Prerecorded CTA Voice: Please Shut the "L" Up


Warning:  This post is especially curmudgeonly. On the curmudgeon-o-meter, it’s about a nine.

I have ridden commuter subways in Chicago, New York, New Jersey, Washington D.C., London, and for one day, Paris. I feel like I could write a book about it. By far, the one I have ridden most is Chicago’s, and I can’t help comparing our L system to the others.

My favorite is the London Tube, even with their lack of air conditioning in the summer. It’s so quick and efficient that you get to your destination before you start to feel really uncomfortable anyway.

New York and Paris are the grimiest and grittiest, the New Jersey Path is clean and modern but the drag-ass slowest. New York’s has the surliest and snarliest people. London’s, which actually carries more, has the politest. But I’ve never seen boarding passengers make such a bee-line for the available seats in my life. Those British really want to sit.

In the 16+ years I’ve been in Chicago, I've come to “love to hate” the CTA, as so many Chicagoans do. But to give them props, they’ve made much-needed improvements and modernizations to their cars and buses and some stations, and done it all with no fare increases in about a decade.

I can do without those awful center-facing seats on the Red Line that squish riders together. If there is an empty seat next to mine and I see a tiny rail-thin girl or woman bee-lining for it, I’m like Yes! Thank you, God. Full disclosure: I myself, while average build, am not a tiny rail-thin woman.

But there is one thing about the L that makes me want to tear fistfuls of my hair out by the roots.

It is the constant automated “service announcements.”

“Priority seating is reserved for the elderly and passengers with disabilities. Your cooperation is requested.”

“Smoking, littering, and gambling are prohibited on CTA vehicles.”

“Standing passengers, please do not lean against the doors.” Common sense.

“Please keep your belongings off the seat next to you, so others may sit down.” Again, common sense.

“Your safety is important. If you see vandalism, unattended packages, or suspicious activity, inform CTA personnel immediately.”

(Can you define “suspicious activity”? If, like me, you ride the Red Line regularly, you see any number of things that could fall into this category. Like the time I saw a vagrant undressing—that’s right, literally remove his pants—on the train. Fortunately it was right before my stop. Or just this morning, a guy was hawking half-price, new bottles of Jack Daniels and vodka—if I’d had cash on me I might have bought one.)

Unless there’s a major delay, all a train system really needs to do is announce the stop, and most other systems I’ve used do that. But here, they can’t just do that either.

“Lawrence is next. In the direction of travel, doors open on the left at Lawrence.”

(Thank you for that additional information, but in what direction do they think we think they’re going to open?

“Viewed from a satellite orbiting the Earth, doors will open on the left at Lawrence.”

“From the perspective of a person lying horizontally across the tracks facing West, doors will open on the right at Lawrence.”)

Sometimes I want to scream at the top of my lungs:


(That’s the first time I’ve used the F-word in a post.)

My mom had a frank expression: Diarrhea of the mouth. This automated voice-man has got diarrhea of the mouth.

Little wonder most people wear earbuds; they probably have them cranked up to the max to drown out these inane announcements.

When you’d actually appreciate a little information, like when the train is stopped dead at a station for ten minutes with the doors open—nothing. Radio silence. Sometimes the driver will simply say: “We will be standing momentarily.” But often there’s nothing. I suspect the driver is in the john during these periods. Given that they overload us with unnecessary information, there should be some automated message for that. But no.

New York has train announcements but they’re so garbled and staticky there’s no way you can understand them. They could be telling you there’s a bomb on board and you’d never know. What? What did they say? People look at each other and shrug and go back to what they were doing.

That’s why I love London. All you ever hear over the system is the announcement of the stop. A soft, soothing British-accented female voice: “Tottenham Court Road.” I want that British lady doing the L service announcements. I could listen to her recite the phone book. By the time I got to my destination I would be soooo relaxed, if not sound asleep.

It could be worse. I could ride the Tokyo subway, where at rush hour they have men whose job it is to literally push and pack as many bodies in as can possibly fit. They obviously don’t care if their passengers “lean against the doors.”


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