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Rider not hearing improvement

Dear Dr. Gridlock:
I ride the Metro subway trains every five years or so when I need to go into downtown Washington. This gives me a fair perspective on the progress, or lack thereof, in the system.

One area where there is actually some degradation in the system is with the public address destination/arrival announcements on the trains.

They used to be unintelligible. Now, they have reached the stage where they are both unintelligible and inaudible. On a recent trip on the Blue Line to Farragut Square and back, all that I could hear were some faint raspy noises when approaching stations.

Is there an explanation why something so simple as a basic intercom system has to be worthless? This is the twenty-first century and the field of electronics has made some progress in other areas. Computers, cell phones, and digital cameras come to mind. Don't people write specifications anymore? Or don't they care?
-- Robert L Richardson, Woodbridge

I think the quality of the announcements aboard the trains depends a lot on the particular car you're riding in and on how the operator uses the microphone. Also, I find I'm more likely to understand the words when riding above ground than when the train is in a tunnel.

As a frequent rider, I haven't noticed the overall deterioration that our letter writer describes. On the other hand, I haven't noticed consistent progress on this long-standing issue.

Metro upgraded the speaker system in the underground stations over the past few years. I think the announcements in the stations are clearer, but certainly not perfect. No matter how good the electronics, our stations don't have the acoustics of the Kennedy Center.

During an online chat, a rider asked me about a Metro announcement that included the phrase, "In order to prevent death ... " Turns out that was Transit Police Chief Michael Taborn -- a very clear speaker -- advising riders about steps they could take "in order to prevent theft."

What trends have you noticed? Is your experience with the announcements as varied as mine is? Or do you see some consistency, for better or worse?

By Robert Thomson  |  May 19, 2010; 10:20 AM ET
Categories:  Metro  | Tags: Dr. Gridlock, metrorail  
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Dr. Gridlock's point about how the individual uses the microphone is an important and oft-overlooked point as it relates to public speaking generally. A lot of people seem not to realize that even with a microphone you still have to project your voice. Talking in a regular conversational voice doesn't do the job, especially in an already-noisy environment like a subway system. Think about how politicians speaking to large groups often seem on TV to have their voices raised quite loudly. That's because the large crowds are often somewhat noisy and if the speaker doesn't speak up, he won't be heard. The same principle applies to Metrorail's PA announcements.

I recall from riding the MARTA in Atlanta some years ago that they used pre-recorded announcements that were much clearer. (Makes sense that they'd be clearer because they can tweak them, re-record, etc., until they're clear. Think about how easy it is to understand the bossy "Step Back" lady.) The MARTA's announcements also included info for tourists--for example: "North Avenue. Exit here for Georgia Tech, the Varsity, [whatever else is at that stop]." Historically WMATA has shied away from pre-recorded announcements on the theory that requiring the train operators to announce each stop helps keep them focused and aware of where they are, although I'm not so sure that's a valid theory based on one time when I was riding the Orange Line in Virginia and the train operator told us that Deanwood was next. I was riding in the front car and peered through the gap in the door and saw that the automated display for the train operator listed Deanwood, so he must have just read whatever the display showed without thinking about the absurdity of that information.

Posted by: 1995hoo | May 19, 2010 10:37 AM | Report abuse

I really doubt riding the train once every 5 years gives you any idea on what has deteriorated or improved. There is just too much variation to get an accurate picture from that few of trips. That would be like checking the temperature once every 5 years and saying "Oh it's warmer today than it was five year ago. Must be global warming."

I agree with Dr G. that a lot depends on the car you are on. The newer cars tend to have better PA systems it seems. It also depends on who is speaking and if they know how to enunciate. I love the guys that think they are radio DJ's. Just brings a smile to my face.

I really do wish they would put automated messages on trains. They have it on the buses and it works just fine. It doesn't mean a driver can't also make annoucements (would be useful at trasfer stations, or on trains where multiple lines serve the same platform). But overall, I know where I'm going and don't really need the annoucements that much anyway.

Posted by: UMDTerpsGirl | May 19, 2010 10:49 AM | Report abuse

I was under the impression that problems with the public address system were made worse when WMATA mixed and matched train cars after the crash last summer. The idea, I guess, is that the system works best when a train is made of the same series of cars, rather than a mishmash of 1000, 2000, 3000, etc.

Posted by: nevermindtheend | May 19, 2010 10:56 AM | Report abuse

nevermindtheend, that's exactly what I was thinking. Sometimes I just hear a buzzing noise when they are (presumably) making announcements.

Posted by: yetanotherpassword | May 19, 2010 11:05 AM | Report abuse

Metro used to have pre-recorded station stop announcements. They were perfectly clear, even if the voice was a bit comical.

Not sure why they got rid of them.

"This is theORANGE line train to [awkward pause] New CAR-ROLL-TON. NextStop [awkward pause] EAST Falls Church."

Posted by: afsljafweljkjlfe | May 19, 2010 11:27 AM | Report abuse

You know what there is the pause for the next station? They have to wait for their screen to update in the cab because they can't remember the order of stations.

