Poor passenger communications by CTA was Tuesday's key issue - not "derailment"

Though I focused on the
Forrest Claypool appointment Wednesday, I haven’t forgotten about the Brown Line
“mishap” (it wasn’t a derailment!) during Tuesday morning’s rush hour.

Though it appears the Tribune has forgotten it.  At least it wasn’t
mentioned in Wednesday’s print edition, not even a tiny sidebar with the
page 1 coverage of our mayor-elect’s appointment of Claypool as CTA

I will wait for the NTSB report to explain the details of
what really happened. And I won’t review now what a mess it is at
the Clark Junction north of Belmont, where the incident occurred.

I will, however, today touch on what continues to be a huge problem at any CTA service outage:

And that is a lack of coordinated, timely, informative communications
to passengers about what happened, what it means to passengers right
now, and how passengers can safely make their way to wherever they are

To me, this is a way bigger problem than track fires and derailments
because the CTA has known about it for years and hasn’t solved it.

Problem: Excessive grease, debris causes 2010 Red Line track fire .
Solution: Use less lubricant, implement regular cleaning schedule for right of way.

Problem: 2006 CTA Blue Line subway derailment and fire.
Solution: Improved track inspection procedures; repaired, replaced tracks and ties in subway.

Problem: Providing passengers with adequate information after a CTA service outage
Solution: Well, um, so, uh . . . .

On the communications problems found in the 2006 derailment, here’s the NTSB’s last of 14 recommendations: “Examine and improve as necessary your ability to communicate with passengers and perform emergency evacuations.”

To be sure, the CTA has vastly improved routine communications with passengers: email alerts on planned service changes, RSS feeds for rail and bus alerts, Bus Tracker, Train Tracker.

However, the key issue is still getting information from the CTA central
control location to the bus and rail operators and the station customer
service assistants so they can tell passengers what is happening and how to get where they need to go during the outage.

I was looking over my CTA Tattler archives and came across this post from October 2005: “CTA responds to post on communication problems during outages.”

More than five years later, we’re still complaining about the same issue.

Now *there’s* a good first test for Claypool.

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  • Heck, for Huberman and Rodriguez, too.

    The rail alert got posted on the website, but unless personnel are surfing all day, it isn't going to get to them. Supposedly CTA has fiber optics, the capacity of accessing the in car announcement system from the control center, and operators' radios, but no indication that any of it is used to inform the passengers. If there is any indication, I'm sure someone will post it here.

    Of course, CTA is far from the worst. On the day after the blizzard, Pace posted on its website that most of its lines were not in service, but check WebWatch to see when and if your bus will come. The only problem was that unless one used the Google Map (which is missing routes, maps, and some runs), the predicted arrival times reflected the normal schedule--not that 90% of the system was down.

    Also, Metra couldn't get the word out to its crews about track work at 47th, although there are announcements at the station and on the train that the next train is delayed.

    So, it doesn't seem like passengers are a priority on any local system, although the earlier CTA gaffes did implicate passenger safety (this one apparently didn't).

  • To be fair.....

    My fiancee was on the inbound brown line at Paulina when the incident occurred, and she said her motorman kept them VERY informed. As soon as the train was delayed the passengers were informed that there was a "disabled train" somewhere ahead, and they would be standing for a while. He kept announcing this intermittently so new passengers were informed. And then at one point they were notified that "it could be a long while," so she left the brown line and hopped on the next route 11 bus, which could also get her where she needed to go.

    Sure, she was still over an hour late to work, but it could have been much worse. I'm sure there are plenty of people who received little to no communication about the incident, but here is at least one situation where the passengers were kept informed.

  • In reply to Nirvana911:

    You're right Nirvana, there are always individual exception. But in watching my TweetDeck explode that morning I with complaints from passengers who didn't know what was going on, I do think it's the exception.

  • In reply to Nirvana911:

    Isn't that what Huberman's much vaunted high-tech Customer Information Unit was created for? - to inform the customers? Does it still exist?

    I read and heard all about the incident and suggested reroutes on the news sites and radio, so that part was a clear success. Why does the communication from Command Center to staff to customers continue to fail?

  • In reply to Nirvana911:

    I'm happy some people were told what was going on, but the guy at my train station couldn't even tell us where the shuttle bus would pick us up.

  • In reply to Nirvana911:

    Then there's the sad state of PA equipment and the horrible acoustics in subway stations like Clark/Division. Typically you'll wonder why there's no train, and then the overhead speaker will start buzzing like an insect for a while, and then you'll get an ear-splitting garble of gibberish from the Command Center person who's given not a moment of thought to the fact that they need to speak slowly and with space between words and sentences. Not to mention enunciating and using some sort of standard pronunciation.

  • In reply to scottknitter:

    Sounds like how things were on the Big Green L cars.

