Steve Ritea has an interesting article which will appear in today’s edition of Newsday. The article highlights the Long Island Railroad’s (LIRR) continuing process of improving & upgrading its communication skills. Here is the article courtesy of Newsday:
The railroad born in the 19th century finally is on speaking terms with the 21st.
Here’s one example in a growing list: When the Long Island Rail Road mistakenly double-charged up to 22,800 customers for tickets earlier this month, officials offered angry riders an olive branch.
Every conductor working the night of June 2 got a text message on their cell phone with the same directive – tell riders the LIRR would honor May monthly passes for that evening’s commute.
Tellingly, it was a first of sorts for the 174-year-old railroad. Only a few months ago, such spur-of-the-moment communication could not have been accomplished with speed and uniformity for a simple reason: Train crews did not have LIRR-issued cell phones.
Before the LIRR spent $1 million to put 1,000 cell phones in the hands of train crews, conductors relied, as they had for decades, on a single radio in each train car to get word from headquarters. And those radios weren’t always tuned to the correct channel.
“There’s no question giving cell phones to crew members was a major step forward,” said Joe Calderone, the railroad’s communications chief. In the most recent instance, poor communication “could have compounded the mistake.”
Anticipating more riders
With high gas prices sending more commuters to the trains, LIRR president Helena Williams has made communications a priority, increasing spending from $400,000 last year to a projected $4 million this year.
“The technology that allows us to communicate with customers faster and more directly has grown up around us at the LIRR without the proper level of personnel to support it,” Williams said. “Like the rest of the world, our customers now expect information to be delivered to them as quickly as possible.”
Other changes include $631,000 for new monitors that display train information and $877,000 for a new public information office with staff in LIRR offices 24 hours a day.
The changes have not come without some pressure. An audit released in February noted poor communication during a lengthy delay on Feb. 2, 2007, left some riders so frustrated they threatened a conductor and jumped off trains stopped between stations near Valley Stream.
“When incomplete, inaccurate or inconsistent information is provided, customers are more likely to misperceive the severity of an emergency, and exacerbate or create dangers by taking matters into their own hands,” the report by Metropolitan Transportation Authority Inspector General Barry Kluger said.
Traditional lines of relay
Williams conceded one jaw-dropping moment 10 days after she started her job last June, when severe summer storms brought the evening rush to a halt, and she learned the staff who make announcements at Penn Station were largely reliant upon a fax machine to communicate with LIRR headquarters in Jamaica. Thankfully, the fax wasn’t out of paper. Since then, it’s been replaced with an e-mail system.
That was undeniable evidence, Williams said, that the LIRR was overdue for systemwide upgrades and additional staff. Calderone said his staff didn’t even have BlackBerrys when he started last year.
Until a few months ago, the LIRR even lacked a 24-hour public affairs office to get alerts of service interruptions out to riders or local media.
Instead, staffers like Sam Zambuto were called at home in the middle of the night or on weekends before alerts could be sent out.
Zambuto said being “on call” confined him to his West Hempstead home, because he had to be near a personal computer connected to the LIRR system, sometimes for entire weekends.
Those days are gone, thanks to a round-the-clock office at the LIRR’s Jamaica headquarters.
Looking to future
Improving and strengthening communication with customers has long been a key issue for Gerard Bringmann, chairman of the LIRR Commuter’s Council, who for years has complained of sitting on stopped trains or standing on crowded platforms with no information from crews.
He said he’s impressed by Williams’ efforts but cautioned that new technology has to be accompanied by training to be effective. “You can throw all the money in the world at things, but if people don’t have the training it doesn’t mean anything,” Bringmann said.
Regular riders know that train staff are notoriously inconsistent about providing information about delays to train passengers, with some crews providing regular updates and others leaving riders in the dark.
“You get different train crews, and some are very conscientious and other train crews are very lackadaisical,” he said.
Williams said she’s worked on internal policies, like moving the public affairs staff into a room adjacent to the Jamaica command center, which oversees train movements systemwide.
The two offices had been on different floors there, with employees running down a flight of stairs to get information if they were unable to get command staff by phone.
Problems persist elsewhere, however, particularly with the LIRR’s e-mail alert system, which failed during massive delays Feb. 12, leaving most of the 22,100 commuters who use it in the dark. The LIRR said its server froze up – not a first-time occurrence – but promised improvements are on the way. During the summer, the railroad will begin routing all e-mails through an outside company with much greater Internet capacity, MTA officials said.
Electronic signs that hang over station platforms, letting riders know if their train is on time, are in place at only 50 of the LIRR’s 122 stations, excluding Jamaica and Penn Station. The remaining 72 are slated for completion by 2011.
Keeping in touch with customers
Recent LIRR initiatives – $4 million projected this year – to improve customer communication:
1,000 cell phones with text messaging capability to train crews.
24-hour public information office adjacent to the LIRR’s Jamaica nerve center.
Improvements to customer e-mail alert system that would route e-mails through an outside company with greater Internet capacity.
Electronic signs over more station platforms that let riders know if their train is on time and – if not – how late it is.
xoxo Transit Blogger