Metro needs to communicate service disruptions in stations
With heavy track-maintenance schedules, growing train malfunctions and increased crowding, Metro needs to communicate better with its riders in the stations.
Several weeks ago, Matt Johnson had a series of posts in which he discussed a variety of permanent improvements Metro could make to its wayfinding throughout the system. Those changes are all fantastic suggestions, but Metro could also do a lot to improve the rider experience by improving wayfinding and notification for temporary changes in service.
This past weekend Metro riders saw a slew of service cutbacks and modifications due to extensive track work on every line in the system. For the second weekend in a row, Virginia-bound Blue Line trains were sent to Huntington instead of Fraconia-Springfield. And for the second weekend in a row, I watched as perplexed riders, most of them likely tourists, stared first at the train arrival screens, then at their maps, and then back at the arrival screens.
The problem is this: while Metro does a relatively good job notifying commuters and residents of upcoming track work and posts notices on its website, on the e-Alerts system, and on Twitter, they do very little in stations themselves to notify riders of planned changes to service.
Let's go back to the example of the Blue Line again. Last weekend, while I was waiting at Metro Center to catch a train to Arlington, I noticed that the incoming Blue Line train was diverting to Huntington. A German couple which had been carefully studying the route map on the nearby post, saw that a Blue Line train was entering the station, and moved to the edge of the platform to board the train. When they heard the operator announce "Blue Line to Huntington Station" they looked around a bit bewildered and decided against getting on the train.
After the train had pulled out of the station, they walked back over to the post and stared again at the Orange and Blue route maps. Having noticed their confusion and wanting to be helpful, I edged over to see if I could hear what the problem was. I heard them mutter something to the extent of "here it says the Blue Line goes to Franconia, I don't know why that one was going to Huntington, maybe the next one will go to Franconia."
At this point, I was beginning to comprehend their consternation, especially considering that Huntington is not even a stop listed on the route map they were looking at. I walked a little closer and asked if I could help. I explained that I suspected that there was maintenance somewhere on the Blue Line in Virginia and that they should get on the next Blue train and get off at King Street and ask a Metro employee about a bus or train to Franconia.
This past weekend, the same Blue Line diversion was in place again when I was riding a train out from downtown again and heard the operator announce at one point while the train was moving: "Please note riders that all Blue Line trains will terminate at Huntington. For service to Franconia-Springfield, please exit this train at King Street and board a shuttle train to Franconia." Now announcements like this can be wonderfully helpful, but in this particular case actually ended up being pretty useless.
Anyone who is headed to Franconia-Springfield who has the confidence to get on a Blue Line train which professes to end in Huntington most likely already knows that they will have to change at King Street. If anything, the announcement at best serves as a friendly reminder that these riders can't nap all the way to their destination.
Meanwhile, riders unfamiliar with the system will sit on platforms in stations along the line and wonder where Huntington is, and why a Blue Line train is going to a station that is not on its map. All because there is no warning in the station itself.
Why doesn't Metro do the same?
I suspect at least one mitigating factor is the lack of space in stations, particularly on the platforms where temporary signage could be hung, just one more example of how the system's cavernous design and sparse furnishing sacrifices usability for architectural beauty. Another factor may be the additional costs of printing service change notices every time there is track work.
This leads me to the overall point that Metro should make better use of the methods it has at its disposal to communicate immediately and effectively with customers: the electronic signage and station announcement systems. While you can find out every broken elevator in the entire system by watching the train arrival boards, the past two weekends there have been no notices about the Blue Line reroute. This lack of signage has accessibility impacts as well. Without visible service change announcements, hearing-impaired riders have virtually no way of knowing how to adapt their commute.
As for the station announcements, the Operations Control Center has the ability to direct announcements to any combination of stations in the entire system in real time. They could very easily pre-record an announcement about service changes and loop it every 10 minutes, just like they do with the "Metro's doors to not operate like elevator doors..." announcements.
Admittedly, many train operators will make such announcements as the train pulls into the station. Still, this varies from operator to operator and more often than not these announcements are hardly audible because of bad speakers on the outside of the train, the operator's mumbling, or the general din of a train rumbling into the station.
On-demand in-station announcements could prove particularly helpful in the case of door malfunctions. In many cases of malfunctions, Metro will lock an entire car experiencing door issues but keep the train in service to avoid delays and headaches associated with off-loading entire trains. When this happens though, especially at rush hour, by the time the hordes of riders waiting on the platform to board realize that one or several cars are out of service, it is too late to distribute themselves along the platform and inevitably some are left behind after trying to cram into the adjacent cars.
If a train operator were to radio the OCC when a door malfunction occurs With an aging system, Metro is likely to face an uphill battle of preventive maintenance and unscheduled disruptions or changes to service. Lacking the funds to make major overhauls, Metro should help itself and make the best use of its communication tools to help riders navigate the system when the need arises.
With an aging system, Metro is likely to face an uphill battle of preventive maintenance and unscheduled disruptions or changes to service. Lacking the funds to make major overhauls, Metro should help itself and make the best use of its communication tools to help riders navigate the system when the need arises.
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