Nine minutes and 24 seconds of audio in the DSTT. Dark shaded areas indicate times when announcements were playing

For several months, the elevator at the east end of the pedestrian overpass at SeaTac/Airport station was out of service. Riders requiring the elevator needed to ride Link to Tukwila International Boulevard station and then ride Metro’s RapidRide A Line bus service to South 176th Street. If you were unaware of this, take pride that you didn’t have to listen to the frequent audible reminders played every few minutes throughout Link’s alignment.

That elevator has since been repaired, but right on cue another nonredundant elevator has failed. Not to worry, Sound Transit has you covered with another announcement:

The Tukwila International Boulevard Station ground level elevator is out of service. Southbound Link passengers requiring elevator service, ride Link to SeaTac/Airport station, and from International Boulevard and South 176<supth Street, transfer to northbound RapidRide A Line to Tukwila

If you missed part of that 19 second monologue, never fear, because 22 seconds after it finished it will be replayed in its entirety. And if you missed it the second time around, you needn’t wait even four minutes to hear it twice more.

This message, much like the previous elevator messages, are far too long and play far too often. I had to re-listen to the clip multiple times in order to type an accurate transcript (albeit from a low quality cell phone recording). The fact that the DSTT stations are cavernous echo chambers certainly doesn’t help their intelligibility, but if the announcements are so difficult to understand the answer should be improving their understandability and not increasing their frequency. Further, since the announcement only applies to southbound Link riders, the announcement need not play more than the headways of southbound trains. And much like the train warning announcements, they need only play on the southbound side of the station.

These announcements are in addition to the usual barrage of noise pollution alerting riders to policies that are clearly spelled out with signage and pavement markings throughout the tunnel. Yesterday I recorded the audio during my wait on the platform. For this sample, the total duration of audio announcements is 113.2 seconds which equates to a solid 20% of the time. It would have been slightly longer if one of the quot;train now arriving" message hadn’t preempted one of the security announcements.

With so many announcements playing so frequently they become noise both figuratively and literally. And since the routine announcements sound exactly the same as the urgent announcements, they may have just done the opposite of their intent and trained regular riders to completely ignore them.

A full visual transcript of the announcements:

47 Replies to “Visualizing DSTT Audible Announcements”

  1. Aside from the annoying repetitions of announcements, what about this elevator thing which goes on for literally months? Does it really take four months to repair an elevator? Do they get the parts from somewhere in central Asia?

    1. Yes, it literally took 3 (not 4) months to get a replacement for the failed part at Seatac/airport station.

      Sound Transit subcontracts elevator & escalator maintenance to King County, who in turn subcontracts it to a private company. That private company keeps commonly needed parts in stock, however, many recent outages have involved failures of parts that simply are generally expected to last the life of the device and not need replacement, requiring new parts to be ordered from the manufacturer (who may in turn also not have any in stock, leading to more delays while replacements are manufactured).

      There’s a lot of speculation that these elevators/escalators were originally built with substandard or even counterfeit components. Sound Transit has not made any official statements to that effect, but reading between the lines of board meeting transcripts indicates that it is likely. Images released of the failed UW station escalator components make it appear that soft metals were substituted for more durable alloys by a supplier, possibly without the installer’s knowledge.

      Complicating matters is that the contracts for these escalator/elevator installations specified only a 1 year warranty, and a good portion of that 1 year timeframe is up before the stations even open to the public.

      In the short term, Sound Transit is investigating what recourse, if any, they have against the installers/manufacturers. In the long term, new installation bids will no longer be for design/build contracts (leaving long-term maintenance up to ST and their contractors), but instead will be for design/build/maintain contracts on a multi-decade timeframe.

      1. They’d better include performance standards (e.g. up time) and incentivize good performance and/or punish ($) poor performance as part of these contracts.

  2. It is important to get these messages out to unfamiliar local riders or to tourists. I can’t believe this post made it on STB, this is essentially a guest rant. Like at the very least someone should have asked ST what rules, regulations and constraints require them to use this approach. Tim Bond isn’t a new pen name for Cliff Mass….

    1. Would you be willing to address the post’s actual argument, instead of a strawman of the argument? Here’re two quotes which, IMO, point toward the two prongs of the argument:

      * “Further, since the announcement only applies to southbound Link riders, the announcement need not play more than the headways of southbound trains…”

      * “Since the routine announcements sound exactly the same as the urgent announcements, they may have just done the opposite of their intent and trained regular riders to completely ignore them.”

