Friday, October 08, 2010


What was that you said?

I’ve just had a trip to Washington, DC, for some meetings. I always like visiting DC, and get there at least once or twice a year. I don’t really consider it much in the way of travel, and I generally take Amtrak — not cheap, but no more expensive than flying, and much less hassle.

At the DC end, I also use the trains: the Metro system, their subway. It’s clean, it’s efficient, and it’s nice to use. It’s a bit more expensive than New York’s subway — New York still has a fixed fare, currently $2.25, to go anywhere in the system; DC uses a farecard system that charges your card based on how far you went, and during peak periods a trip downtown from the outskirts can cost $5 or more.

The train operators announce the stops as they go, making their announcements live each time, as the trains go back and forth. You might hear, for example, something like this:

Ness stah Huntuhn lass stahna yell-lie dorsopanna righ.

Elocutions such as that are intelligible only to locals (and I’m sort of a local, as a former resident, though I haven’t lived there for 22 years). Here’s the translation:

Next stop, Huntington, last stop on the Yellow Line. Doors opening on the right.

The thing is, the locals mostly don’t need the announcements, and the visitors have little hope of understanding them. And it’s not because the audio system is bad, but that when human operators have to repeat the same things over and over, they tend to get less than enthusiastic about enunciating it. Also, they may have accents that make it hard to understand them. And we won’t even mention how they tend to pronounce L’Enfant Plaza.

I’ve always wondered why they don’t get someone to record all the regular station announcements, and then just have them play at the appropriate times. The human operator can kick off the playback, or the system can even do that automatically, as happens in many other local transit systems. It seems that it would be clearer and easier for everyone, and would save the operators’ voices.

If the operators really wanted to talk to the passengers, they could certainly do, say, extemporaneous comedy in between the recorded announcements.

1 comment:

Call me Paul said...

I was in D.C. last week, and took the bus down 14th NW to the Mall. The stop announcements were recorded there.