CTA replies to passenger complaints about poor communications during service outages

A switching problems with a Brown Line train near the Clark Junction caused a two-hour service outage on April 19 -- the same day Rahm Emanuel named Forrest Claypool as his choice for CTA president. And as happens with most service outages, I heard complaints from riders about poor communications by the CTA to passengers about what was happening, what the CTA was doing to restore service, and what options riders had to get where they needed to go.

It's an old problem, one documented by the National Transportation Safety Board after a Blue Line derailment and fire in July 2006 forced the evacuation of 1,000 passenger in the subway north of Clark/Lake station. And the NTSB in 2007 in its report made this recommendation: 

"Examine and improve as necessary your ability to communicate with passengers and perform emergency evacuations."

So I asked the CTA what the it is doing to get information to customer assistants so they can assist passengers. Here's the reply from a CTA spokesperson:

Customer Assistant Controllers and Communication Coordinators call every station that
is involved in the interruption area and provide instructions to station
personnel. This information is also simulcast on radio channels and
via pager.

Route managers are also provided details on the extent of the disruption
and the impact on customers. The route manager directs all available
managers/supervisors in the area to first address the needs and safety
of customers involved in the incident.

If that's the case, then I suggest some customer assistants are not doing the job of relaying the information and may need more training in handling stressful situations.

I also asked  why the digital signs at Fullerton and Belmont were not pressed into service to provide outage information. The reply:

Use of the signs at stations presents a challenge during a service
disruption such as this as all of the focus is placed on the above
actions and working to restore service, so the manpower to post
information on signs at the stations by the Control Center is currently
an issue.

I would suggest that the CTA needs to meet that challenge and have someone posting real, useful information on those signs at ALL times, instead of the monotonous less-than-helpful reminders about Chicago Cards expiring.

Also, the CTA wants us to report if we see a customer assistant or other employee not doing their job:

The most helpful thing that our riders can do is to contact the CTA if
they have experienced a CA or any other CTA employee not performing
their job - it helps us to focus in directly on those incidents and take
steps to ensure that customer service is being handled appropriately.
Riders can email us or call 1-888-YOUR-CTA
(1-888-968-7282).

Finally, the CTA made the following statement about improvements in communications efforts since 2006:

In any emergency situation, the top priority is to make sure people are
safe. That said, communicating with customers who are affected by the
incident is critically important and there are many changes that have
been made in recent years. And after every incident we review what
worked and what didn't work and try and determine how we can do better.

There are changes we've made in both the technology we use and the way
in which we staff the Control Center. Whenever there is a service
interruption, the Control Center broadcasts instructions to the
operators so that they can keep customers informed using the intercom
system. The Control Center also makes announcements at rail stations,
and we have invested in upgrades to the announcement system to improve
the clarity. Control also posts information about delays on the web
site.

Additionally, managers' responsibilities have been expanded and include
additional customer communications duties. Previously, Control
primarily focused on communications with field personnel and on service
restoration.

We also now notify the fire department immediately when there is an
incident. Previously, depending on the circumstances, CTA personnel
might first have investigated first to see if the situation could be
handled by CTA staff.

On the scene, the route manager will direct all available
managers/supervisors in the area to address the needs and safety of
customers involved in the incident.

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  • Classic cover your ass bullshit from, I presume, Nicole Gaffney, who is one of the best trained liars in the business!
    She couldn't tell the truth even if she got a brain transplant from Diogenes!

  • In reply to ScooterLibbby:

    I'm not going to leave epithets, but it is clear that CTA has too many spokespersons (it appears that Robyn Ziegler found another job, though with our real fine Attorney General), but instead of communications, they are engaged in corporate speak.

    For instance, if this story is correct, some CAs are not doing their job. Calling Customer Service won't get results (like getting them fired and replaced by someone who was laid off that might actually want to do the job), but only an e-mail with similar doubletalk. Anyway, "customer service" is an oxymoron at nearly any organization these days.

