Some like it husky: Travellers vote for Marilyn Monroe as voice of Tube

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The Independent Online
MARILYN MONROE'S husky tones - traditionally equated with sex appeal - are to become synonymous with safety on the London Underground.

A digitally synthesised voice resembling that of the dead actress, although with a British rather than an American accent, could soon be heard warning tube passengers to "mind the gap" in between announcing tube stations. Tube drivers will welcome the new voice: they have nicknamed the current one "Sonia" because she "gets-Sonia nerves".

London Underground tested a number of different voices on focus groups. There was the "headmistress", the "female newscaster" and the "male voice", but it was the one dubbed "Marilyn" which went down best. "Most people thought she sounded genuinely helpful and she was smiling when she spoke," said Steve Wilson, London Transport's communications expert.

"There's no such thing as the perfect voice, but passengers found the one modelled on Miss Monroe the most agreeable and soothing."

The recorded "next station" messages on the Tube are triggered automatically while the train is running, but others are selected by the driver.

"If he has a full train and sees a crowded platform, he'll push a button for `Sonia' to ask passengers to move down the cars," said Mr Wilson. All four focus groups voted for Marilyn's throaty instructions, dismissing the others as either too plummy or too common. However, they also said they would listen more readily to instructions from a male voice. "Our research discovered that a male voice is the best one to command people, but a female one is much more acceptable when it comes to giving information.," said Mr Wilson.

This finding contradicts other research which came to light last month. Tests showed that RAF fighter pilots responded up to four seconds faster to cockpit orders delivered by a female rather than a male electronic voice. Consequently the Ministry of Defence has decided to record cockpit commands for the new Eurofighter, such as "missile lock on", "low fuel" and "too low" in a woman's voice.

Dr Judy Edworthy, a psychologist at the University of Plymouth who specialises in warnings, said that the London Underground was going about its research in the wrong way.

Her controlled laboratory experiments showed that people are more likely to respond to a female voice - and the reason is acoustic rather than social. "A female voice will generally get one's attention better but it's not the fact that it's a woman. Women have a higher pitch and are able to cover a broader range than men," Dr Edworthy said.

t Train drivers and railway station staff have been told to cut out the excuses and give passengers clear information when things go wrong. The industry is drawing up a list of approved announcements after it emerged that rail passengers find some Tannoy messages confusing, over- technical or even distressing.

The Railway Forum, an association of all 100 privatised rail firms, said commuters must be given clear and simple information about delays and cancellations. Distressing messages include information about suicides on the track, it said.

A spokesman for the forum, Daniel Hodges said: "In terms of the amount of information made available to passengers, things have changed out of all recognition. In the past, many commuters found that it was easier to get information out of Marcel Marceau than out of the rail industry."

The rail industry is investing pounds 39m in a new information system for passengers. Rail bosses want to ensure that the state-of-the-art equipment is used to deliver information rather than jokes or messages that will further anger delayed commuters. Mr Hodges added: "It is not that we don't have a sense of humour - the problem is that people are laughing at the railways not with them. This is about improving the rail service that we offer."

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