This is an informational article in response to a request placed on Twitter earlier today (01/29/2014) by WUSA9’s Russ Ptacek on how audible announcements are on Metro trains.
First, in response to the question – announcements aboard trains being heard can vary wildly and due to various reasons. I’ll try to cover some of the most predominant ones passengers experience. First a quick overview of WMATA’s Public Address Systems aboard railcars.
From a basic electrical standpoint and design point of view the entire fleet is designed to be the same. However there are now 6 different series of rail cars (1000/2000/3000/4000/5000/6000) with the 7th (7000)*** just beginning to undergo testing in Greenbelt. And with each order or rehabilitation there’s a slight software upgrade that can cause minor technical issues. Overall the entire fleet is supposed to be compatible and for the most part it is. However, here are some of the top reasons passengers can’t hear announcements. (And this is from 20-plus years of observing WMATA rail operations)
- Operator doesn’t make announcements: Sadly this is the most obvious one, I’ve observed train operators that just flat-out for whatever reason do not make any announcements.
- Operator announcements are garbled: This could be the result of a two-fold problem, the operator not clearly enunciating or an electrical issue (discussed below) causing the transmission to become garbled.
- Public Address volume is turned down in one of the rail cars: This is usually an oversight that goes unnoticed. Either in the lead car or sometimes one of the trailing cars in the train will have the volume turned down so while passengers in cars 1,2,3,4 can hear crystal clearly passengers in 5, and 6 hear nothing.
- Mixing of series: This has caused multiple problems in the past (most recently the emergency intercom failure) While the entire fleet is designed to be compatible, when a train is made up from up to 4 different orders there are bound to be electrical issues. This reason I believe is the cause of the majority of issues with poor PA operations, followed by train operator not making the announcements. This is more prevalent since the 2009 collision where the 1000 series were “bellied” in the middle of trains. Basic setup is the 1000 series originally built-in the mid to late 70s and rehabilitated in the early 90s have one design; the 2000/3000/ and 6000 series for basic terms share the same design (the 2000 & 3000 series though ordered in the early 80s were rehabilitated by Alstom, the same manufacturer of the 6000 series; the 4000 series, ordered in the late 80s & early 90s are on a different design as are the 5000 series. When you mix these series several things can happen most noticeable being lack of a PA and the next station stop (NSS) signs not functioning correctly.
Side note: Out of Metro’s 1100 rail cars in service all except 100 (4000 series) contain exterior speakers to make announcements audible to passengers on the platform
Train Operators are supposed to do a PA check at the very start of service (when the train is leaving the yard) however operators change trains during their shifts and failures occur. There is currently no procedure of checking the PA of a train as it prepares to depart a terminal station, therefore a train operator would not be aware that a car wasn’t broadcasting or broadcasting poorly unless he was informed of it, and the best way of that is for someone to physically walk the length of the train through various stops (6-8) and hear the announcements.
Now I’ll finish up with the seriousness of a failure in the public address system. If one of the above reasons causes the public address system not to work as it is intended the it could become a safety and operational concern.
- Trains that are short turned (ex. Silver Spring & Mt. Vernon Sq) need to be offloaded to reverse in what’s known as a pocket track. No functional PA some passengers won’t know to exit and will miss the following train to take them where they need to go.
- Mechanical failure requiring the train being offloaded, This almost all if not all of us have experienced, for whatever reason a train can no longer remain in service and passengers must clear the train in order for it to move to the nearest yard. No functional PA means passengers might still be sitting unaware and thus increasing delays back down the line.
- Emergency situation: This is obvious the single most serious concern; In the event of an emergency where immediate action is needed a non functioning PA could endanger passengers lives, simple as that no examples are needed for this one.
Recommended Interim Action: Designate the first 8 stations from terminals as PA check stops, An rail transportation employee (supervisor, operator, car equipment, transit police) boards the lead car at the terminal and proceeds to change cars back for the first 8 stations to listen to the PA system. At the 8th station the employee reports findings to the train operator and performs the same task on a train heading back in the opposite direction.
Possible alternate solution: Create a repeating message directly tied to the PA system that repeats every 30-45 seconds such as “Welcome aboard Metrorail” “The time is XX:XX” This would allow an operator at the terminal to walk the train, inspect it and listen for the announcement, this could be incorporated into the departure checklist”
***End Note: The 7000 series will have automated announcements programmed and with the fact that this series is designed to run only within its own series (except in emergencies), the 7000s should be the most reliable as they enter the fleet