Metro-North communication efforts picking up speed
Published 5:17 pm, Wednesday, April 4, 2012
Among the jobs of Metro-North Railroad's new customer communications hub in North White Plains , N.Y., is to monitor progress of the New Haven Line and other east-of-Hudson lines.
If necessary, a staff member will manually update Train Time, the railroad's mobile website that shows riders the service statuses of the next 12 trains according to the railroad's main operations control center in Grand Central Terminal.
Next door, customer information staff field phone calls about current train service, customer complaints, and fares and schedules.
Susan Doering, Metro-North's senior director of service and stations, said putting the new customer communications and information centers next to each other in October has helped improve the flow of up-to-date information to riders while reducing costs.
"Moving the centers to one location allows us to better and more economically provide accurate, timely and consistent information to our customers, whether it is by station signs, public address announcements or other sources," Doering said.
To coincide with introduction of the new schedule March 25, the railroad is also putting quick response scanner links on schedule posters in station vestibules on the New Haven, Harlem and Hudson lines.
An iPhone, Blackberry or Google Android phone outfitted with a QR scanner can be used to scan the codes, taking the user to the Train Time application or the MTA's main schedule page, according to Phil Diaz, assistant deputy director of communications technology for the railroad.
The railroad is also designing another QR barcode for its MNR Getaways page, which highlights upcoming events in the railroad's service area.
"We're going to be looking for lots of different uses for them," Marjorie Anders, a Metro-North spokeswoman, said.
The White Plains operation and the new QR codes are two steps the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has made to improve real-time customer communication while it continues to plan broader upgrades to its network to make speedier connections with riders through in-station display boards, on the Internet or through phone applications, Metro-North President Howard Permut said.
"There are many things that make up running a good service, from running the trains on time, to running the right trains, having cleanliness, and customer service," Permut said. "A critical piece of that that has grown in importance over time is providing real-time information to our customers, and, as our society changes and people have more handheld phones and other technology, it will continue to grow."
Before the summer is over, Metro-North will have replaced its analog public address system with a $2 million digital one that will enable more announcements without glitches, Permut said.
The existing system is often disparaged by riders because of frequent failures, particularly during service disruptions, when more announcements are needed, officials said.
"It will immediately improve the quality and reliability of announcements at all the stations," Diaz said.
The railroad is also planning to award a contract for a study of its communications infrastructure and possible upgrades to modernize it and establish standards for sharing real-time information.
Thomas Mitchell, Metro-North's director of customer communications and technology, said the study will also determine the feasibility of using cellular phone signals to operate on-platform electric signs and large-screen monitors at railway stations, which would show the expected arrival time and tracks for upcoming trains.
The technology is now installed at five of the railway's 121 stations, including White Plains and 125th St., Mitchell said.
"We want to know if we can provide the same level of reliability and information at a lower cost," Mitchell said. "If we did that when there was a problem, we would not be working all alone to fix it, but with Verizon."
Jim Cameron, chairman of the state-appointed Connecticut Rail Commuter Council, which represents commuters' interests, said it was encouraging the railroad is trying to meet customer demand for better on-board and in-station information about service.
In a survey released in October, 71 percent of riders on the east-of-Hudson lines were satisfied with customer communication efforts during unplanned service breakdowns, versus 84 percent who were content with communications about planned disruptions.
"I think all of these are excellent initiatives to solve a problem that goes back over a decade," Cameron said. "Over the years, communication has been the single biggest issue we get complaints about."
On Thursday morning, Bill Andover, a commuter from the Stamford station, said he would welcome on-platform electronic signs that share schedule information about incoming trains.
"If they could do that, it would give you more information once you were in the station," Andover said.
Cameron said while some of the initiatives have been under way for several years, concerns raised last year after the breakdown of a train carrying 200 passengers on July 22 have probably also spurred a more customer-orientated approach.
During the July episode, which occurred after a wire outage stopped a train between Westport and Southport, passengers became alarmed when they were stuck on the train in 100 degree temperatures for more than 50 minutes with no power or air conditioning.
Revamped training for conductors on sharing information about delays with on-board passengers will avert a similar uproar among riders if similar breakdowns occur in extreme weather, Cameron said.
"The initiatives they're undertaking will help passengers who are on the platforms themselves, and they already do a good job for people at the home and office," he said. "The third part is how they handle people already on the trains."
Mitchell and Doering said the Train Time application and the third-party text-based service CooCoo have been growing in popularity.
CooCoo, a partnership with a Long Island-based company, sends the next five departures to riders who text CooCoo a departure and destination station.
Train Time has about 100,000 users a month, while CooCoo has about 300,000, according to railroad statistics.
"We are very excited about each of the improvements that we have already made and are looking forward to continuing these improvements for the long-term as part of our efforts to provide the best possible customer experience at MNR," Doering said.