Subway Announcements Are Changing (Not That You Can Hear Them Anyway)
It turns out that New York City subway conductors are like actors: They have scripts they are supposed to follow.
The scripts are in a blue booklet issued by New York City Transit, which wants conductors to keep it close to the vest — almost literally. The booklet is small enough to fit in a pocket so conductors can refer to it if they forget what to say.
The booklet was rewritten last year under Sarah Meyer, a communications and marketing executive who has since joined the transit agency as its chief customer officer. She put the emphasis on sounding more conversational and avoiding transit-jargon phrases like “signal malfunction” or “There’s train traffic ahead of us.” (“Makes us sound helpless,” explained Ms. Meyer’s version of the book, which replaced one issued in 2015.)
Now she is about to rewrite the rewrite. She is looking to bring out another version early next year with additional revisions, many based on feedback from passengers and from transit employees.
The version that came out last year got attention for dispensing with the greeting “ladies and gentlemen.” It gave conductors a choice of opening lines like “Good morning, everyone” or “Hello, passengers.” It also told conductors to ad-lib when necessary, a no-no in the past.
A do-and-don’t-say section in Ms. Meyer’s book weighs in against familiar — and aggravating — conductor lines like “Northbound 6 trains are delayed because of a signal malfunction.” Even the opening “This is the conductor” is frowned upon because it should be obvious. “Really, only the conductor speaks through the P.A. system,” she said. “‘This is the conductor’ takes time that New Yorkers don’t have.”
Intelligibility is another matter — the booklet cannot help when the electronics fail. “We still have a legacy fleet,” Ms. Meyer said, “and we have found that some car classes are more prone to speaker problems than others.” She added that the transit agency was working to modernize them.
Here are examples of how the script has changed from the 2015 booklet to the newest version.
Admit it, it’s crowded in there
Ms. Meyer said the idea is to provide information for passengers without annoying them. She hopes the softer, more empathetic approach will make them think, “What’s the benefit of me not holding that train up?”
And there is a benefit, she said, “If you even hold the doors open for a limited time, the amount of delays turn from seconds to minutes as the delay goes farther and farther down the line.”
When the police or firefighters are called In
The old version was short on details, the kind of lack of information that frustrates riders and that Ms. Meyer seeks to change. She wants conductors to tell passengers what is happening, as it is happening. “We thought that giving real information was the most important thing we could do to restore trust,” she said.
Jon Weinstein, a spokesman for the subway system, noted that the rewrite was the first in decades. “This has given us an opportunity to go back to the police and see how they have changed, how they want to message things, and update it,” he said. “It’s a matter of public safety, and also making sure that riders are really getting a sense that we have a handle on a situation.”
When the emergency brake stops the train
The current version, the product of Ms. Meyer’s rewrite, is longer, and the last two sentences aim for a friendlier, we’re-all-in-this-together tone. It also promises an update fairly quickly, a point Ms. Meyer emphasizes (she said the revisions that will be issued next year will provide more details on how just how quickly.)
She favors announcements every three minutes “at a minimum” when there is an incident and a train is delayed. “We hear feedback from our customers: ‘We didn’t hear anything,’ ‘There were no announcements,’ ‘There might have been one, but it was 10 minutes ago.’”
As for the wording, “We used to say ‘mechanical problems’” when the emergency brakes were activated even though that was not necessarily accurate, she explained. “Saying it’s a train with mechanical problems makes it seem like there’s a problem with the train itself,” she said, “when often it’s a problem on the track bed.” The problem could be anything from a person on the tracks (or a body) to a signal arm that has been activated. (The signal arm is the tripper for the signal system to stop the train.)
Sometimes trains skip stations when they are too close together. Skipping stations by turning a local into an express, for example, can help with the spacing.
Sometimes trains bypass a station when the police or firefighters are called there. And sometimes, trains don’t stop at stations with elevators when the elevators break down and passengers cannot reach the platform.
Ms. Meyer said that when a train is going to skip a station, the announcement should provide information passengers could use. If a train is going to bypass the next stop some passengers might want to get off and walk or take a bus, a taxi or a ride-sharing service, like Uber or Lyft.
Everyone out of the train
Ms. Meyer said she wrote the new version with Alena Cason, a colleague from the communications and marketing firm she used to work for. “She uses headphones,” Ms. Meyer said, “and I don’t.”
“She said that maybe 50 percent of the train car is not paying attention to any announcement,” Ms. Meyer recalled, “so we need cooperation to make sure everyone has the information they need to be safe. ‘Evacuate’ is in here, and I remember her saying, ‘It’s a serious word, it demands attention.’ The same when we use the word ‘immediately.’”
James Barron is a Metro reporter and columnist. He is the author of the books “Piano: The Making of a Steinway Concert Grand” and “The One-Cent Magenta” and the editor of “The New York Times Book of New York.”
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