I was ready to write a humor based article on how you can gauge the importance of a subway service announcement from how easy it is to understand it — the more important the announcement, the more likely that it will be garbled and impossible to understand. This is despite the fact that many service announcements are pre-recorded and have been for awhile.

The introduction of automated, pre-recorded service advisories, voiced by Bloomberg Radio personalities, in the new R142 trains that have been running on IRT lines since 2000 are certainly an improvement. But even in those trains, sudden changes in schedules require the interjection of live announcements, often susceptible to the same issues mentioned above that other cars and station PA systems face. Although most planned service changes are announced with signs posted in stations, trains are regularly delayed or diverted from their normal routes for a variety of reasons, and in these instances the only way for passengers to know what is happening is to listen to the announcements. To make things worse, some stations – a whopping 35% of them as recently as 2005 – still don’t have PA systems installed.

Since my office moved to Brooklyn recently, I have been taking the F train to the York Street station, which is the first station stop in Brooklyn. That’s an additional 8 or so stops from where my office was when it was in Midtown Manhattan.

On the way home recently, I was reading a book and comfortably sat. The train stopped at the Queensbridge Plaza. An announcer came on the communication system and told us that we would need to get off the train and wait for another train, as the train we were on would be going back to Manhattan.

Five minutes passed, and the train was still there. Another announcement came and said that there would be no Queens service from the station, and that we should take the train across the platform back to Manhattan, transfer to an R train, and then come back to Queens that way.

I joined everyone in unhappily going over to the other side of the platform, crossing an over bridge, where we got on the train and waited to go back to Manhattan. Five more minutes passed and I thought about just going outside and taking a taxi. It was Friday at 5:45 PM, and I needed to be home before seven due to the quickly approaching holy Sabbath, which precludes me from being on a train during it.

Suddenly, another barely understandable announcement made itself somewhat heard. The gist of the message was that they made a mistake, and that the train on the other side of the tracks would be going to Queens after all. The same train, that is, that was never sent back to Manhattan and where I had a perfectly good and comfortable seat.

There was a rush to get back to the other train — nearly everyone on the train went to the other train. On the ride back to Kew Gardens, there was an announcement made about there being “train traffic ahead of us” before every stop, making the train delay even further. How could there have been train traffic ahead of us when we were on one line and had not gone anywhere for about fifteen or so minutes? I finally got home about half an hour later than I should have been.

There are so many questions I have that will likely remain unanswered. Why did the announcers feel they had to send back the train? Why did they end service to Queens at the station only to reverse this decision five minutes later? Sometimes even a mumbled semi-coherent piece of information is better than no information at all.


  1. That’s definitely super-annoying, Gordon, but I suppose you should count yourself lucky in that at least you’re able to sort of hear the ragged station announcements.

    Janna has to deal with not being able to hear them every day, and she has to try to figure out what’s going on by watching what others around her do — sometimes she asks what’s going on, but most people don’t want to be bothered.

    Just yesterday she was on the PATH train and it stopped at 14th Street. Everyone was forced off the train. She didn’t understand why or what happened. Everyone just left the station and so did she. She got on an R train for Queens and, to this moment, still wonders why her PATH train was dead at 14.

    1. Wow. They should implement some sort of text based communication system for all kinds of unscheduled stops. I know that sometimes when the train is being held by the dispatcher they will show that on the screen that has the next station stop announcement.

  2. Yes, you’d think there would be a real time way to update those text messages, but there isn’t.

    The train conductor should be responsible. Let them walk into every car and make sure everyone understands. Then they should be available outside the train, too, to answer any lingering questions from the invisibly disabled.

  3. There sure does need to be a better way to communicate in those situations. What if something really bad was wrong? You’d have a bunch of people struggling to figure out what to do. I do think it is dangerous.

  4. Our new light rail system has audible and visual announcements, there are screens everywhere which is helpful. I do also get text messages when there are issues with the buses I take.

  5. I find it interesting that, amongst the mayhem of metropolitan mass transit, there exists an inherent semblance of order amongst its participants. Did you notice that, during your exodus onto the distant platform – while trying to reconnect to the progressing vehicle enroute to your destination, the participants exhibited a seemingly calm attack of the platform? It seems almost a migration of birds, as they progress into the corresponding lines that file onto the new train. The mayhem ensues as tired people search for seating assignments, and the lingering dallymen are left seatless.

    I have not had the pleasure of commuting in the NYC area, though I have visited the rail system on rare occasion. I am from Washington, DC. We have remarkably clean mass transit systems extending throughout the Greater Metropolitan Area. I notice the standing train only scenarios that transpire every day during rush hour, and the inundation of tourists during any rally or political event. We are well trained though. (Pun could be intended..) We are versed in the etiquette of personal space, and the locations of the nearest escalators and exits, even the crossing points where changing trains becomes a necessity. In our daily lives, transportation sequences become so ingrained in our persona that we act almost as a colorguard of individuals that cycle through the system in such an organized way, that the individual chaos that we each carry almost goes un-noticed.

    Just an observation, I find Rhythm in everything.

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