Meet George and Gracie, the (synthesized) voices of BART

Meet George and Gracie, the (synthesized) voices of BART

They’ve been likened to sounds of the computer HAL from "2001: A Space Odyssey," the  synthesizer-assisted speech of theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, and the waiting-line announcements at Disneyland's Space Mountain.

The synthesized voices that announce train arrivals on BART platforms, nicknamed George and Gracie, are a familiar part of the commuting routine for passengers, who often express curiosity about their history and how they work.

a waveform image of the synthesized voice

"Eight-car Fremont train now boarding, Platform 2"

"Six-car train for Richmond in 4 minutes"

(Play a .wav audio file of George and Gracie speaking sample announcements; waveform image of the audio file is pictured at right.)

It turns out the synthesized voices of George and Gracie are a relatively recent addition in BART’s 36-year history of service. Up until the late 1990s, the public-address system in stations was BART’s only means of communicating status information with passengers on platforms. The public-address system, with human-voiced announcements, was used for major events such as a train out of service – it didn’t have the capacity to do arrival announcements for every train at every station, even though that kind of information is very convenient for riders.

Around the turn of the millennium, a special projects team developed BART’s Advanced Passenger Information System (APIS), which acts as a hub for system status, providing a centralized database for information such as train locations, performance data and messages to passengers.  Accessibility issues also drove the development of APIS, which created a way for BART communicate status information on platforms to hearing- and visually-impaired riders – and to benefit all riders with more timely and consistent information.

APIS allowed communications specialists to generate text messages to be displayed on destination signs – those red-lettered, electronic scrolling messages above the platforms. Once the system was in place for automated text messages on the signs, the next step was to create an automated audio system to speak the messages.

Why an automated audio system? Well, with dozens of stations and thousands of train arrivals every day, real live human beings just couldn’t keep up with the job of voicing all those announcements. In some stations with multiple train lines coming through, there may be only one second between each of the announcements.

That’s where George and Gracie come in. BART chose a text-to-speech (TTS) system from Lucent Technologies, based on the long history of Lucent’s Bell Labs Division in developing TTS products. Lucent called its male voice John and its female voice Grace; at BART, they came to be called George and Gracie. The announcements alternate between the male and female voices on odd- and even-numbered platforms.The voices can be modified for pitch, speed, breathiness and other factors, and were tested with passengers on platforms to choose the versions that were the clearest and most pleasing to hear. (Some longtime listeners think George still has trouble with a couple of phonemes here and there and that Gracie is easier to understand… what do you think?)

The synthesized voices of George and Gracie are just one set of voices that BART riders encounter. Other voices BART riders may hear include:

  • Automated messages inside the train, such as: "The doors are closing; please stand clear of the doors."
  • Generic or recurring messages pre-recorded by BART Operations Control Center personnel -- the "Watch your belongings" type.
  • Live announcements by Operations Control Center personnel or station agents, such as in a major service disruption when bus bridges or other alternate transporation routes are announced.
  • Live announcements made by train operators as part of their routine duties, such as the name of the station at each stop. Train operators' first priority is providing critical information and ensuring passenger safety. But some add a little flair with extra comments, for example, taking on a tour-guide persona to note points of interest: "Get off at Powell Street for the world-famous shops of Union Square!"

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(Special credit to Virginia Langdon, BART Train Control Engineering, for creating the sample audio file of George and Gracie's voices.)