What can we do with station subtitles?

Today, the WMATA Board formally endorsed the idea of shortening some Metrorail station names by introducing station subtitles, a concept first proposed by Greater Greater Washington’s David Alpert and Matt Johnson. WMATA also released detailed information on the final design for the 7000 Series railcars. Incidentally, this design work was done by Antenna Design (who I’ve endorsed several times in the past).

The 7000 Series will be WMATA’s first railcars to feature automatic voice announcements, among other advanced passenger information features. With WMATA adopting station subtitles, how should they interact with the 7000 Series’ voice announcements?
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Sustaining signage systems

Last month, EMBARQ (a project of the World Resources Institute) released From Here to There: A Creative Guide to Making Public Transport the Way to Go. For many transit agencies, it seems as though while operating a transit service comes naturally, talking about it does not. Yet marketing, branding, signage (and more!) are all essential components of a transit service. EMBARQ’s guide helps transit agencies understand not only what they need to do, but also why they need to do it:

FICTION Branding and marketing by a transport agency is government propaganda, something to be avoided.
FACT Increasing transit use has tangible benefits for all. If an agency is nervous about marketing its service, then it should never have invested in the service to begin with.

One of the aspects the report covers (among others) is signage—the topic of this post. Signage systems, along with other forms of passenger information, “help all riders—no matter their ability, age or literacy level—navigate [a transit system] with ease.” Yet many transit agencies seem to struggle with signage. Transport for London, for example, has crafted an excellent set of design standards and managed to implement them across a vast and diverse transit system. But for some transit systems, merely bringing a signage system to fruition seems to be a problem; they hire a designer and start a comprehensive redesign only to get stuck in the pilot stage.

Two cases that come to mind in particular are the CTA’s Frankle-Monigle signage system, and the TTC’s Paul Arthur signs. Neither were ever extended beyond the pilot stations at which they were initially installed. Both transit systems therefore continue to suffer with their existing signs (which can’t really be called a ‘system’, lacking any coherent design). But suppose you’re a small transit system, starting up a new service. You follow EMBARQ’s guide, hire a designer (and actually listen to what they say), and get a functional and usable signage system installed. What next?
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SPAD mitigation at Brentwood Yard

While riding north on B1 track today, I noticed two new signs marked “SIGNAL B99 06 ON LEFT”, one at the north end of the platform at New York Ave., and one in the right-of-way. I assume this is a SPAD mitigation measure linked to recent incidents. As far as I know, this is the first time signs of this nature have been installed on the Metrorail system, although they are common elsewhere.

Station names are about system usability, not neighborhood identity

Note: This article was cross-posted to Greater Greater Washington.

Metrorail station names are long. Long enough, in fact, that they’re a source of frequent debate, whether it’s comparing Metrorail station names to those of similar systems, or proposing new station names. The consensus among many transit advocates is that the long station names do little to aid wayfinding, and if anything are probably actively harmful to the usability of the Metrorail system. Now, WMATA has developed a new set of station naming guidelines.

These guidelines were previewed at last week’s meeting of the WMATA Riders’ Advisory Council, and a fervent debate on station names followed. When the issue of shortening certain station names was discussed, some RAC members proceeded to call for an elongated timeline, extensive outreach programs, public hearings, and more. There was even some discussion of not changing certain station names, out of a fear of political repercussions.
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Improved Metrorail platform edge lights

The platform edge lights found on the Metrorail system are a wonderful amenity—and I’m sure that when the system was newer, they seemed incredibly futuristic compared to (for example) the New York City subway. But in 2011, can we do better? Imagine if each platform edge light were replaced with a grid of RGB LEDs, hooked up to a microcontroller (it wouldn’t need to be anything terribly high-powered; a PIC would do just fine). All of the platform edge lights along one platform could be linked together with a 1-Wire bus and thence to the station’s RTU, or perhaps directly to MetroNet through a microcontroller with an Ethernet interface on one side and a 1-Wire interface on the other.

What could these new platform edge lights do? Aside from the obvious—using the RGB LEDs to show the line color of an arriving train—they could also warn passengers at the rear of the platform when they need to move up to catch a 6-car train. The Metrorail system will continue to run 6-car trains (at least off-peak) for the indefinite future. Even though the 7000 Series cars can only be run in sets of 4 or 8, the remainder of the Metrorail rolling stock is in married pairs, making 6-car trains a common occurrence. With all trains stopping at the head of the platform, passengers towards the rear are often caught off-guard by 6-car trains.

If 6-car trains ever return to making stops at the center or rear of some stations (as they once did), the same method could be used (with arrows going in the opposite direction) to show passengers when they need to move down along the platform towards the head of the train.

Improved platform edge lights could also display the ISO-standard prohibition sign to show that an arriving train is not in service. Of course, all of this information is displayed on the PIDS currently, but let’s face it: the PIDS aren’t perfect. More often than not, the displays aren’t visible from the extremities of the platform. And even though the PIDS do show train length, most people don’t really know just how much space along the platform a 6-car train occupies—that is to say, even though the PIDS may show that a 6-car train is arriving, that doesn’t actually tell people where to stand to catch the train.

When the platform itself is not in service (as is the case when trains are single-tracking at a station), the prohibition sign can be combined with an arrow to direct passengers to the opposite platform. This solves what seems to be a rather common problem—passengers rarely seem to know where to wait for a train when they’re single-tracking.

Would these new platform edge lights be expensive? Yes, but having them fabricated in bulk should help to keep the cost down (particularly since electronic parts like PCBs and LEDs and microcontrollers are often far cheaper in bulk). In addition, I believe there’s an important principle here: if we desire to continue to refer to the Metrorail system as “America’s Metro” and hold it up as an example for the rest of the country to follow, then we had ought pursue technological innovations which further improve the usability of the transit system. Quite honestly, a flashing red light just isn’t the forefront of technological innovation anymore.