    Looks like CTA needs to use the fiber optics to "power" some flat screen monitors, as well as have Mr. CTA record some announcements. I predict those will take about 6 years and about 4 more CTA Presidents. ;-)

  • In reply to scottknitter:

    I don't understand how they can mess up communications so many times in a row and now be held accountable and fix it. Maybe communication was good this time for those on the trains, but not at the stations.

    I arrived at Paulina and there was nobody there to say the station was closed. There was no sign, and the station employee was nowhere to be found. Finally (after I'd already paid), another rider told me there were no trains coming.

    The web site at the time said the problem was near Southport, so I assumed that meant trains would be running from Belmont, so I caught a bus there. At Belmont it was the same situation - no useful information.

    They even have those fancy LCD signs there. Perhaps they could use those to post messages about delays or emergencies, instead of having them spend so much time telling me when the 7th through 12th next trains will be arriving or sharing the last three words of a long useless message about Chicago cards expiring that everyone ignores.

  • In reply to scottknitter:

    I appreciate your devoting a whole post to the topic of CTA passenger communications. Glad you agree that it's a surprisingly unaddressed issue.

    All the internet and telephone things are very well and good, but they have no effect on station announcements, and that's where all the people really need to know what's going on. Can't expect every passenger to have web-connected smartphones or whatever. They're on CTA property and the CTA ought to be able to address them directly. At least sound some unusual attention gong or whistle, then scroll a specific message on one of those fancy new signs.

    Love the way ScottChicago describes the buzzing and garbling in the subway. On open-air L platforms, it's usually just flat-out unintelligible by the time it comes out of the speakers, even if they may be speaking clearly into the microphone. On board the trains, on the rare occasions when they make a live announcement, it's usually pretty clear.

    Didn't buses used to have microphones for the drivers? Apparently they got rid of those when they brought in the GPS and automated stop announcements. And now, if the driver needs to announce something, he has to do it unamplified, so nobody who isn't in the front can hear him.

  • In reply to scottknitter:

    It is baffling how it can be so spotty on the trains. On Monday a "malfunction" in a red line train basically shut us down. Our red line operator told us all to hop a brown or purple line if we wanted to get downtown. As I was boarding a brown line train, the operator of that train announced to his passengers that a red line train was on the inside tracks, with no reference to the fact that it wasn't going anywhere. Good for me - bad for the CTA and all those poor folks who probably ended up on the next brown line.

    It's clear that some operators have and distribute information, though I don't know how often the issue is with the on-board equipment. It is quite appalling though...

  • In reply to scottknitter:

    I saw another fine example of the lack of communication by CTA tonight when I was taking the Red Line from Clark and Division. Both directions were running on the Howard side of the tracks (it's been this way for a while for track work) but I saw quite a few people waiting on the Dan Ryan side at Chicago and Grand for southbound trains that they obviously weren't going to catch. Granted these alerts are posted both online and by signage, but not everyone is going to be aware of these changes. (Tourist, etc) Where were CTA workers to tell them the trains were running on the northbound tracks?

  • In reply to scottknitter:

    Coming from an EMT...

    The radio system differs on all of these trains, The Red has it's own channel, the blue also has it's own channel, Green and Orange share their own, and Yellow, Brown, & Purple all share a channel. Each channel also has a different dispatcher or "dispatching team," sometimes in completely different rooms or even buildings than other channels.

    Then you have the customer service people (and rent-a-cop security guards), who mostly don't have radios (besides supervisors), so they rely on calling the Control Center or listening to the messages on the PA from the control center.

    So, while in the heat of the moment, the CTA dispatcher is trying to figure out if there are injuries, call police, call fire, call CTA supervisors and maintenance teams to the scene to get the train fixed, and they may have no alerted other radio dispatchers and customer service people of the situation.

    The CTA also has no fiber optics between the stations, trains and control center. For stations, they have a telephone line (DSL line) they can send messages over, but the technology is old and needs to be replaced. For trains, they can relay the message to the operator via radio, who can then rely the message to the customers.

    But, this breakdown in communication happens everyday. City organizations like CPD and CFD use two completely different radio systems, and are run by two different departments at OEMC on Madison. Fire is controlled by one dispatching floor and police is controlled by another floor. Even different police districts cannot communicate with each other via the radio, they must have the dispatcher "send a message" (a text message of sorts) to the other district's dispatcher.

    This whole incident shows the breakdown in communication from police, fire and CTA on that day. But, you have to realize that happens everyday, a good audio piece to listen to is that of the Chicago Police Squad Car Crash last October. You can really get an idea of the stress that the dispatcher is under, and how much radio traffic there is for just one incident.

    Part 1: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wNbLmWXnfcg
    Part 2: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bsZvsrjsHyo

  • In reply to scottknitter:

    in a related "story" what happened on friday night? trains especially north bound weren't running on the red.

  • In reply to cubs120:

    Person hit at 47th

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