Posted by: yetanotherpassword | May 19, 2010 11:33 AM | Report abuse

@yetanotherpassword actually, I was trying to mimic what the old pre-recorded messages sounded like. Sorry I didn't make that clear.

The current announcements are basically unintelligible to me. Not that I believe the train operator has any clue what station the train is at, anyhow. If I want to know where I am, I look out the window.

Posted by: afsljafweljkjlfe | May 19, 2010 11:38 AM | Report abuse

There is a red line operator who sounds a little bit like a robot but at least her announcements are CLEAR and I know exactly where we are. She also announces the time. Kudos to her.

Posted by: nativetexan2 | May 19, 2010 12:08 PM | Report abuse

As someone who does not see well(especially in low-light situations), I rely on these onboard station-arrival announcements I ride Metro often; I'd estimate 70% of the time, I can hear the onboard announcements. But the other 30%, either there is no operator announcement at all, or the operator speaks at too low volume or mumbles, or the train-speakers can not be heard over the outside track noise.

Posted by: Hattrik | May 19, 2010 12:19 PM | Report abuse

I hate pre-recorded messages. That woman who ding-dings "doors closing" is so annoying.

I like the train operators. It gives a person a sense of place. The grammer and the regional accents make me feel like I'm in a town. Thank goodness I'm not in Baltimore! I can't ever figure out what the locals are talking about there.

Some operators are a bit chatty but I feel like I'm on a human system and not some pre-recorded drone system.

As for announcements in the station. I can't ever hear them. I know Metro claims they've improved the PA systems in the stations but I don't hear the difference.

Posted by: RedBird27 | May 19, 2010 12:22 PM | Report abuse

@RedBird27 "grammer"? Did Dr. Frasier Crane make voice recordings for Metro?

Posted by: afsljafweljkjlfe | May 19, 2010 12:55 PM | Report abuse

I agree, the announcements have deteriorated. I rode the Red and Yellow lines daily about ten years ago, and the announcements were mostly clear. Although some operators were more mealy-mouthed than others, the speakers were loud and clear enough that I could hear everything.
But I can't remember the last time there was an announcement that I didn't have to strain to hear and understand. I don't ride daily any more, but I've taken enough trips over the last year to get a sense of the decline. I rode for the first time in a couple of months last weekend, and for a while I wondered if they'd just given up announcing stations altogether; I didn't hear a thing, and the train was nearly empty.

Posted by: JCR7 | May 19, 2010 1:26 PM | Report abuse

"I really doubt riding the train once every 5 years gives you any idea on what has deteriorated or improved."

Points to UMDTerpsGirl for picking up on this. "Once every 5 years or so" means they guy has riden metro 7 times? Perhaps he meant "literally" once every 5 years or so, as so many people love to use that word?

Automated recordings is the way to go. If not, why doesn't metro hire typists to type out the messages on the displays live? And @RedBird27, how can you tell what the locals in DC are talking about simply by hearing the train operator garble "Tenleytown - American University, Doors opening on the left." Of course I can't be certain, but I have suspicions that is not what anyone in DC is talking about!

Posted by: prokaryote | May 19, 2010 1:27 PM | Report abuse

Thing that drives me crazy is when there is that loud, deafening beeping sound that happens in the middle of the message. Someone told me that the beeping indicates that the driver is speeding on a particular stretch of track. With the frequency that I hear those beeps, if that is true, we are all in trouble.

Another pet peeve is the "stand clear, this train moving forward" as the train pulls into the station but hasn't stopped yet. Hint to operators, don't stop the train in the first place if you are too far back, take your hand off the brake before the train stops at the wrong location. Proper driving, like train operators in NYC do, will eliminate the need to do this.

Posted by: thetan | May 19, 2010 3:52 PM | Report abuse

I've been riding the metro system, mostly the red line, almost every weekday since it's inception in the late 70's. It's certainly gone up and down but in the last decade or so, and more noticeably in the last couple years, it has gone very down hill in a lot of years. It doesn't help that they're in the hole for nearly $200million and while they're addressing a portion of that with fare increases, it's going to be a constant problem as funding is hard to secure and ridership will only continue to increase. Trains are more and more packed and equipment, including tracks, cars, etc..will be hard to keep on pace.

They're at complete odds with their own system. While the addition of the purple line will certainly help folks in those areas, it's likely to congest other areas much more.

Regarding the speaker system, I think overall it's improved 10fold from a decade ago. Still some issues, but for most people, they're able to see out the window (at most times). It is certainly unfortunate for those who are handicapped visually or even physically. I'll admit some operators have been funny and I enjoy that. The robot voice girl those is creepy.

Posted by: leafbowl | May 20, 2010 11:38 PM | Report abuse

the tan - operators don't actually have ANY control over speed. As for moving forward at a stop, I don't believe they do either, but could be wrong on that. It's been published in the post before on their specific duties, which mostly have to do with announcements and opening/closing doors.

Posted by: leafbowl | May 20, 2010 11:40 PM | Report abuse

i stand corrected, they do have control in emergency situations, but otherwise it's automated

Posted by: leafbowl | May 20, 2010 11:43 PM | Report abuse

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