    At least the "we call the fire department immediately" statement indicates that someone read the NTSB report.

    However, after winning the technology award (and having Huberman run the place for two years) the excuses for not getting the message on either the TrainTracker screens, or as Scooter indicates, the crawl sign at each station are not credible. Do they really expect that CAs are going to go up and down the platform and say that the line will be down for two hours??? Heck, even Metra gets those announcements onto its crawl signs and platform loudspeakers, and Metra is credited with having 19th century technology.

    I think that the first thing Claypool has to do is clean house, at it appears that Huberman and Rodriguez did not do so thoroughly enough. It looks like start with the Control Center and then then Public Affairs department.

    Krambles must be rolling over in his grave.

  • In reply to jack:

    Cleaning out the incompetents & non-communicators is insufficient.
    What's needed is to assign a public affairs staffer to the control center all the time. That person would make the announcements & type the messages onto the screens.
    Of course, the staffer would also have to be properly trained in how to judge what's needed & sad to say, also know how to read, write clearly & concisely, speak clearly & how to spellcheck their own work.

    There also seems to be a total lack of common sense in much of the rail operations.
    I've been on several extremely delayed trains. Incredibly, these delayed trains were delayed even more when they had to wait for either the motorman or the CA to bring out the dock plate so a wheelchair passenger could board. This of course delayed the train even more. Then the train was expressed & the wheelchair had to get off due to the expressed train passing her station, delaying it even more. Common sense would be that delayed trains wouldn't pickup wheelchair passengers.

    Jack: Don't worship the days of Krambles so much. It was during his time as boss that the Howard tower would put two southbound Jackson Park/Englewood trains into both southbound tracks at the Howard station. That meant that neither Evanston or Skokie trains could pass through & turn back to go north. Which caused huge delays on those two lines.

  • In reply to ScooterLibbby:

    I don't worship at his grave, but his book indicated that he knew something about transit and had worked maybe 50 years at it.

    Compare that to the experience of those "running the ship" now. I doubt that we will see published "Rodriguez and AECOM, CTA at 65" next year.

  • In reply to ScooterLibbby:

    After jumping Scooter, I will expand on his point.

    What they teach you in P.R. class (and I took one) is that your main job is to deal with lazy reporters by putting out press releases featuring "Mayor Daley said," "Frank Kruesi said," "Carole Brown said," "Richard Rodriguez said" and spinning your deficiencies, since you can't always ignore them. Look like you are out in front of the crisis, even if you are not. Sheila and Noelle are good at that, but that doesn't mean anything, except to the lazy reporters (there is one at the Tribune) and the easily duped.

    What Scooter is saying is instead of them, CTA needs a customer communications specialist on each shift, in the control center, who can communicate needed information to the customers. Also, it needs a technologist to provide the means to blast "Breaking Alerts" to the passengers.

    The press release garbage can be done part time, or, as often happens at the CTA, out of the Mayor's Press Office.

  • In reply to jack:

    Exactly & I agree with you on Hilkevich. I don't even understand why he only writes one lousy column a week.
    If you want to see what a really good reporter can do on transit & traffic issues, read Mr. Roadshow at the San Jose Mercury News. While 75% of his columns are on traffic, he totally covers mass transit in the entire Bay Area.

    And I also remember when the bus control center would talk directly to passengers. I don't know if they just don't do that anymore or if that capability has been removed from the system.

  • In reply to jack:

    They really need someone who has experience talking over a PA announcement system. Remember that stations are in a variety of different acoustical environments (subway vs. above ground) and a variety of different generations of speaker systems at stations. The horrible ground loops (buzz) from improper wiring on some of the stations has got to go.

    The fumbling, bad pronunciation and poor organization I hear time and time again when announcements (such as that morning) are made over a large part of the system its just plain sad. I've said this before, but the CTA really needs to work on its image and voice as a transit agency. Communicating with the public takes a certain basic level of skill and speech. If they cant do it, hold tone and timing, they shouldn't be the one at the control center in front of the mic making the announcements.

