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MBTA’s digital countdown clocks will now tell you if a train is ‘stopped’ and how far away it is

On Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2018, the MBTA will roll out new digital alerts on station platforms to let waiting riders know if a train is halted and how many stops away it is.

It’s a complaint officials at the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority often deal with: Riders get upset about the digital countdown clocks claiming a train is “X minutes” away — and remaining stuck that way — when it’s actually nowhere in sight.

“If you’re waiting for a train that’s at a station down the line, it will say ‘2 minutes’ away for 15 minutes,” said David Block-Schachter, the MBTA’s chief technology officer. “When you’re stuck waiting, you’re almost being taunted by this clock.”

But beginning Tuesday, the transit agency hopes those frustrations will subside.

In what the MBTA sees as a slight tweak that could make a big difference for passengers, the digital signs hanging above station platforms will now alert riders when a train is halted a few stops away.

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For example, if an Ashmont-bound train is stalled on the Red Line at Davis Square, and passengers are waiting for it in Porter Square, the digital signs will read, “Stopped,” and then display how many stops away it actually is.

Once the train gets moving again, a new estimated arrival time that more accurately reflects its location will become visible on the displays.

Block-Schachter said providing this new information to riders will keep them in the loop about what’s going on along the tracks, and let them know that their train is going to show up — eventually.

“Even if there’s uncertainty, let’s tell our customers as much as we know so that people can at least deal with that, and people can make their own [travel] choices,” he said. “Better information means that as customers, you feel more confident.”

The new feature, which was developed in-house by the MBTA’s customer technology team, will hit the tracks at all Red, Orange, and Blue Line stations — as well as the Mattapan High Speed Line — this week. The Green Line will follow suit sometime in the fall, officials said.

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Unlike current “train delay” announcements that riders hear and see on the digital displays, the latest feature is automated, Block-Schachter said.

“It’s better information, more quickly,” he said.

The updates are triggered when a train has spent two excess minutes — meaning two minutes beyond the predicted timing for that train — on a particular track segment, according to the transit agency. The time value could change, however, once officials get a better sense of how the system is working.

In a statement, MBTA General Manager Luis Manuel Ramírez said the feature is in line with the agency’s ongoing mission to improve the customer experience.

“By addressing a common customer complaint, this improvement provides useful information to our customers while minimizing potential confusion caused by countdown signs when trains are stopped,” he said.

The update comes after several other improvements the MBTA recently made to get more accurate information about train arrival times to waiting passengers.

In March, the T started posting a new type of subway service alerts on social media that project how long delays could last in minutes, rather than relying on vague terms like “minor,” “moderate,” or “severe.”

And in June, the agency announced it was outfitting buses with new versions of GPS that provide more frequent updates of bus locations, a move the T hopes will improve predictions of arrival times on smartphone apps.

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“The cavalry is coming with new trains,” Block-Schachter said of the new Orange and Red Line vehicles expected to arrive in the near future.

“But in the meantime,” he added, “we need to do what we can to make riding the T feel a little bit better.”


Steve Annear can be reached at steve.annear@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @steveannear. Adam Vaccaro of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.