      1. I guess what I am saying is that this post lacks even the most basic of courtesy to the readers by not asking ST anything about the issue or trying to understand the impetus for the current audible messages. How hard is it to reach out to ST and ask about the audible messaging system? How hard is it to, in the same ilk as the rest of the article, make an informed guess about why the current format exists. This whole post relies on the premise that the messages are annoying, too repetitve and people don’t discern them from background chatter. What I don’t like is that if the writer just asked ST and they said “we have tried multiple formats for audible messages and the current format has resulted in the most positive results when looking at x, y and z.” their wouldn’t be a post since in 20 words the original premise would have been debunked. To respond specifically to your two bullets, I believe Zach has previously mentioned that the audible system is not tied to the train arrivals and while that would be nice ST has said it is cost prohibitive or something. As for using a differentiated tone/voice for these messages I think that would be more so annoying. The current system if you listen (like a tourist would do) gives the needed information and lets those who are familiar (like commuters) with the system ignore the message. That seems to be a reasonable middle ground to me.

      2. I think you alluded to one answer with another. Technical limitations prevent “multiple formats for audible messages.” and/or “it is cost prohibitive or something”. You can hear all of Link’s messages here. Note there are announcements mixed in for other systems in there, since the same system powers multiple light rail systems.

        I never suggested changing the tone of some messages. Rather, I would like to see many of them eliminated. Most of the messages are trivial, so anyone that spends a decent amount of time in the station will automatically tune out “the robot lady” whenever she starts talking. This is not good when she starts talking about a bomb threat at the station and gives evacuation instructions.

    2. I’ve been a STB reader for ~8 years. You can click my name in the post and see my guest posts going back to 2014. I’ve also written some others, but they are attributed to Guest Author before the inception of Page Two.
      For me, weather is an interest, not a profession.

    3. Well technically it’s a guest rant with data too. So I guess it’s better than just a regular rant. The take away I’ve made is that ST is once again showing that operationally it needs to improve. Not because of the message itself but the time required to play it over and over because they take months to fix basic issues. If you don’t believe me, what about all the broken escalators or the lack of cell service in the tunnels, the lack of information on the size of the incoming trains or when they will actually arrive?

      They are good at building out initially and sticking to on time estimates without huge overruns, but operationally, they have a lot they could improve on.

      1. I don’t think a lack of cell phone service shows that their operations department needs improving. We’re talking about underground places that the carriers don’t have access to, and can’t get access until the owner (ST+Metro) lets them in.

  3. Amazingly, if ST had figured out how to install an extra elevator at a major international airport station, we might not hear this announcement as often.

    With each ongoing failure I have to wonder whether ST’s engineers decided to cut all the relatively small but critically useful aspects of the system (redundant and functioning escalators & elevators, enough well-placed TVMs and ORCA readers, efficient station layouts) to save money.

    Shame that the PA system doesn’t break down as often as the elevators and escalators do.

    1. Full disclosure: The previous message was for an elevator off airport property. And the current message isn’t at the airport at all.

  4. I agree with this post 100%. I was recently in Montreal and Chicago and those stations are very serene and peaceful. There are no announcements whatsoever, except for service disruption announcements.

  5. I think it would help to have an initial announcement chime for elevators out of service so passengers can know right away if they want or need to listen. After the chime, all out-of-service announcements can be made. It could run every four or five minutes. It could even say “no elevators are out of service at this time.” Ive been on other rail transit systems that do this.

    It’s not nice to make every passenger have to listen to every announcement for 10 or 15 seconds before determining that they don’t care – or worse, not hear an announcement clearly and wonder if they missed an instruction to change their travel plans. An initial chime helps lots!

    Finally, a visual announcement board probably needs to be in every station for deaf passengers (and those that cannot understand the fuzzy loudspeakers). To miss an announcement and not have away to review it is very frustrating. A small LCD screen above the timetable postings would seem pretty easy and cheap to do.

    1. it would help to have an initial announcement chime for elevators

      It could even say “no elevators are out of service at this time.”

      We have too much audible clutter. We do not need to add more annoying sounds and more announcements saying “all is good”. If it’s all good, you don’t need to announce anything.

      a visual announcement board probably needs to be in every station

      It already is. They display on the VMS (Variable Message Sign) boards seen displaying “Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel” in this photo.

      1. Maybe I need to be more specific…

        The use of chimes (even just two notes) would allow ST to broadcast elevator outages less frequently while also providing better initial awareness for those that need to know the announcements. It’s a net reduction in overall noise as well as a faster reason to quit listening for riders who don’t care, and a better signal for those that do to pay attention.

      2. The electronic sign that says “downtown transit tunnel” isn’t really up to job for announcements because it can only display one message at a time, and having to stare at it for an extended period of time to wait for the message you care about to scroll through is not ideal. Sometimes, I feel like part of the problem is the temptation to use technology for technology’s sake. The mere fact that the tunnel has an electronic display is not an obligation to use it. For many messages, including the elevator outage, a simply paper flyer duct-taped to the wall would be easier to read for the people who really care, since it’s always there, and you don’t have to wait for it to scroll through. If duct-tape isn’t good enough, set up a display case with a bulletin board and a couple of thumbtacks. This is not rocket science.

