Saturday, August 27, 2016

Still Life with Robin: The Voice on the Train

Cleveland Park Metro (via Wikimedia Commons)
by Peggy Robin

Earlier this week I took the Red Line and experienced a ride on one of Metro’s new, improved 7000 series cars. I understand they’ve been in service on this line since February, but this was the first time I’d been in one. They have many new features, including:

* Shiny, carpet-free, black & speckled dirt-camouflaging floors.
* Convenient hold-on poles along the length of the car, putting an end to those arm-stretching reaches toward the ceiling for short people like me, when stuck in a mid-car crowd, to try to get a grip on the overhead horizontal bar.
* Electronic displays showing the route and next station stop.
* Comfortable padded seats with taller backrests, in a soothing shade of blue (goodbye and good riddance, irritating orange!)
* Brighter lighting.
* Wider aisles.
* An automated station announcement system.

Kudos for all of the above….except for that one last thing, that automated voice system. Yes, it’s great to have dependable announcements, but instead of getting someone with a clear, friendly but authoritative voice to record the station names and play each clip at the appropriate time along the route, they’ve chosen a computer-generated voice. She sounds like Siri, like your GPS voice, like someone who isn’t really there, who doesn’t really know what’s going on. You know that uncanny, flat, almost-but-not-quite-human sound. Sure, it’s an improvement over the muffled and frequently unintelligible voice of this or that train operator, who had to take on this task while handling the many other diverse things involved in running a train. Over static-y, feedback-whining equipment, you might learn that the next station stop is “Gross-ver” or “Grahz-ner” or “Groans-vernor” (I’ve heard all three variants of Grosvenor). Though I have to admit, I’ll sort of miss the perpetually fuzzy “Woolly Park.” And I will definitely miss the occasional “Elephant Plaza.” All the same, I have to say I am sorry to lose the sound of a real human being calling out the stops.

It would have been so much better to use a real person’s recording of station names, rather than a synthetic voice. That’s how it’s done in the best-run transportation systems around the world. A professional voice actor pronounces each station name and each action the train will take; then computer technology arranges the mix of words to generate the right announcement as you are approaching or departing each station. I can still recall the charming sound of the female voice of the Athens subway system, making each announcement first in Greek and then in British-tinged English with just a hint of a Greek accent. She’s the reason I can pronounce “Syntagma” and Ambelokipi” correctly in Greek. 

On our new Metro cars, this tinny, oddly fake voice says the station names correctly but without any spirit, any sense of place, or any hint that anyone cares where you are. I can easily imagine being stuck in the Metro and as the passengers are desperately trying to override the stuck-shut doors; they're screaming into the intercom, hoping for release, and this new, mechanical voice just repeats: “I’m sorry, Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that.”


Still Life with Robin is published on the Cleveland Park Listserv and on All Life Is Local on Saturdays.

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