  • In reply to jack:

    Kevin--please keep after them about this. Some of the answers (like about the station PA systems) don't jibe with things we keep observing, or at least they need to explain the discrepancy. Scooter and Jack are right. The CTA needs to have a person whose first priority in such situations is to think about what the passengers want to know, and who is capable of quickly and coherently getting the information out to them.

  • In reply to jack:

    Hey Guys-

    I am a breaking beat reporter for WCHI, and I can shed light on the CTA Media Relations Department.

    Their job is to deal with reporters and put out press releases about the CTA. They do not interact with the customers at any point.

    The CTA does do a good job with updating their website almost immediately when there is an issue. You can also follow twitter accounts (ie. @ctared, @ctabrown) and get the same alert as soon it gets to the website. I gather issues with the CTA from the website and twitter alerts, before some supervisors in the CTA are even aware there is a problem.

    Nicole Gaffney, Catherine Hosinski and all the other CTA spokespeople are there to get good press for the CTA. There are there to also deal with breaking issues that do happen, and connect with reporters to get a statement out to the public.

    I am not quite sure what you guys are getting at with these media relations staff members.

  • In reply to parisl:

    Paris, most of the customers in a station or on a platform or on a train when a problem develops are NOT watching TV or surfing web sites or following Twitter or whatever. Just because some people have the capability does not mean it can be expected of all passengers and the CTA has no further obligation to communicate. Putting info out to the media is not the same thing as informing all the actual passengers who are physically within the CTA system at the time and affected by the problem. There could be announcements in person--but the station personnel are not told what to do or it is not a priority for them. Messages could be scrolled on the signs, but apparently the CTA is not set up for that, nor is there someone capable of composing appropriate content and putting it out there. PA announcements are made, but they are usually unintelligible. Until the CTA deals with these issues, they cannot claim to be doing a good job communicating with actual passengers.

    If your point is that the media relations department cannot be held responsible for passenger communications--you are right. It is time for the CTA to stop pretending they have it covered just because "communications" sometimes has to do with public affairs or media relations.

  • In reply to ScooterLibbby:

    The CA at my station has been there for years. He's really pleasant and good at the mundane bits of his job--helping people who have never encountered the machines, answering questions about routes and transfer points. I still don't think it was his fault he didn't know where the shuttle bus would be picking us up. I think no one told him.

  • In reply to ScooterLibbby:

    One of the simplest things the CTA could do to improve communication at the platform level would be to replace all of those useless loudspeakers. Most of them don't work, but if they do they're so staticky or they have such terrible feedback issues that anything anyone is attempting to communicate comes out as gibberish.

    This morning I was walking up the stairs at the California Blue Line stop and could hear an announcement fairly clearly initially...but as soon as I got up to the platform it was useless. Something about the Logan Square station.

    Additionally, the loudspeakers only go about halfway down the platform so no one standing towards where the front of the train can hear anything, anyway.

  • In reply to jack:

    Where do I complain about the train driver I see nearly every morning driving the purple line as his train crawls past Granville station, who appears to be reading or checking his cell phone while he is driving the train?

  • In reply to boofoochoochoo:

    Please do complain...and next time take down the run number in the front window of the train. Here's where you go to complain:
    http://www.transitchicago.com/contact/default.aspx

  • In reply to ScooterLibbby:

    I don't know all the ins and outs of the customer assistant's job, but I wonder if there's really ever a legitimate reason for a CA to be sitting in the booth, looking down (reading? surfing?). Maybe during a break, I guess. But there seem to be many who spend a lot of time in the booth looking down.

  • In reply to scottknitter:

    There probably is a job description. However, at least at the more outer stations, they seem to be hovering around the farecard machine wanting to put in your dollar bill if it machine doesn't eat it fast enough.

    Of close, closer in, no one shoos off the panhandlers hanging around those machines, knowing that the users have money.

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