Finishing Up

After three weeks of working on the RIDE magazine editorial calendar, I am finally finished. It was pretty tedious, but definitely satisfying to move all of the issues into one place. All article titles, courtesy reminders, and featured staff are listed in the spreadsheet, and each cover image links to the PDF. I assume this will be useful in avoiding duplicates, or maybe in providing ideas for future issues.

editorial calendar

While working on the editorial calendar, I also sought quotes for processing VRE’s annual customer survey.  All I knew was that we were distributing approximately 7,500 surveys consisting of some multiple-choice and some open-ended questions. My goal was to have three responses, and after a few Google searches and emails, I met my goal and forwarded each quote to my supervisor. I may follow up with a response to each quote but I’m hoping to confirm with my supervisor first.

I also scheduled several messages for passengers to receive regarding Take Your Child to Work Day. VRE plans to allow children to ride free with a paying parent/guardian on this day. I think this is a really nice exception to their ’10 & under ride free’ policy, because it’s a great opportunity for kids to observe their parents’ responsibilities throughout the work week. I referred to past announcements featured in RIDE magazine to create the message.

take child to work day

I’ve now resumed data entry and filing tasks. Since I dedicated a lot of time to other projects, the pile of summons documents grew larger. Each summons is scanned and filed either in the 2017 waiver folders or the court folders, depending on whether the individual was granted a waiver or not. While I have experience in writing waiver letters and filing these documents, my supervisor in this department told me she plans to teach me other aspects of the summons process in the near future.

In addition to this, VRE’s marketing administrator has approached me for help with the magazine. I’m starting out small; each issue has an “out & about” blurb that mentions community events, so my first task is to find events from each commuter jurisdiction to include in the half-page. I’ll also be searching for cartoons to use in future issues. I’m hoping to gain experience with multiple digital tools by working with the marketing department. The magazine is created with Adobe InDesign, and some projects require experience with Adobe Premier. These are two programs I’d really like to learn more about. I’m very excited.

Marketing Dept Project

About one or two weeks ago, I began working on one of my biggest projects at VRE: organizing past issues of RIDE magazine. RIDE is VRE’s print magazine that provides service and community information, as well as other transportation matters. Although the magazine-style issues are recent (from 2012 to present), VRE also provided riders with monthly newsletters that date back to around 2006. No one digitally stored / organized a lot of the content throughout the years, so I’m playing catch-up.

I was given an Excel spreadsheet that would serve as the RIDE Magazine Editorial Calendar. In this spreadsheet, I’m storing content from each magazine/newsletter issue. Each row is dedicated to a monthly issue. Within the row, I insert the cover photo, title of articles, and courtesy reminders/cartoons in each cell. This means I am browsing through every issue of RIDE magazine / VRE newsletters. In doing this, I’ve learned a lot about the company and the sense of community among their riders.

It seems simple enough, and it is, but the reason why it’s taking such a long time is because there are so many issues to enter into the editorial calendar. To insert a cover photo, we need to have digital copies of each issue, and we only have digital copies of the newer issues (2014 – present). A lot of time is spent not only going through every issue and entering article titles, but scanning each page and saving each cover as an image. Additionally, she has asked me to link each cover in the spreadsheet to the magazine/newsletter PDF on VRE’s server.

This project has allowed me to get closer with VRE’s content. I have a better understanding of VRE’s “voice” and the type of material that their passengers enjoy reading. I’ve also gained more experience with Adobe Acrobat DC, something I had never used before starting my internship at VRE.  In a couple of weeks, I’m told I’ll receive a prompt from VRE’s Marketing Administrator that I’ll use to draft an article for the May issue of RIDE. I’m hoping that all of my observations throughout this project will prove useful.

In the Comm Room

My workstation was moved to the Comm Room about two weeks ago. This room is where VRE maintains communication with train conductors, station managers, and where trains and security camera footage are monitored. Since I’m an Operations & Communications intern, the decision to move my station to this room was to encourage my involvement in the department.

Because my schedule is limited during school, I’m not really present for active Comm Room hours, which is typically early in the morning and later in the afternoon. By the time I get to Alexandria, the morning service has finished, but this past Friday I was able to contribute during a service disruption since I don’t leave until 7pm.

