Behind the Voices: Transit announcements

By · Published in 2010

As new rolling stock replaces the old cars, the era of the conductor in the subway system is coming to an end. Automated pre-recorded announcements that are easier to hear are replacing individual conductors’ efforts at announcing the next stops. Some people bemoan the loss of individuality underground while others prefer the crisper and over-enunciated sounds of the new announcements. Either way, those disembodied voices have become ubiquitous underground, and earlier this week, the voice recognition blogged Whose Voice is That? explored the personalities behind the voices. Did you know that the female voices usually provide information while the male voice provides instructions and commands? Since 2000 Charlie Pellett, Jessica Ettinger Gottesman, Dianne Thompson and Catherine Cowdery have been ordering us around underground, and WViT has the goods on them.

17 Responses to “Behind the Voices: Transit announcements”

  1. Scott E says:

    Not the newest news — as WViT notes, some of these names (on the IRT) emerged in a 2006 amNewYork article. It’s interesting though that the first quote they used: “This is a Manhattan-Bound Two Express Train. The Next Stop is Times Square” is never used. When naming a destination (“____-bound”), they never name the current borough. In this example, it should be “Brooklyn-bound” or “Bronx-bound”; or in the case of this weekend’s service change, “South Ferry-bound”.

    • SEAN says:

      The reason for that is simply redundoncy. If you are in Manhattan, there is no reason to anounce “this is a Manhattan bound train.”

      Does anybody know when the entire subway fleet will be updated with cars that have these AV systems?

      As of now the 1, 3, 7, A, B, C, D, G, R & Times Square shuttle don’t have the newer cars regularly or not at all.

      • Kid Twist says:

        Some of the cars without automated announcements were purchased as recently as the late 1980s. Cars seem to stay in service about 35-40 years, so it could be 2020-something before the entire fleet has recordings.

        • Andrew says:

          The nominal lifespan is 40 years, I think. Some cars last longer – the R32’s are over 45 years old and they’re still going strong, although they’re probably going to be retired any day now. It’s rare for anything to be retired before 40 years. Unless the R68 fleet suffers a major failure requiring an early retirement, old-fashioned announcements will still be around until the late 20’s.

    • Kai B says:

      Unless something went wrong with the computer. Just this night I heard “This is a Manhattan-bound L Train – The next stop is 3rd Avenue” at 1st Avenue. But yes, overall that article was poorly researched.

  2. Christopher says:

    SF uses gender to denote whether the next train is going downtown versus uptown. Now that I’m deaf none of this matters much to me. But I wish all trains had better on board display messaging and in fact, I’d suggest that’s an ADA compliance issue. And since as deaf and hard of hearing are the largest growth segment of disabled, it’s also good customer service to provide as much written information as possible.

    • Scott E says:

      This is another reason for the automated announcements. Along with the recorded speech, a text transcription appears on the LED signs near the ceiling close to the ends of the cars. With live conductors, this can’t be done unless the conductor types everything he says. (Similarly, the automated voices on the Canarsie line frequently (almost too often for some) read the train-arrival boards for the benefit of the sight-impaired)

      Unfortunately, the displays are about 1/4 of the way in to each end of the car (where the ceiling height changes), so if you’re at the end of a car or are too short to see over the other people’s heads, you’re out of luck.

  3. SEAN says:

    I just remembered , ADA regulations require the MTA to purchase cars with wheelchair spaces & Av systems. Cars prior to the R142 don’t meet that provision. I believe they have until February 2020 to have the entire fleet equipt & until February2030 to have all planned & renovated stations to be compliant.

  4. E. Aron says:

    I miss the voices of 2 of the conductors on the F train. One would point out nearby attractions in Queens, the other sounded just like the great Bob Sheppard (or at least I thought he did). I will not, however, miss one of the guys who would repeatedly scream “THIS IS THE F. THE F EXPRESS. THE F. THE F TRAIN TO MANHATTAN.” Automated voices are a good.

  5. John says:

    Also keep in mind you’re not getting rid of conductor announcements altogether. Even if most of the announcements are automated, they can still come on to announce service changes or other announcements. Personally I don’t really care who says the routine “next stop is ___” stuff. All I care is that I can hear it, and the automated announcements should be better for that.

    • Scott E says:

      This is true, though I sometimes wish sometimes the conductors on those trains WOULD speak rather than hide behind the canned announcements.

      Particularly, I found the #3 conductor who literally yelled at passengers (“Stop being inconsiderate and step inside of the train! People need to get to where they’re going! If you can’t fit on this train, take the next one!”) much more effective than the #2 conductor who just keeps pressing the “Ladies and gentlemen, for your safety please do not block the doors…” button.

      • Rhywun says:

        I *hate* when they do that. Yelling at your customers is rude and counterproductive. I feel embarrassed when they lose their temper like that.

        • Andrew says:

          They’re not losing their temper – they’re just trying to keep the train moving. Holding the doors on a crowded rush hour train is rude and counterproductive to thousands of people – not just the people on the train you’re trying to catch, but also to everybody waiting for that train down the line, and most likely to everybody on the train directly behind it waiting to get into the station, and possibly to everybody on the next train or two behind that one.

          Once a train is delayed, any further delay only exacerbates the situation – as the delay grows, the platforms further down the line get more and more crowded, with more and more impatient people trying to cram onto the train they waited so long for.

      • Andrew says:

        I agree. On trains with automated announcements, I’ve found that conductors often don’t bother to announce basic service changes or give proper information about delays.

        I also find that the routine announcements are a bit long-winded. At tourist-heavy stations where dwell times are going to be long anyway, they’re fine. But who needs to hear the full shpiel at each and every stop along the Culver line in the middle of the night? Everybody knows where the train is going; it was better the old way, with a brief announcement (“Bay Parkway next, stand clear”) that doesn’t wake up the neighborhood and allows for a short dwell. And it’s even worse when there’s a service change and the computer shouts out the wrong information at each stop.

        Those “Ladies and gentlemen” messages are completely gratuitous. I wish they were all removed. Most of the time they’re used, the conductor should be making a personal announcement. And then there are the conductors who kill time by playing 12 of them between express stops (or, worse yet, during a delay, when everybody on the train is already antsy) – they serve no purpose whatsoever except to irritate the passengers.

  6. rhywun says:

    Some of the weird speech patterns I hear make me smile (the mumblers, the shouters, the guy who drops every other word)… but overall I prefer the recordings, especially on an unfamiliar route.

  7. pete says:

    I wish the announcements were turned off. Its painful to hear the same crisp clear robot every ****ing day. With conductors, you could drown it out. With the robot voices you can’t escape it. For disabled folks the MTA can use bluetooth or an small short range FM radio transmitter for announcements. The rest of us can just read the electronic sign.


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