Rapid Failures: CTA ‘Next Train’ Displays

September 18, 2012 at 8:42 pm

This post will be the first in a multi-part series about the failures of rapid transit in America with a general focus on Chicago, as it is a city I know well and recently moved to full-time.

Next and 2nd trains display in Paris

Next/2nd Train information displayed in all Paris Métro stations.

One of the most useful services a transportation system can provide its riders is real-time information about the locations of buses/trains/trams/etc. This is a feature offered by several transportation agencies around the world, including the CTA in Chicago. However, the form in which that information is offered varies and is displayed and accessible in many different ways.

I will give the CTA credit for developing a system that allows its riders to obtain the information about the arrival times of its trains and buses across its network. What is a general failure is the way this information is accessed and presented. Currently, the CTA offers train and bus tracker information using a smartphone app or text message. You’re out of luck getting this information if you don’t have a smartphone, don’t want to pay for a text message if you don’t have a plan, or happen to be in an area with no service (like many cell phone users in subway stations) or inadequate service (as I often experience across the city with notoriously awful AT&T), or aren’t in one of the stations that present the information on a screen.

Which brings me to the presentation of this next train or bus information. The CTA has done an excellent job adding next bus information to many of its downtown bus shelters. The next bus information is displayed on a small screen facing the street, and can be read by a computerized voice upon pressing a button. This is great, especially for convincing people to take the bus if they’re unsure about when the next one will come.

Where the CTA falls very short is next train information in its rail stations. The photo above is from the Paris Métro Étoile station on Line 6. The next (1er) and 2nd (2e) trains are displayed in an easy-to-read fashion along with the current time. I found these displays to be consistently accurate when I lived in Paris and used the Métro multiple times daily. The 1st train time flashes “00” when the train was approaching. On automated line 14 and some RER lines there are TV screens displaying the next train times as well as systemwide travel information. The displays on lines 1-13 fall short in two respects I can imagine: They are unable to display customizable information such as train delays or system alerts (these alerts are sometimes displayed on screens at the entrances to the stations, but not on the platform where riders wait). They are also unable to easily adapt to changes in the destination of the train (though this is not generally an issue in Paris, unlike in Chicago where some trains don’t travel to their normal terminus at all times, such as the purple line express).

Chicago Next Train display

Next train display, Belmont station in Chicago.

I highlight Paris because it is a city I am familiar with, but you can find examples of these types of signs all over the world.

In the photo to the left is a display that sometimes displays the upcoming train arrival times for trains traveling in one direction. There is a similar screen at the main entrance to the station displaying train arrival times for trains traveling in both directions. Every time I board a train at Fullerton or Belmont I notice the same thing: The arrival times are briefly displayed while the same “Thank you for riding the CTA.” message is displayed much longer.

I cannot understand why the CTA feels the incessant need to thank me for riding it every chance it can. It is the only mass transit system of its scale in Chicago. They don’t need to thank me.

But I digress. I was curious, so while waiting on the next red line train I timed the cycle of the displays. Roughly 20 seconds is spent displaying a few rows of the next trains, 20 seconds on a second set of next train times, and then about 40 seconds on the static “Thank you” message.

There are a few things wrong with these signs. The second page of arrival times is irrelevant. Since there are at most 3 trains running on any one side of the platform, the display can easily show the next two trains that will be arriving for each line – three when the purple line isn’t running. The second round of train times is not useful to anyone waiting on the platform. Perhaps to people still in their apartments or on the bus, but not when on the platform waiting for a train. The other failure of the sign is its static “Thank you” message which provides nothing useful to riders. It could easily be a sticker on the bottom of the screen. The CTA also feels it is necessary to thank its riders for twice as long as it displays the train arrival times.

Train Tracker sign at CTA Morgan Station serving the Green and Pink Lines

Train Tracker sign at CTA Morgan Station serving the Green and Pink Lines (source: Steven Vance, Grid Chicago).

The lack of usefulness of these displays is not just limited to the Belmont and Fullerton stations; downtown stations and some others (such as Davis in Evanston) with full-color screens occasionally display train arrival times between advertisements and weather reports. Why isn’t this information displayed prominently on these displays or at least at the bottom or side of the other information displayed? As Steven Vance noted in one of my favorite blogs, Grid Chicago, newer displays at the Morgan station display the train arrival times “most of the time.” But the usefulness of those displays has yet to make it to other stations, and the CTA has yet to implement a standard, one-design format at all of its stations.

Finally, the CTA could go a step further in informing its customers by placing these displays outside the stations or at other useful locations. Walking down the street, it might be useful to see the next train arrivals on a display outside the station, especially when planning a route. Or think about a bus, say the #78 Montrose bus, which intersects the red line at Wilson, the brown line at Montrose, and the blue line at Mayfair. Today, the automated voice on the bus announces that a transfer is available when it announces the stop adjacent to these stations (“Transfer to blue line trains”). Imagine if the bus could also announce the upcoming arrival times for trains when announcing these stops. This isn’t a groundbreaking idea, it isn’t impossible to do, and it might be useful information as a rider. If you have 2 minutes until the next train, you might want to walk a little more quickly. If you have 7 minutes, you might have time to get a bagel beforehand. Perhaps a new traffic signal underneath the tracks could be implemented to make boarding an approaching train from a bus easier by coordinating its timing with real-time bus and train arrival times (At Montrose, for example, passengers getting off a westbound bus who would like to board a brown line train would have to cross the street to enter the station as there is no auxiliary exit).

There really is a lot you can do besides offer the bare minimum, which the CTA barely achieves. I can only hope that the CTA soon decides on a standard method of displaying this information, and that they do it in a way that is most useful to riders. This means displaying the information consistently and constantly, and not between advertisements or thank you messages. I can’t give the CTA much credit for being consistent, but CTA riders are probably used to incremental change – this is a good place to start.