Metra aims to upgrade messaging on train arrivals and delays
Metra riders will receive more accurate and timely information about train arrivals and delays, officials said in approving a $26.7 million communications and GPS upgrade Wednesday.
Does that mean passengers will never again endure announcements like this one: "Attention, Metra passengers. An inbound train is ... hmhmchsmosooohmhm ... at your station."?
That depends, technicians said. The contract with Clever Devices Ltd. will provide a new GPS tracking and announcement system, but that doesn't include speakers.
Commuters will benefit, however, from updated technology that can capture real-time train movements and convey that through announcements, platform message boards and social media.
Older GPS units on trains are failing frequently. That means 20 percent to 30 percent of Metra trains' locations aren't being tracked, the staff said. The units "are at the end of their lives. We can't even get parts for them," service design manager Jeff Brantz said.
When GPS doesn't track trains, Metra communications workers can't provide updates and automated platform announcements aren't triggered.
The upgrade also will mean Metra can assess how well trains stay on schedule and can convey information about operational issues or alerts more efficiently.
Referencing the Chicago Transit Authority's Bus Tracker system, Director John Plante asked, "Will it rise to that level?"
"It's the same system," Brantz said.
Another feature is an automatic passenger counting system that uses cameras at train doors. As part of the contract with the New York-based company, Metra will test the counting program on 11 cars in the coming months.
If successful, the railroad board would have to decide whether to expand the initiative at an additional cost. The data could be a treasure trove regarding what trains are most crowded, at what stations and when.
As for passengers' ongoing concerns about inaudible announcements, one reason is that sound levels at platforms are often adjusted. Staff members sometimes turn down sound to avoid disturbing residents of nearby homes and then raise the volume so passengers can hear. But speakers are checked on a regular basis, officials said.