Walsh's Wonderings — Notes from train station

Robert F. Walsh
Robert F. Walsh

Train stations have never been the most inviting of places. Early morning commuters drape themselves over railings like wet rags, bleary-eyed and in need of caffeine. We spring to life with the arrival of each train, jostling for position in front of the doors like polite linebackers. That is, if we’re not making a mad dash up and down stairs because we just found out our train is arriving on a different track.

All of us dread that telltale beep from the speakers that precedes an announcement. Nothing good ever follows. (“BEEP: Free muffins on the last two cars today!”) Instead, we feel the Pavlovian pull of despair as we wait for the bad news and pray it isn’t our train that’s delayed.  

Track repairs led to a five-year high in delayed arrivals over the summer, where 15% of New Haven Line trains made it to their station six minutes or more late. All of us would rather have safe trains than another derailment, like the one in Bridgeport in 2013, but the track changes that result from this work often create problems.

For the seasoned commuter, these last-minute changes are nuisances. For the infrequent traveler, they’re a nightmare. The speaker systems on train platforms often intersperse English words with what I’m convinced is a mixture of Klingon and elephant noises. We can tell that somewhere underneath all that cackling static there’s a calm voice explaining something we need to know, we just can’t figure out what that is.

We watch uncomfortably as groups of people peel off from the crowd and make their way to the stairs. Each desperate glance at the “helpful” LED display confirms we are on the right track, so why are these people suddenly leaving? If we can put people on the moon, surely the MTA would have updated the display in the event of a track switch, right? By the time we realize our mistake, it’s often too late. I’ve pulled hamstrings running up and down stairs trying to catch a train that was arriving on another track, only to have the doors slam shut as it pulled away. I’m sure the conductors have a YouTube video somewhere of screaming commuters pleading for the train to stop.

It’s even worse at the bigger stations. The people manning Stamford’s Amtrak ticket booths explain they often can’t identify track switches until the trains are just outside the station, making last-minute panic more of a promise than a threat. Folks with hearing problems can either grab a bus schedule or take a seat right next to the ticketing booth if they want to be sure about the time and track on which their train will arrive.

Not that waiting inside one of the station hubs is any treat. Here, they often replace the horrible speakers that are otherwise thinly spaced throughout the platform with one large one that still sounds as if it’s coming from your old AM radio. Those waiting outside those ticket booths see humanity at its worst; there’s no mystery as to why it appears ticket agents are hiding inside bulletproof tombs. Between all the yelling and tantrums they endure from angry travelers, I can only hope they’re getting hazard pay.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m a big believer in mass transit. When poor communication leads to mass hysteria, however, I’d hope we can do better.

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