In this situation, the train had some sort of mechanical issue. A vital piece malfunctioned, and once the mechanic arrived it was removed, inspected, and replaced. This all occurred during (and a little past) the time that the train was supposed to depart. My supervisor instructed me to send Train Talks and to update station messages on TRIP. Train Talks are messages that are sent to passengers’ cell phones, posted to all of VRE’s social media accounts, and updated on the website. The initial message I sent established the problem, and I sent an update about every 5-10 minutes. In addition to this, the TRIP audio/visual messages at affected stations with the information included in each Train Talk.

My past experiences with Train Talks and scheduled TRIP messages were to announce anticipated events, like holiday service changes or public hearings. In these cases, I could take my time in crafting the perfect message. During a service disruption, Train Talks get the information out to passengers as fast as possible, so it was a very different experience compared to what I was used to. However, I’m glad I gained experience with TRIP and GovDelivery for scheduled messages before immediate service updates. Because I was familiar with each platform, I was able to update messages quickly and efficiently under stressful circumstances.

Passenger Support

One of the biggest ways I could gain experience with talking to passengers was at the front desk, because it was one of the only areas with an available phone. In order to use a phone at the office, your laptop must be docked in a designated station. Recently, the interns received their own phone station, which eliminated the hassle of lugging all of my belongings to and from a phone station.

Many people contact VRE in regards to their transit benefits, fares, lost and found, and general service information. Most of this is found on the VRE website, so I’ve found that keeping certain pages accessible, like the schedules and fare charts, helps me answer most questions. While I realize some riders don’t have access to Internet, I think that the organization of the website may play a role in passengers’ tendency to call. Information is somewhat scattered across multiple areas of the website; you can find a piece of information in one link and the remainder of the information is somewhere else.

While I can answer general service-related questions, I usually struggle with giving people directions. Some callers ask how to get from their home address to their destination by riding VRE, and while I want to help, I am only familiar with the stations and times of train service. I can’t give people directions from specific addresses to the stations, and I don’t know much about service provided by other forms of public transportation. Most of the time, I tell the caller I’m not sure and that I could Google it though I’m not obligated.

Despite the fact that VRE’s riders are primarily commuters, other people who are interested in riding the train could benefit from some sort of trip planner feature. It would be nice for those who are unfamiliar with their nearest VRE station or ticket vendor to enter their starting address on the website and be directed to one.

Public Hearings and Delays

VRE is planning to increase its fares July 2017. Before this happens, they must hold a series of public hearings to give riders the opportunity to voice any comments or concerns that they may have. A few weeks ago, one of my supervisors gave me a list of venues rented by VRE for previous public hearings. I contacted these venues to reserve time slots that the hearings would take place. Once the dates for these hearings approached, I was asked to create several Train Talk alerts and a TRIP jukebox station message.

The jukebox messages on TRIP are timed in accordance with the train’s location. Once I scheduled a message, I set it to play at stations five minutes prior to each train’s arrival and departure. While I initially felt that this might bombard the riders who are waiting at the station, my supervisor insisted that this was the best way to inform people and to avoid claims that VRE failed to notify their passengers of the public hearings.

Scheduling the jukebox message was easy because I only had to create one and set it to replay at certain times. The Train Talk messages took a bit more time. I scheduled several bulletins on GovDelivery to post throughout the weeks that the hearings would be held. Since they would take place over the course of two weeks, I scheduled one message at the beginning of each week that reminded recipients of where the upcoming hearings were located, and then created messages that displayed the remaining public hearing locations as the week went on. These were scheduled in the mornings since the earliest hearings took place at 12 p.m.

Train Talk messages are sent to recipients’ email and SMS, but are also posted on VRE’s social media accounts. This is how VRE keeps passengers updated on delays. Things got interesting when the week of public hearings began and the  scheduled messages were sent, because VRE began experiencing bizarre circumstances which caused major delays. On Monday morning, one of the trains lost power and stopped working in the middle of service. The next delay occurred in the evening, when a brush fire occurred on the tracks. Then, one of the trains hit a deer during morning service in the same week.

Delays cause a lot of frustration for passengers because most of them rely on the train to get to work every day. Take a group of people who are irritated with VRE’s service because they are late to work, and send them reminders about a fare increase while they’re sitting on a delayed train? They become furious. Many people responded angrily to the scheduled alert that was posted on Facebook and Twitter.

