Rapid Failures: Update on Train Arrival Signs

October 15, 2012 at 6:35 pm

This post is part of 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.

A few weeks ago I wrote about the displays at some CTA L stations that show riders the estimated arrival times for trains. I submitted a Freedom of Information Act request with the CTA to find out more about the cost of these signs. After waiting weeks (past the deadline extended by the CTA FOIA officer), I was told there was “no record responsive to your request.”

This morning I was waiting for a Brown line train at Belmont after taking the Red line from Wilson. I’m always at the front of the train, so I’m at the southern end of this particular platform, which is where I took the following photo:

Belmont Loop-bound Brown line train

Loop-bound Brown line platform. Credit: Shaun Jacobsen.

It might be hard to see from this photo, but if you’re trying to view those displays for information about the next train, you can barely see how long it is until the next Red line train to 95th/Dan Ryan, and you can’t see any other times. There is no screen behind this perspective. I walked around quite a bit at this angle, and you can’t see any of the information – and if you manage to find a way to see it, it has probably already changed to display the “Thank you for riding the CTA” message.

It’s safe to assume that there’s already too much “static” information displayed above – two signs show the destination “Loop” with the background color of the line. This could easily be incorporated into the displays:

Metro de Paris - Ligne 7 - Pont Neuf

Pont Neuf station on Paris Métro Line 7. Credit: Wikipedia.

This is a “next train” display on the Paris Métro. It is universal on almost every line (except 14, which has TV screens) and in every station. Line 7 is unique in that it has two southern termini: Ivry and Villejuif. Both destinations are displayed on this display, with lit triangles next to the arrival times. The lit triangle indicates the destination of the next train, whose time is indicated directly to the right. It’s simple, it’s easy-to-read, it’s the same at every single station on the network, and it displays everything you need to know with a lot less clutter than this:

Belmont Brown Line

Looking north on the Loop-bound side of the Belmont platform. Credit: Shaun Jacobsen.

Are that many signs necessary? I can see two signs in this photo that display static, unchanging information, yet no display of dynamic, useful information (it is there, it’s just obscured from view). This information isn’t necessary and the CTA isn’t obligated to provide it, but it should if it wants to please its riders.

I believe that in some cases perception is more important than reality when it comes to waiting. 10 minutes seems like a long time waiting for the next train to arrive, but the same 10 minutes probably feels shorter when you know how long you’re waiting. Perhaps this is just me or I’m a generally impatient person, but I feel better knowing how long I have to wait. This information is even more useful with apps on smartphones (which I have!), but not everyone has that luxury. This information would also be useful on each train. Imagine being on a northbound Red line train approaching Fullerton. A display – like on the new 5000-series rail cars – could inform riders of the wait time for a connecting Brown or Purple line train. If your stop would be Diversey on the Brown line, you might connect to the Brown line train if the wait time is 2 minutes or less. If its more than 5 minutes, you might decide to walk instead. It’s not a huge improvement, it’s definitely not a priority – but it is an enhancement of service.

I’m not suggesting that these displays are a priority, but if the CTA is going to install them at certain stations, they could at least make sure they’ll be useful where they’re installed.