Metro Sign Shop Keeps Riders Pointed in The Right Direction

Behind a barbed-wire fence in a Landover warehouse, 10 Metro employees quietly produce 40,000 signs and decals a year.
By James Hohmann
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Behind a barbed-wire fence in a Landover warehouse, 10 Metro employees quietly produce 40,000 signs and decals a year.

They make and refurbish signs that go in bathrooms and on parking lots, on buses and at stops, on trains and in stations. They print system maps and make temporary signs. If it hangs in the system, they probably have some responsibility for it.

The sign shop provides a glimpse into the aging system that Metro is struggling to maintain 33 years after it opened. The transit system has about 127,000 signs, which need to be repaired or replaced when they become outdated, vandalized or broken. Or when someone asks for them.

"Every time a new initiative comes down the pike, that number is growing," said sign shop project manager Paul Kram. "We don't make policy. We make signs."

Some signs take more than 100 hours to complete, such as a refurbished pylon that will go up soon at the entrance to the Woodley Park-Zoo/Adams Morgan Station on Connecticut Avenue. Others take a few minutes to print and prepare, such as the "Emergency Push to Call" signs that go under the buttons that riders use to alert train operators when there's a problem.

Metro signage has changed a lot since Kram, 49, started working for the system 20 years ago. The agency produces more signs now than ever, he said, both by choice and necessity.

When service began in 1976, signage was minimal. Over time, more was added to help direct out-of-town visitors. A system that used to depend far more on contractors for maintenance now makes and maintains most signs in-house. The Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 mandated a lot of additional signs to assist disabled patrons. The sign shop was doing so much more than before that the agency spun it off from the larger maintenance division two years ago.

Others still take care of a lot of sign work. A separate graphics shop makes posters and fliers, such as those produced after the June 22 Red Line crash to explain delays to customers. The information technology and track departments jointly maintain electronic signs, and contractors handle advertisements, said Metro spokesman Steven Taubenkibel.

Small changes reverberate across the vast system. When a station's name changes, for instance, thousands of signs must be replaced.

The employees typically work from 6 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. every weekday. Their workshops fill about a quarter of a 180,000-square-foot warehouse near New Carrollton Station.

In one room off the warehouse floor last week, Hai Nguyen, 54, printed disabled-parking signs. Blank vinyl material had come in, and Nguyen fed it through a special printer with green ink. When he fed it through again, the wheelchair sign came into view in different colors.

Ultraviolet rays are an enemy of the signmakers' creations. Ramon Perez, who runs the shop's graphics department, picked up a disabled-parking sign from a pile midday Thursday while Nguyen worked. The black lines in the sign were visible, but every other color had almost faded. "Not legible enough to enforce," Perez, 41, said. "The sun beats it up."

A sign under a bridge lasts 10 to 15 years, he said. The life expectancy for an outdoor sign in direct sunlight is closer to seven. North-facing signs last longer than those facing south because they don't have as much UV exposure.

A new $60,000 machine prints special inks directly to metal in a process meant to better withstand the sun's penetrating rays. The workers, excited about the possibility of signs that last longer, are experimenting with it. But rather than quickly install signs with the new inks across the system, Kram wants to be sure that a few test signs they have installed will hold up.

Javier Davila, who has been at Metro for five years, was in the router shop making a replacement for a Braille sign on the Blue and Yellow lines. Sitting in a maroon chair, he typed in the six lines of text from the old sign, ran spell-check and then pasted it into software that translates text to Braille.

What's different about Metro's sign shop is that the mechanic assigned to make a sign takes it into the field to install it. Kram calls it the "cradle-to-cradle" method.

So Davila will make the sign, then hang it in the station.

"Staying with it from start to finish is a good feeling, especially since most of our stuff helps people get around," Davila said.

Technological developments continue to change the way signs are made and installed. Laminating long required swabbing and popping out air bubbles. Now, a hand-powered machine does it better and more quickly. In the "old days," as most of the shop employees refer to the not-so-distant past, workers meticulously copied the wording from a sign they needed to replace. Now they snap digital photos. Drilling a sign into a wall required arranging for a power source in the field. Now they use cordless power tools. "Without technology, this would have to be a 50-person sign shop," Kram said.

Eugene Warren, 62, joined Metro after retiring from the Navy, where he made signs as a civilian illustrator for decades. He said the proliferation of computers has changed the nature of his job even since arriving at Metro in 1999. "We used to do a lot of stuff by hand," he said.

While technology has enhanced productivity, it has made some signs obsolete. Sitting in the shop is a beautiful, thick oak display with the agency's seal and "Metro Service Goals" printed in brass lettering. It hung at the system's downtown headquarters with information for employees. It has been replaced by an LCD display.

There's something a little old-fashioned about signs, but Perez doesn't think they'll ever go away.

"If you see the sign, you're heading in the right direction," he said. "You can have [GPS software] on your phone, but it's not as good as a sign."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company