diamond geezer

 Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Are there too many announcements at tube stations?

It helps to know where the next train is going, and when, but how much additional noise is there?

Answering that question is best done with concrete data, so I've been to my local station - Bow Road - to listen carefully to what the disembodied voices on the westbound platform have to say.

Normally I spend a few minutes here so only hear a random snapshot of the overall set of messages. But it turns out there's a definite underlying pattern to what's announced when, and I think I've worked out what's going on.

Firstly, service status. These are the messages that tell you where the severe delays are, what's suspended due to engineering works or whether there's a good service on all lines. At Bow Road this key information is delivered every five minutes. If you're on the platform at three minutes past the hour you'll hear it, then at eight minutes, then thirteen minutes - a total of twelve times every hour. This high frequency means a passenger is quite likely to hear the information while waiting on the platform, but might not, and almost certainly won't hear it twice.

Secondly, safety. These are the messages that urge you to behave appropriately as you move around the station. They vary according to who's decided to record precisely what, but on a particular day you'd expect to always hear the same one. The current message at Bow Road urges passengers to "prevent injuries" by taking "extra care", and "please use the handrail if you need to". It plays out at four minutes past the hour, then every ten minutes after that. You probably won't hear it on a single visit, but over the course of a commuting week you almost certainly will.

Thirdly, security. This is the dreaded See it Say It Sorted message, along with a reminder that CCTV is in operation and an exhortation not to leave belongings unattended. At Bow Road it plays out on the hour and every fifteen minutes after that. That's just four times an hour, which may be less often than you thought it was... at this station at least.

As far as I can tell Bow Road has just three different announcements at present, and a clockface system of delivery.

One announcement plays at times ending in 3 or 8, another at times ending in 4, and another at multiples of 15. That way they never overlap. It also means there are sometimes four minute gaps with no messages at all, and at other times three messages in three minutes. Whatever, I don't think you could describe this as unduly excessive.

One drawback with rigid clockface delivery is that messages sometimes play while a train is entering or leaving the station, so cannot be heard. During the period I was stood waiting only half of the messages were clearly audible, a quarter were partly obscured by noise and a quarter were pretty much drowned out in their entirety. The acoustics at Bow Road's below-ground platforms don't help, but those aren't great odds if staff want a key message to be heard and acted upon.

But are announcements at other stations similarly organised? To help find out I've been to three other stations and stood around on one platform listening for half an hour. Because these aren't my local stations I have no idea if these half hours were adequately representative. Also I visited on a day when it was raining and there were engineering works elsewhere, and this will have affected what I heard. So although what follows isn't necessarily what always happens, I can confirm that none of these stations exhibited the regular simplicity of Bow Road.

The platform at a busy Zone 1 station on the Circle line
Service status: approximately every 5 minutes
Safety: every 10 minutes
Security: only heard it once
Contactless: every 15 minutes
This was messier. The service status message was quieter than all the others, so more easily drowned out, and didn't play at precisely rigid five minute intervals. It also said there was a good service on all lines (which wasn't what other stations had been saying about the same situation). The safety message played every ten minutes, exactly as at Bow Road (except here the content was escalator-focused). The See It Say It Sorted message only cropped up once in half an hour (which was odd at a station that's far more of a security risk than Bow Road). And here there was an extra message every fifteen minutes about the joys of contactless payment, which I didn't hear anywhere else.

The platform at a busy Zone 1 station on the Northern line
Service status: highly irregular, including a 20 minute gap
Safety: approximately every 5 minutes
Security: nil
Wet weather: 12 plays in 30 minutes
This was messier still. If you'd been waiting to hear which lines were disrupted you might have been waiting 20 minutes or you might have been waiting five (I wondered whether this information would normally play at regular intervals but the "train now approaching" message took precedence). The message about taking care and holding the handrail was played roughly every five minutes, which is twice as often as at the previous two stations and verging on the nannying. The See It Say It Sorted message never cropped up at all, which some of you might be pleased to hear, but why is there no consistency here?

The platform announcements at this station were also the only ones to mention the wet weather outside, and boy did they go on about it. The wet weather message was played an astonishing 12 times in 30 minutes, often only one minute after it was last broadcast. There was also one spell where it wasn't played for seven minutes and another where it wasn't played for six, which might give you some idea how relentless the intervening periods were. What's more, the actual announcement was "Information for passengers entering <name of station>. Owing to adverse weather conditions you are advised to take extra care whilst walking through the station as all surfaces may be slippery. Thank you." Those of us standing on the platforms had already entered the station so did not need to hear this message, or else it should have been phrased differently, and basically if you want evidence that there are far too many stupid unnecessary announcements on the tube, here it is.

The platform at a DLR station in zone 2
Service status: approximately every 11 minutes
Security message 1: approximately every 11 minutes
Security message 2: approximately every 11 minutes
Wet weather: approximately every 11 minutes
Please look up: approximately every 11 minutes
Finally, the DLR does things very differently. Every service on the DLR runs at least every ten minutes, which means nobody should ever be standing on a platform longer than that. I wonder if this is the rationale behind playing all these announcements roughly every eleven minutes, so that nobody can ever hear them twice? Also there were two different security messages - one See It Say It Sorted and the other CCTV/belongings-related. Also there were no messages here about holding the handrail or service status on other lines, which there were everywhere else, but there was a message about the #LookUp campaign instead.

Most intriguingly, all the announcements at this particular DLR station were clumped. There were none whatsoever for seven minutes, near enough, then a bunch of five messages played out over the course of the next four. You might wait around and hear no messages at all, or you might only be on the platform briefly and hear several.

Which means, in conclusion, I have no conclusion. For every station like Bow Road that organises announcements rigidly there's another that does it completely differently. Certain stations or station groupings appear to have the autonomy to do things the way they want to, or to choose content to better match their local circumstances. In some cases announcements are measured and carefully spaced, but in others it seems they play almost on a whim and can indeed be annoying. Whoever launched that volley of wet weather messages on the Northern line, for example, needs audible restraint. And you might never spot the difference unless you hang around and listen.

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