Metro trackwork announcements take tentative step forward
WMATA has been working recently to improve the way it communicates track work to riders. On Monday it released the February track work schedule for weeknights and weekends in a revised, simpler format.
It's a good sign that the agency is willing to rethink how it communicates with riders. Still, out on the rails, some confusion still remains.
First, according to reader Matt, who wrote earlier this week:
I ride [the Red Line] predominantly after the morning peak, and during all of last week as well as today, Red Line trains have been singletracking between Friendship Heights and Medical Center. In-station signs and messages indicate that this is scheduled maintenance and that "there is no delay." [Yet] I can't really find any information on this scheduled maintenance.
Metro has recently been working to announce track work for the entire month at the beginning of each month. Yet in January several other track work projects were announced throughout the month. The work Matt is referring to in particular was announced on January 25 and is scheduled to last until February 11.
If the work is lasting so far into February, why didn't the agency reiterate that it would be doing mid-day work on the Red Line in its press release on Monday? The title, "February's planned work on all lines to improve safety and reliability," certainly indicates that it should contain all of the month's maintenance work.
Of course, there is no reason to re-announce every maintenance project at arbitrary intervals with respect to when they started, but if WMATA wants to establish a precedent of giving customers a full outlook of trackwork for a month, it needs to be sure to include all projects, not just those that begin in that particular month.
Supplement, don't replace:
These new full-month charts are good step in the right direction on the part of Metro's communications department. Metro is ecognizing that it needs to communicate the minimally necessary information to the vast majority of its customers without getting bogged down in unnecessary details.
Simplification is a great thing, no doubt, but it appears that Metro is creating a false choice between simplicity and more information, replacing the information-laden press releases with the new, simplified chart, rather than supplementing them.
Metro's new format for monthly scheduled maintenance is definitely simpler to understand than the text-heavy press releases of the past. But, it no longer includes the amount of information the old format did. The agency should continue to announce each project in detail, at the same time it explores ways to compile the projects into a simpler format, not do one at the expense of the other.
The general work description, and ultimate benefit columns are a very good idea for customers who don't care that WEE-Z bonds are being replaced or new light bulbs are being installed, but ultimately want to know what the benefit to them will be. But some of the vague benefit descriptions will inevitably beg the question "what does that mean?" from a fair number of customers.
Improving the trackwork "calendar":
The format, too, leaves something to be desired. WMATA could make the charts available as a simple webpage. Although the PDF format is nearly universally accessible these days, it is still a barrier to some. In a webpage format, the data can be entered in XML that would allow it to be accessed by developers who want to incorporate it into apps.
A webpage could also be easily programmed so that users can sort the projects by line, date, or any other category for that matter. Additionally, in a webpage the colored rail line dots can have alternative text attributes assigned to them for people with screen readers, which is not always possible in Acrobat.
This is particularly important because currently people with visual impairments will not be able to tell which lines are affected by each project. While some would recognize, for instance, that Takoma and Forest Glen are on the Red Line, not all necessarily would, particularly if they are not end stations. A transit agency should always build communications tools that don't make any assumptions about its users' knowledge or familiarity.
The most logical way to communicate scheduled disruptions to Metro riders is in a calendar format. That is, after all, why we created our Scheduled Service Disruption Calendar that can be accessed from any page in the sidebar. It is in no way perfect, but it operates on the open Google Calendar platform so that people can import the feeds to their own calendar programs and allows riders to view all disruptions or show only those on lines that are relevant to them.
Finally, Metro needs to improve the way this information is accessed on its website. Scheduled disruptions should be available from the front page. As far as I can tell, the only way to access track work schedules is to find the press release in the News archive. Metro has a calendar page, that includes a "Track Work" category, but none of the track work is actually in the database. Even if it were, this "calendar" is still only in a list format and is not exportable to any other platform.
Delayed trains or delayed people?
Reader Matt raises another point in his e-mail which indicates a larger problem with the way WMATA handles and communicates maintenance-related disruptions.
The indication that there is no delay is very misleading. Over the 6 days I have experienced this singletracking, 3 of the days I have had to wait more than 10 minutes for a train, with today requiring a wait of approximately 18 minutes. This is certainly much more than normal - and it shows with a much more full platform. The extra 5-15 minutes is not a major delay, but it does matter.Though I can only speculate, it would appear that by "no delays," Metro is indicating that trains are moving through the single track area on the schedule that was established during the maintenance plan.
This is a symptom of Metro's often operating more like a logistics company than a person-oriented transit agency. Saying that there are no delays during single tracking indicates that WMATA treats delays with respect to moving trains through the system rather than moving people.
While a train may be maintaining the established schedule during track work times, this will still manifest itself as a delay to the customer standing on the platform at one of the affected stations. Matt is right that Metro should communicate this to its customers.
Make no mistake, the new track maintenance format is a very good sign from Metro's communications office under Sarles' leadership, because it shows that they're willing and able to be creative in how they communicate information to the public. When talking to Lisa Farbstein, WMATA's director of media relations, on Wednesday at the blogger roundtable, she said she hopes this new format is only the first iteration and that they'll continue to improve it over time. We hope they'll consider some of our recommendations.
Metro still has a long way to go until they have created a truly transparent operation that fully communicates with its customers, but, with developments like PlanItMetro and these new trackwork calendars, they are making serious efforts to improve in this area.
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