This was a unique experience because, despite VRE doing their best to keep passengers informed, the timing of public hearing messages and delay messages just made them upset. It was a bad coincidence that gave the impression VRE was demanding more money in spite of giving poor service. The executive officers realized this, and sent a detailed message apologizing for the delays and explaining what caused the issues. I think that this helped most passengers understand that each delay had distinct circumstances that weren’t simply caused by poor maintenance. It was a nice reminder that delays don’t simply occur because VRE doesn’t prioritize their riders’ time, but because they prioritize their riders’ safety.

Fare Evasion and Waivers

Passengers riding the train are not only responsible for purchasing a ticket, they must validate the ticket prior to boarding. Failure to do this can result in the conductor issuing a court summons and a large fine. The passengers can either request a waiver from VRE headquarters or attend court and pay the fine. Over the past two weeks, I’ve learned a lot about this process.

Requesting a waiver involves the passenger to provide a written statement, a copy of the ticket, and a proof of purchase. While I assisted in assembling and filing these documents, I noticed many people who requested a waiver received a summons simply because they made a mistake. VRE waives most summonses under three circumstances: if the passenger is a new rider, a monthly ticket holder, or if the conductor requests for the waiver.

I was tasked with assembling and organizing the documents provided by passengers, which were then used to determine the type of waiver letter they would receive. I then updated the information in the letter to apply to each specific passenger. Once all letters were typed, I printed them to be signed by my supervisor. I prepared the letters for mail by printing address labels, adding proper postage and sealing the envelopes. Once the letters were mailed, I scanned the documents that the passengers sent and filed them digitally.

Working on waivers encouraged me to reflect on communication between VRE and new riders. I think a large part of the mistakes made by passengers is due to a lack of attention to detail. New riders are encouraged to seek instructions on the VRE website, but because there are so many different informative pages, it’s kind of easy to be overwhelmed. I think that they could benefit from a prompt upon purchasing their ticket. If they were asked about their familiarity with VRE and indicated a lack of knowledge while purchasing tickets, then maybe they could sign up for a text reminder to validate. This would hopefully make the boarding process less intimidating and confusing for new train riders, while decreasing the amount of waiver letters that are processed at the VRE headquarters office.

Finalizing Schedule and Data Entry

Since there had been issues with verifying schedule times with one of the railway companies that VRE collaborates with, a set date hadn’t been finalized for the schedule update when I drafted the posts. VRE recently received confirmation and established a date, so the messages are now published. In addition to the digital schedules, new train times needed to be posted at station platforms. Due to the unforeseen delays in the entire process, VRE was unable to update official posters and had to create temporary ones. My supervisor asked that I helped with this process.

Since I had already created PDFs out of the Excel spreadsheets, I converted them to image files. Once I had images of the new schedules, I adjusted the size to fit the poster paper. This was a little tedious because I had to work with larger paper, and it took more than a few tries before I successfully printed a poster that didn’t cut any information off. I eventually was able to print 20 copies of the Manassas and Fredericksburg schedules.

schedule posters

In addition to this, I was asked to help log information regarding train operations. Operations/Communications receives daily reports of the number of operating trains on a given day, total passenger count, parking and delays. I have started entering data from these reports into Excel. There are two spreadsheets per line: one for weekly entries and another for the monthly report. My tasks involves transferring information from the Fredericksburg and Manassas daily service reports into the designated day in the weekly spreadsheet, and then updating the monthly report with the calculated totals. This is usually a smooth process unless something is miscalculated.

I learned that these reports are recorded for management to understand ridership and service trends, and to assess a potential need for parking expansion. For special events like Meet the Management, passenger count records can provide an estimate of how much food and supplies should be prepared for passengers. These records are also submitted to the National Transit database to help get funding and grants for VRE.

I am continuing to gain more experience with Excel. These tasks have helped me learn different ways to make data entry efficient and how it is used to benefit the organization.

Survey Statistics

VRE distributes annual surveys to their passengers for information regarding their destination, originating city, and usage of other public transportation services. I’m not too sure about the specifics, but I assume this information is gathered to plan for the construction of future stations or to improve service. Because I had a bit of experience with Microsoft Excel, a member of VRE’s Office of Development asked me to assist her with creating tables and visual charts for survey data that had been collected in 2016.

Using an example from the previous year, I generated multiple tables and charts for different destination stations. This was done by filtering answers, highlighting data that answered specific questions on the survey, and creating PivotTables that counted the amount of times each answer had been selected. Multiple sheets were dedicated to themes found in this data, and once I had finished the spreadsheet, I created a new one that summarized the findings.

