Most locals in the DC area are aware of the current track work taking place on the Metrorail system. Past incidents and constant malfunctions caused the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) to make a drastic call to implement a major overhaul program appropriately named SafeTrack.
However, what is not as aptly named is the term WMATA executives coined to the describe longer-term track outages that will occur during the SafeTrack program: “Safety Surges.”
Why does this message fail? For one, it’s contradicting.
Traditionally, and according to the dictionary, “surge” signifies a sudden and intense wave. Taking only this definition into account, it’s safe to assume WMATA’s intent was to use the word to emphasize the temporary but needed program. But “surge” connotes something likely shorter-term than WMATA has in mind – the word choice is especially confusing given that WMATA is using it to specifically describe the longer service outages they have planned.
Another reason this message fails? Too many recent negative connotations.
Technical definition aside, the meaning of “surge” or “surging” has evolved over recent years into what most might consider synonymous with negative occurrences, mainly rate increases – due to services like Uber which dubs periods of rate spikes as “surge pricing”; or war – due to the George W. Bush administration’s use of the term “surge option” to describe its deployment of 20,000 troops to Iraq in 2007. And it’s the latter meaning of the word that has some scratching their heads.
According to a WMATA spokesperson, the Iraq surge was exactly what executives had in mind when approaching SafeTrack, stating the need to make it clear that this program would be different than routine track maintenance, and “the fact the [the Iraq surge] was generally considered to be successful.”
Bottom Line: Steer clear of using words liable to misinterpretation, especially when handling sensitive and complicated communications.
For a problematic system that has already caused a great number of commuters tremendous headache and frustration, wouldn’t it be wise to stay away from any confusing misinterpretations led by historically negative situations when communicating SafeTrack? Instead, WMATA might have described the program’s short-term but necessary processes as “waves” of track repairs, which has a clearer meaning, and leaves little to no room for negative misinterpretation.