        Dynamic information that changes every minute, like the number of the minutes until the next train – that is what electronic signs are for. Static information that only changes every few weeks – best handled on old-fashioned paper.

    2. In the early days (after the DSTT reopened) they played a two-tone chime before every single message, except the train now arriving message. They need to be smarter with the audio cues and messages. Different chimes for different types of messages would be a good start.

  6. I really wish we could replace “samantha” with an actual recorded human voice, spoken with a clear, slow, deliberate cadence for maximum clarity in large, echoing stations.

    I’ve heard the station announcements referred to as “down syndrome voice” due to their incomprehensibility on a noisy platform.

    1. Same goes for the trains themselves, we used to having an actual person’s voice doing the announcements. After the opening of ULink, it changed to a computerized voice which is jarring and grating.

      1. “Tukwill International Boulevard Station” (no third syllable “a” on the city name) drives me nuts!

      2. Or the inconsistent spacing in “International District, China… Townstation”

    2. +1
      We have enough computers in our lives. Human connection encourages pro-social behaviors like looking out for other riders, not leaving trash, etc. Treat people like machines and they are less inclined to behave well. Look at the history of housing projects in the USA, for an example.

      It would be so easy to hire someone to read the stop names, even for the buses. How many thousands of times are these recordings used per month? Improving user experience doesn’t have to mean wifi and fancy art.

    3. I suggest using Rick Steves if possible. I think most people in the region are quite comfortable with his voice — and he can pronounce everything with the right Seattle accent.

      1. This could be like the ferries, where they have (had?) various local broadcasters record the safety announcement at the start of each voyage. The problem is when the person dies or changes stations, the announcements are out-of-date.

      2. Pat Cashman would be perfect.

        If I remember correctly, the voice of the MTA is a guy from Bloomberg Radio.

      3. The Piccadilly Line in London has stop announcements recorded by actress Emma Thomspon

    4. Chicago, London, New York, and Tokyo are all cities with many times more rail stations than Seattle all have announcements recorded by professional voice talent.

  7. Isn’t the point of the post that the elevator down at Sea Tac announcement be put on the south-bound trains themselves, announced in the train once at each downtown station (in case the tourist needs to bail downtown), then once at Rainier, twice at TIB, and once at Angle Lake? (If there is a way to head north to Sea Tac from Angle Lake and the Angle Lake elevator is working)

    I’ve half listened to the buzzy announcements in the tunnel, and I had thought that the entire time the elevator at SeaTac was broken. The announcements say to me, ‘oh yeah, that again’ which means that absence of the announcement is not really noted.

    Plus, what if a wheel chair airport flyer boards at Columbia City?

    Again, ST, please take a cue from CT. This is an appropriate Dept of Customer Experience issue.

    1. And for the elevator down at TIB, once at station upstream from solution station, twice at solution station, once at station downstream. My point is is that the these announcements are better programed to be announced in the train.

  8. Thanks for this article. Please ST – tone down on the nanny notifications! We know we need to hold on when riding the train and to step away from the platform edge. I know Seattle is a not city accustomed to mass transit, but the annoying announcements are really over the top.

  9. Two comments:

    First, the elevators and escalators at Sound Transit stations should be treated as mission critical items. That means you can’t take a low cost bid without regard for performance. There need to be availability guarantees with penalties, or ideally design/build/maintain contracts, again with penalties for non-availability (I note that a commenter above says the agency will move in that direction.)

    On a different topic – let’s stop the scrolling on the displays. It makes things hard to read. Virtually every message can fit on the matrix without scrolling – whether it is in the stations or on the trains. The word “station” is redundant in almost every case. We know the train stops at stations. The front of the trains should read “Angle Lake” “Beacon Hill” “Univ. Washington” (or UW). Inside the trains it can read “Next: Westlake” or “Next: Univ Street” (to emphasize street) The scrolling is bad UI and unnecessary. Why can’t we fix this?

    1. You don’t need “Next:”, just like you don’t need “Station”. Is it going to show the previous station? Scrolling is bad, but “University of Washington” could be an exception. The full name should distinguish it more clearly from University Street and U-District in case anyone has doubts.

      1. There are 2 things scrolling in the inside of a train, the next station (in the front and back) and the final destination (along the sides). So you’d need Next: to differentiate between those. I’d actually prefer that the destination signs along the sides say that it’s the final destination and not just the next stop, because I can see that being confusing, but I think that sign just takes its text from the signs on the train that face outward.

