Better information for passengers stuck on trains

Despite recent improvements in communication, Metrorail riders still often find themselves in the dark, especially during major disruptions. Status updates on Twitter and via Metro’s eAlerts system help if you’re above-ground, or in one of the underground stations now wired for cellular service. If you’re on a train that is stopped in a station, it’s often hard to hear the station’s PA system, and between stations, riders are completely dependent on train operators to provide status updates—and many train operators don’t. Sometimes train operators don’t have the necessary information, and sometimes, even when they’ve been provided an update, they fail to pass it on to their passengers.

Buttons on 6000 Series Communications Control Panel
Fortunately, there’s a solution, one which doesn’t depend on individual train operators’ ability or willingness to communicate. The communications control panels on Metrorail trains feature a button marked “RADIO PA” which, when activated, sends audio from the train’s radio to the public address system. The way it works is simple: a controller at the Metrorail Operations Control Center (or a member of Metro staff using a portable radio) makes an announcement to train operators, telling them to activate their “RADIO PA” button. They can then speak directly to passengers in trains across the entire Metrorail system.

Some will probably argue that in the midst of an emergency, valuable airtime shouldn’t be taken up making announcements to passengers. But the reality is that in an emergency, communicating with passengers is a vital part of the process. Keeping passengers informed during a long delay, for example, may just keep a hot-headed passenger from initiating a self-evacuation on to the trackbed, which invariably leads to more delays and could even result in injuries or a fatality. In addition, this is actually a relatively efficient use of radio airtime—with a single transmission, passengers and WMATA staff across the system can be advised of the status of an incident.

Of course, for all of this to work, the train can’t be in a radio dead zone, the train’s PA system must be working properly, and the train operator must cooperate. But all they’ve got to do is push a button; they don’t even have to make the announcement themselves.

Now, this approach isn’t right for every incident. For situations affecting only one or two trains, it’s still best for the affected train operators to speak to their passengers directly. But when an incident occurs which affects the entire Metrorail system, or the entirety of a line, then it’s time to make sure everyone is kept up to date at once. It’s much easier to make sure that a single operator at the Metrorail OCC has the right information and is able to communicate it clearly than relying on every individual train operator.

Passengers in stations are able to receive messages—both on the PIDS and through station PA systems—directly from the Metrorail OCC. Why shouldn’t passengers on trains get the same level of information?