Improving passenger information in WMATA’s 7000 series railcars

As more of WMATA’s new 7000 series railcars enter service, more riders get a chance to experience the new cars in regular service, under the demands of everyday use. The same is true for me – after several chances to ride the new cars in regular service, I have a few observations – particularly relating to passenger information.

I’ve written previously about the big-picture issues for WMATA’s next railcar design: maximizing the usefulness of the existing system means changing railcars to more efficiently move people through the system – and that means more doors, wider doors, open gangways, different seating arrangements, etc.

There’s also room for improving the passenger information systems. The 7000 series include lots of new features, including real-time displays and automated station announcements. Each car has two types of LED displays – a screen that can scroll any kind of text near the end of each car, easily visible from anywhere onboard, and a variable display showing the next stops the train will serve.

7000 series information displays - photo by the author.

7000 series information displays circled in red – photo by the author.

The ‘next stop’ displays above the windows (modeled after the FIND system on several NYC subway car types) contain useful information, but the actual LEDs do not read well at the angles available for most passengers in the car. Even moving closer to the sign doesn’t help much, particularly when compared to the sign at the end of the car:

Comparison of visibility of LED signage in WMATA 7000 series railcars. Photo by the author.

Comparison of visibility of LED signage in WMATA 7000 series railcars. Photo by the author.

None of the next few stops are nearly as visible from this vantage point as “Franc-Springd” at the end of the car. Reading the display more or less requires standing directly in front of it; a challenge compounded by the seating layout, placing 2×2 seating directly under the ‘next stop’ displays.

WMATA 7000 series next stop displays. Photo by the author.

WMATA 7000 series next stop displays. Riders must be in front of the displays to read the LEDs. Photo by the author.

By contrast, New York’s FIND displays are located above center-facing seating. This both puts the displays in a line of sight for people sitting on the opposite side of the railcar, but also takes advantage of the additional standing room in New York’s subway car design.

Completely re-arranging seating layouts or changing the location of these signs is a big change. But there are other opportunities to improve passenger information for users. In addition to the LED signs, each 7000 series car includes four video-capable monitors per car, located adjacent to the doors:

WMATA 7000 series video screen. Photo by the author.

WMATA 7000 series video screen. Photo by the author.

Currently, the screens display a strip map (updated in real time) in the top half of the screen, rudimentary information about the station services (for example, a note that you can transfer to Metrobus – but not any particular route information) in the lower left, and a rotating ad space in the lower right corner (in this photo, listing WMATA’s website).

The above photo illustrates one of the biggest problem with these displays – they do not read well at a distance. Discerning any of the information requires moving closer to the display.

Photo by the author.

Consider another example of a similar technology from a bus in New Zealand, using larger text that can be easily read at a distance; displaying the travel time (in minutes, not number of stops) to the next few stops, as well as the end of the line; and putting less important information in a smaller typeface.

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Displays within railcars in Paris use a similar approach (image from Transitized) with large text (easily visible), focusing just on the next two or three stations, along with the estimated travel time to key transfer points as well as the end of the line.

Information about the current stop and next stop should be available for riders to consume instantaneously. Editing the amount of information and using large type reduces the time required for riders to process that information – to say nothing about the need to move through the car to take a closer look.

The nice thing about software is you can change it. WMATA and the District DOT recently installed real-time arrival displays at numerous bus shelters in the city. At first, the displays took too long to cycle and scroll through extraneous information. After some initial testing, the displays now show more useful information to riders at a glance – no need for scrolling or displaying the arrival times for buses scheduled to arrive in the distant future.

New software and a different approach to displaying information on these screens could make them more useful – and potentially help cover for the visibility issues with the above-the-window next stop displays.

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