I hadn’t used Excel in years, so the first spreadsheet I worked on was challenging. I found myself working for long periods of time only to realize I had made a mistake, seeking help from Google or my coworkers, and having to frequently go back and fix my work. However, this initial experience led me to learn new Excel functions, and I had an easier time creating the spreadsheets that followed.

Overall, I really enjoyed this project because I became better accommodated with Excel. Its usage in multiple areas of the organization have given me a better understanding of what a powerful tool it is. Graphics generated from the survey data allow audiences to easily interpret details about VRE ridership. Working with the survey statistics taught me more about the relationship between VRE and its passengers, and about public transportation service as a whole.

Schedule Update

VRE is in the process of updating the train schedules to accurately portray service. The change is very small, with only a minute or two of a difference for most train departures, but will hopefully result in less confusion for passengers. Before this is put into practice, VRE needs to communicate the upcoming changes to the public. I was asked to assist with this process. While I had scheduled messages in TRIP and headlines on the VRE website, I hadn’t had the chance to contribute to a bigger project until the schedule change. My supervisor asked that I create a “Train Talk” alert and update features on the website.

I first needed to help verify that the new train schedule was accurate. I compared an excel spreadsheet of the new schedule to a hard copy. Once we finished making corrections, I created PDFs out of the spreadsheet and linked them to the Schedule page on the VRE website. Additionally, I created a headline that will link to the Schedule page from VRE’s homepage. I saved all of my work as drafts that my supervisor could review. Nothing will be posted publicly until closer to the actual date of the schedule change.

Train Talk alerts are messages that can are sent to riders’ email, phone, and posted on VRE’s social media and website. This is a method used by Comm Room staff to announce delays and schedule changes. Train Talk alerts are managed through GovDelivery, and allow VRE to publish content on multiple platforms in a single step. I drafted an alert and included a screenshot of the new schedule for passengers to access.

I found that experience with my umw domain proved valuable for this project. I had an easy time navigating through Mura because I had blogged and managed files with WordPress. I’m glad that my supervisor trusted me to create several updates because it was a great way to practice skills I’ve learned through my studies.

Communication with TRIP

As a commuter rail service, VRE trains run northbound into D.C. in the morning and southbound in the afternoon and evening. Before I began working for this organization, I didn’t realize the importance of passenger communication. Since many depend on the train to get to their jobs every day, delays and schedule changes need to be communicated quickly and efficiently so passengers have time to adjust their plans.

VRE’s website allows riders to receive updated alerts regarding train schedules and delays. This information is monitored by the Operations and Communications department. One facet of OpsComm is composed of updating the signs at station platforms, sending alerts via social media, and tracking the GPS of every train from the Comm Room. These tasks are accomplished with VRE’s Transit Information Provider (TRIP) system. I was recently involved in this process and I’d like to share what I’ve learned.

trip overview map

My task was to log and monitor the trains during evening service hours. The Comm Room receives a lineup of trains daily, and my job was to match each engine on the list to the train that corresponds with specific service hours on TRIP. Once a train’s GPS is logged onto TRIP, passengers can see the location of that train in real time via the system map above. This is typically a smooth process, but can occasionally be disrupted when a train’s GPS malfunctions. Comm Room staff take to social media to notify passengers in those instances, which I’ll discuss in a later post.

Once all trains are logged onto TRIP, I was told to pay attention to the location and timeliness of the trains via CSX track system map. This map is different from the one on the VRE website, as it includes non-VRE trains that occupy tracks, service/maintenance areas, and other details that are not necessary to provide to passengers. I learned that if staff notice potential problems, it’s important that they contact conductors and, at times, other organizations who share tracks with VRE. The quicker Comm Room staff fully understand a problem, the quicker they can respond and relay information to passengers.

While in the Comm Room, I gained more experience with TRIP by updating station messages. As mentioned before, VRE does their best to notify passengers of any changes in advance. One of the ways this is accomplished is by creating station messages that can be broadcasted at VRE platforms. While monitoring the CSX track system map, I scheduled the upcoming holiday messages for 2017.

trip message status

A lot of work in the Operations and Communications department requires the ability to multitask and work efficiently under pressure. Through accomplishing these tasks, I’ve gained experience with presenting information in user-friendly terms and I have practiced using a vital system for train operations.