers," Francis said. And in an emergency, he added, "we wanted to give customers an option no matter where they were." So it's important to spread information and advice back down the line from the problem area and out to other lines as well. Also, people preparing to enter the stations should know about delays ahead. The upgraded electronic signs on platforms and mezzanines throughout the train system will help, he said.

What could go wrong? The faster information goes out to riders in quickly evolving situations, the more likely it is to be overtaken by events. With this new tool available, Metro will need to be vigilant about putting out correct information and updating it frequently. Passengers will need to check and recheck the screens, looking for updates. But they also should be paying attention to the oral announcements aboard trains and in stations.

The transit authority benefits from rider feedback. Tell Metro which messages work and which ones don't. Suggest other types of messages that would be helpful during delays. Tell us, too. You can reach us at

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