It seems to me that everyone and everything is trying to make a buck or two off of the upcoming inauguration of Barack Obama. I must admit that I was a bit surprised that Virginia Railway Express was going to tack an extra ten dollars (according to WTOP Radio) on to the price of a ticket. Its rationale was that it wasn't planning on running that day because it is a holiday. An inauguration, whether or not it has the history that this one does, should not be a vacation day for employees at VRE or any other transit service in the Washington region. Instead, an inauguration is exactly the type of event for which rail and bus service is well-suited and desperately needed. Would it really hurt to have these employees work a federal "holiday" once every four years? Come to think of it, maybe VRE and Maryland's MARC should be available on the Fourth of July as well. These are holidays that feature events that draw hundreds of thousands of people in to the heart of the city. Isn't that when transit should be on hand to help by providing a viable option to driving?
It's about time... Metro announced that it has upgraded the public address systems in 38 stations. It took seven and a half million dollars and, in my mind, seven years to accomplish. I'll explain what I mean below. Metro says that it has installed new speakers on the tops of the pylons so that the announcements will come slightly above ear level instead of from the ceiling 40 or 50 feet above. It has also replaced some of the equipment that dates back to the system's launch back in 1976. It has been a challenge because all of the hard surfaces in a Metro station make for the worst possible acoustics and it's been a constant struggle for passengers to understand what was being said.
Here's my take on a few things in this regard and I'll admit that I may be picking at some nits here. First of all, Metro could have saved several million dollars by doing little more than hiring a broadcasting consultant to teach its employees how to speak into a microphone. Yes, it would have made a huge difference. We've all heard rail operators make crystal clear announcements and then heard the same message from a different operator that sounds like it's coming from deep inside a puddle of mud. It's all in the way that the speaker addresses the microphone, either too far or too close and the way that they enunciate key words. There is a lot for rail operators and station managers to pay attention to but if the system had simply taken the time and effort to educate them in using ALL of their equipment we might all be better off and they could have saved a few bucks along the way.
Secondly, after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 Metro was rightly and justifiably concerned about the safety of its passengers. It got federal grants for countless millions of dollars to make improvements to the security of the system. It got special intrusion sensors to tell if anyone was sneaking in. It received the latest in chemical sniffing sensors to tell if anyone was bringing something into the system that shouldn't be there. Metro got robots and dogs and more police. But what it didn't pay enough attention to, in my humble opinion, was making it easier for passengers to hear announcements that might be telling them to evacuate or giving them special instructions in the event of a shutdown. Communicating with the passengers, especially in this city, should have been at or near the very top of the priority list after 9/11. Thankfully, nothing has happened that required an intimate conversation between station manager and passengers or they all would have suffered.
By the way, it would still be a good idea to teach Metro's rail operators and station managers how to use this new equipment so that every message is as clear as a fare increase.
Steve Eldridge is a long-time reporter, observer and commentator on the Washington region's transportation issues. You can contact him directly by writing to: Steve@SprawlandCrawl.com. Unless otherwise requested, letters or portions of letters can be used within future columns. Letter writers will be identified by their first name and city/neighborhood.