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The other day I was interested to see a story on the BBC site which was not only odd but was actually about the tube. The gist is that some drivers are being asked to announce quotations from great philosphers and scientists while doing service updates.

The inspiration behind this idea comes from an artist called Jeremy Deller. According to the beeb Jeremy was frustrated by the announcements in the stations and on trains and wanted to change things. Initially he suggested having a day with no announcements whatsoever but that was refused. So he asked if drivers could provide a philosophical statement instead in an attempt to provoke thought amongst the passengers.

I’m dubious about this idea. I get where he’s coming from, I really do. The faceless Voice of Authority booming out advice and instructions is one which is often either ignored or resented by regular travellers. There is a distance created between the people who ride on the trains and the people who operate the system. Instead of being other people we somehow become representative of those mythical faceless entities who order people around for no good reason. And at times the aging equipment isn’t much use in passing information on as messages are rendered too garbled or quiet to be heard. The solution is to tweak our usually very basic systems to make things louder – sadly, often resulting in announcements made at an excessive volume. Announcements are an area where it’s very difficult to get things right for the majority of people.

There are a lot of announcements going on in stations and trains. But before you complain about them, try to put yourself in the shoes of the people who need them. Try navigating the tube system with your eyes shut. You’ll soon come to appreciate the warnings to Mind the Gap or the advice about disruptions to the service is pretty vital to your safety and the likelihood of you getting to where you want to go. Quite some time ago LUL published an in-house report on how people with various levels of ability felt their needs were catered for. The thing that struck me was the blind customer who pointed out how much mental energy he has to expend if announcements are not made. Instead of sitting talking to his friend or daydreaming he has to be constantly alert and count stations as the train passes through. Announcements can make a marked difference to the quality of a person’s journey. And not just disabled people – I’m notorious for being completely unable to navigate any line other than my own (which is easy cos I just follow the green lights πŸ™‚ ). The announcements on the train are vital in helping me get to where I’m going.

On the other hand, I do have my doubts about many of them. The automated apologies found on some train stock is something which infuriates me. If I come up against something which is disrupting the journey then I’ll pick up the handset and speak to people. It isn’t too difficult to explain what is going, apologise and pass on information so that people can work around problems. Automating that seems incredibly rude. Are LUL really saying that our service is so bad that we automate our excuses?

I also have my doubts about making philosophical announcements over the public address. LUL refused to have a day of silence and this was presumably because of the impact this could have on safety and comfort for the passengers. But I’d say that by allowing philosophy to intrude they’ve missed a major point about how passengers attend to information. If a PA is made then the first time a person might attend to it and make note of the information if it is relevant to them. Thereafter they will most likely tune it out. But if they hear a real voice saying something different then they will tune back in to see if it’s relevant to them. So what happens if the only thing that real voice is saying is that on the Circle line what goes around comes around? Well aside from possibly annoying people who have been stuck in a tunnel for ten minutes I’d say it diminishes the impact that a real voice can have. It’s going to end up with real voices being tuned out as much as automated ones. And that’s not good.

I mentioned earlier that I don’t have a problem making an announcement about disruption. There’s actually a rule now that drivers are required to make an announcement within thirty seconds if they stop between stations. The announcement doesn’t have to say anything much as it’s just there for reassurance but it has to be made. I don’t mind doing them but I rarely do. Why? Because no matter how bad things are, I very rarely allow my train to stop. I’ve always had this way of working. I figure it’s better for a passenger to look up and see we are still moving even if it’s really slowly. Movement means we are getting somewhere. If we are getting somewhere then it’s less frustrating than rattling along and then stopping for several minutes. So when the service slows down I take to trundling. It takes exactly the same amount of time to get from A to B but hopefully people are less frustrated and are thinking about the fact that the train is moving rather than stopped.

So when do I make announcements? I reserve that for when it’s actually important or helpful to the customers. If there’s an automated voice doing it then I won’t bother. So I’ll let the Digital Voice Assitant do the ‘Mind the doors’ announcement as there’s little merit in me doing it instead. But if I lose my ‘doors closed’ light while in the tunnels you can bet I’ll be straight on the PA telling people to mind the doors and stop leaning on them. That’s a safety issue and that’s when I want people to be listening rather than tuning me out. (As an aside, it also drives me nuts when I am on someone else’s train and I hear ‘mind the doors’ and then the doors don’t close for five minutes. If announcements are made there should be a point to them!). I also want people listening when I am told to divert my train and I know that some of my passengers should be on the through train behind me. So that’s another time when I’ll give information – when people would miss their train without it. Otherwise, I’m keeping real voice announcements to an absolute minimum. If I’m speaking, it’s important. So listen. πŸ™‚

Quoting Gandhi? I think I’ll be passively resisting that one.