Next stop: Better light-rail station descriptions

[By Amy B Wang | The Republic | | Tue Aug 20, 2013]

Next stop: Better light-rail station descriptions

What’s in a name?

If it’s a Valley light-rail station, not too much.

Montebello and 19th Avenue.

Indian School and Central.

McClintock and Apache.

Along the light rail’s 20-mile route, a monotone female voice announces each of the system’s 28 station names and little else.

Sure, the announcements get the job done, said Edward Jensen, secretary of the Downtown Voices Coalition and a vocal advocate for Phoenix public transportation. But there’s no sense of place, no conjuring of neighborhood identity, he said.

Jensen is proposing that the light rail’s onboard announcements include nearby points of interest to tie each station more closely with the Valley’s landmarks. And officials with Valley Metro, the light-rail system’s operator, said they’re considering it.

Jensen’s proposal renews a conversation that has been ongoing since light rail’s inception. Some in Phoenix have always lamented the ho-hum, geographically based names of the Valley’s light-rail stations and wanted them changed to reflect nearby landmarks.

According to its website, the Arizona Rail Passenger Association put out a similar list of suggested station name changes in 2010, but it’s unclear if the group is still active. Calls to the number listed for the group were not returned.

In recent e-mail exchanges with Valley Metro officials, Jensen said he was not proposing drastic name changes, which would require a lengthy approval process, but to at least have landmarks included in the onboard announcements.

“I’m more just thinking, let’s keep the station names as they are,” he said. “We’ve all seemed to learn them OK. But let’s add in the announcements: ‘This is a big thing that’s near.’ ”

He pointed out that in Washington, D.C., passengers hear that they are arriving at the “Smithsonian” Metro station, not at “12th Street and Independence Avenue SW.”

By contrast, the only points of interest included in Phoenix-area light-rail announcements are Sky Harbor International Airport, Gateway Community College and Arizona State University Tempe.

“I don’t know how many times over the past (four years) where visitors and even locals have said, ‘I’m wanting to go to here. Where do I go?’ ” Jensen said.

Light-rail trains used to include interesting landmarks in the train’s announcements, Valley Metro spokeswoman Hillary Foose said.

“Before we opened, we programmed the train to have a whole series of announcements, including greater points of interests,” she said.

The train used to announce when it was approaching a station. And when it was arriving at a station.

And some of the buildings, museums or parks around that station.

It also asked passengers not to put feet on the seats, reminded them that smoking was prohibited, told them which doors to use and cautioned them about staying safe on the trains.

It was a lot.

“What we heard pretty quickly following our opening about the announcements was there was just too many,” Foose said. “There were not enough moments of just quiet time for them to just enjoy the trip or reading or whatever. Hearing that feedback, we really scaled back on the number of announcements.”

Valley Metro officials have not ruled out the idea of reprogramming the mention of landmarks in onboard announcements, she said. They’re simply trying to find “the right balance” between announcements that serve both the local, daily light-rail commuter and the out-of-town visitor new to Phoenix.

“There is a definite interest,” Foose said. “I just want to be mindful that we don’t get back to where were when we first opened when we didn’t have a moment of silence.”

Valley Metro’s vehicle-maintenance operations team is also training to use the “complex” system used for reprogramming announcements, a task that used to be outsourced, Foose said.

Meanwhile, there are some light-rail operators who have taken it upon themselves to announce interesting Phoenix landmarks over a separate PA system.

“We do have a couple who really give it the extra mile,” Foose said. “Some operators do love their jobs, and if you ask them, they will point out the points of interest. They act like little tour guides … but we want to make it automated so we don’t have to rely on the driver.”

Jensen, who is making his appeal to Valley Metro independent of any group, said he rides light rail every day but felt compelled to push for announcement changes after riding a Phoenix bus recently. At every bus stop, the announcements included lists of numerous nearby attractions.

“The bus system calls out, highlights basic attractions more often than I think they should,” Jensen said. “So, it’s really just achieving some sort of parity between bus and light rail, as it should have been.”

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