      2. I agree the word “Station” is redundant. The bus doesn’t say “Next Stop: Third and Pine bus stop”

  10. The past couple couple years, the increasing frequency and volume of announcements has gotten worse. It seems to be Metro’s knee-jerk reaction to convey every possible announcement they want to make by yelling in people’s ears every couple of minutes.

    As to how to fix it, the vast majority of announcements in the downtown tunnel need not be audio announcements at all. As a general rule, if a particular reason exists why you need to hear the message right now, audio is appropriate. Otherwise, it should just be visual. “Train now arriving, please stand behind the yellow line” is fine as an audio announcement. Everything else, including the unattended bags, the proof of payment is required, belongs in the form of a piece of paper attached to the wall. Every station has lots of currently unused wall space that could be used for this purpose.

    The SeaTac elevator announcement also belongs in paper form, although the paper should be present where it really matters, which is on board the trains. An audio announcement is also fine on board southbound trains approach TIBS, since it passes the “why do you need to hear this now?” test. Announcements every two minutes in every downtown tunnel station is just noise.

    I greatly appreciated this post. It feels good to know I am the only one, and that I am not crazy. Obviously, somebody at Metro decided that the obnoxiousness of an airport boarding lounge was something to emulate (in fact, the announcements in Metro’s tunnels seem much louder than they are at SeaTac airport, or any airport I’ve been too). I strongly disagree with this decision.

    1. “Train now arriving, please stand behind the yellow line” is fine as an audio announcement.

      I agree, but still think this is silly. Of all the times people need to be behind the yellow line, it’s when a bus is arriving. Unlike the trains, busses have a large mirror sticking out over the platform. Of course the bus can more easily brake or swerve, and the mirror has a flashing strobe to boot, but it’s still more of a hazard than the train which is mostly flush with the platform. So in order to achieve parity, we either need to add the announcement for buses as well, or remove the second half from the train’s announcement. If the latter, the announcement would be pretty trivial: announcing something people would easily figure out on their own a few seconds later.

  11. Some suggestions.

    1. For a week, have an individual person on the mike video display control at LCC. And have one or more other communications people at every station, especially in DSTT, constantly sending real-time feedback to this controller as to how announcements “register” to actual people.

    2. I think most of us connected with STB realize what Sound Transit is up against with its mechanically and legally with its defective elevator equipment. But wouldn’t blame people for smelling (sorry) an overturned fish truck gridlocking a whole region while attorneys argued about cleanup costs.

    I hope remedy isn’t waiting on litigation. Because if it is, savings in time, efficiency, and passenger safety might justify doing temporary mechanical work-arounds while the attorneys do their own very necessary work. This subject classes as Seattle Transit. Any bloggers here to comment professionally?

    3. If elevator malfunction were the only current public equipment failure, it’d be bad enough. Complete blowouts of sewage plants in residential neighborhoods are worse. For starters.

    Budget? Local, State, and Federal, the branch of Government this one belongs to never wants for money. Every iota of civil engineering, transportation, and medicine that an enemy will target with their first volley is by definition a matter of National Defense.

    After two centuries of homelessness and starvation starting with the Enlightenment, germs don’t need ISIS to radicalize them. And a lot of plate tectonics needs only to roll over in its sleep to make I-5 between Ravenna and Dearborn Street, and everything on and underneath it, look like a Syrian air base on a bad day.

    4. I don’t like at all what yesterday’s Cliff Mass focus turned loose on these pages by way of needless tiny arguments among commenters far wide of the climate change matter. Anymore than I like its resemblance to the MO of what used to be a branch of the Federal Government. As deliberate distraction from worldwide business dealings redolent of a Tomahawk attack on a liquid fish cargo refinery.

    I’d like to see proof that Cliff Mass the respected weather expert wrote a nanobyte of it. Was this text of anything audio? But if so, Zach refuted mistakes very effectively. So what I’d like to see next is a posting by at least one civil engineer on what transit is going to have to do in concrete and steel to cope with operating conditions the greenest fifty years in history won’t be able to prevent.

    Mark Dublin

  12. I lived in the Bay Area for 18 months and regularly rode BART. ST Link seems a lot like BART when it comes to the frequency of the automated announcements.

  13. Just as a BTW, used my speed app on my phone and buses in town generally average about 5 – 7 MPH. Sometimes in town buses will get all the way up to 32 MPH!

  14. What’s even crazier to me, besides the incessant announcements that could be just as easily vocalized by the train conduction when riders are entering the area of concern, is the total lack of clear announcements during a rare but critical system-wide shutdown.

  15. There are so many announcements I can barely hear myself mutter my imprecations. Forget about having a conversation or even doing the crossword.

    If you see a guy yelling SHUT UP at the announcements in the tunnel, that’s me after 4 minutes.

    These announcements need to be piped into the offices at Union Station for ST office workers to enjoy.

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