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There is no excuse for TTC's subpar PA system


March 17, 2008

When even a short delay gums up subway service at the height of rush hour, the fast-growing crowds at Yonge and Bloor can quickly get a bit scary. One night last week, waves of passengers flooded the Yonge line’s northbound platform, making their way down to the Bloor-Danforth line, oblivious to the fact those trains weren’t running.

Of course, once they saw the sea of people on the Bloor platform below, with no room to spare, it was clear something was wrong. Within a minute or so, commuters ended up stuck on the stairs and the (immobilized) escalator, unable to press ahead or to retreat as emptying Yonge line trains disgorged more people behind them.

The usual faint announcement was coming across the TTC’s tinny, useless speakers, but I was standing directly under one and couldn’t make it out. This was partly due to the TTC-licensed busker behind me, who continued to strum his loudly amplified acoustic guitar, despite the increasingly exasperated commuters swirling around him.

Most infuriating, however, were those flashy TV screens all along the northbound platform. Instead of telling us - with flashing red lights or something - what the problem was, these screens were displaying the face of a missing woman, and advising TTC riders to take off their knapsacks on crowded trains.

Alarms about the lack of TTC information were raised by a small group of downtown anti-advertising activists more than three years ago when the televisions were installed by a local startup company called OneStop. The idea was that the firm would operate them and give the TTC a slice of the ad revenue. Part of the pitch from the company and the transit agency was that the screens would provide riders with valuable information. That clearly is not happening. What TTC information does appear is conveyed in unreadable, slowly scrolling text.

The TTC and OneStop essentially point fingers at each other when queried about the system’s shortcomings.

The company is after a new seven-year contract extension, promising more screens, including ad-free ones that will give passengers real-time information about bus delays, and even more ad revenue for the TTC. But at their last meeting, TTC commissioners told chief general manager Gary Webster to press the company on a variety of issues about how the signs work before signing a deal.

Still, the TTC cannot really blame this TV-screen deal for its communication problems. Why is it so hard for the TTC to invest in a basic public-address system that works? And never mind that the source of my delay last week was a small fire at Sherbourne station, caused when a newspaper landed on the electrified third rail. What if there were a bomb threat? Or an actual bomb? We can’t just have Charlie Brown’s teacher mumbling something through a transistor radio, can we?

TTC chairman Adam Giambrone said the new TV screens have not lived up to their potential: “I think there’s been some disappointment to the actual performance of the screens as an information tool.”

He acknowledges that the TTC needs to better co-ordinate its communications. Everything to do with how the TTC talks to its passengers is getting an overhaul, Mr. Giambrone said, including new staff and protocols to keep riders informed. New and improved TV screens will show riders when the next subway train is coming. An e-mail system to warn passengers about delays is being developed. So is Wi-Fi and cellphone service in the subway, so you might actually get those e-mails.

“I am going to deal with this comprehensively over the next five to six months,” Mr. Giambrone said in an interview. “This is coming.”

For a start, how about just turning up the loudspeakers at Yonge and Bloor?