Tuesday, August 2, 2016

On July 20, I made mention on Twitter that Metrolinx needed to do something about its COO with respect to the lack of accountability

I received the following statement from Greg Percy, Metrolinx Chief Operating Officer after the courtesy was extended to me (via Metrolinx's PR person on Twitter) to have a discussion with him about the on-going travel disruptions and chaos this summer. I declined a phone interview and asked for an email instead (my reply to Mr. Percy is below the email from him).

Mr. Percy wrote:

I am a daily Lakeshore West rider of GO Transit, and have witnessed the recent frustration and disappointment from the inadequate customer service experience over the last few weeks. I agree it has not met our standard or the reasonable expectations of our customers.

The late June train schedule changes are the necessary result of construction staging changes at Union Station. To carry on the work within the train shed, the contractors need to shift their focus to new tracks and platforms, and since there is finite capacity in the train shed, we had to implement a new train schedule to accommodate as much service as possible from all seven of the rail corridors. The schedules are achievable, but with marginally less recovery time between train trips.

We are effectively moving the service through a fewer number of tracks at Union Station, and unfortunately it was necessary to make major changes to the train schedules. In fact, these recent schedule changes were the most we've needed to make at any one time in GO's history. This unfortunately is a significant inconvenience to customers, but is necessary to continue work on rehabilitating a 90-year-old national heritage structure.

While we have imposed these schedule changes on our customers, we have also been hit the past few weeks by a number of challenging service issues, some of which are in our control, and some not.

We need to continue finding ways to minimize the frequency of train performance failures within our control, such as signal, switch, software and train mechanical. We also need to identify more effective mitigation strategies for those delay issues that are not in our control, such as passenger medical emergencies, disabled freight trains, police investigations, and brush fires on adjacent properties.

All of these events have most especially impacted rush hour trips on the Lakeshore line. We have had crowding as a result—crowding that our customers are not accustomed to. Part of that crowding will be relieved in the next few weeks when we have coaches back in service that are currently getting HVAC overalls. We are also looking at ways to escalate the lengthening of trains to give customers more room (12 car trains instead of 10).

The extreme heat conditions of the last few weeks has further stressed our service delivery, as the performance of our tracks, trains and our service delivery teams have all been stretched beyond their usual capabilities. We have had more slow orders to ensure safe operation of our trains than we have had in a number of years due to the extreme heat.

I committed to doing a full investigation following the schedule changes. While we are continuing the investigation and monitoring of service and gathering of data, we made some immediate improvements, have determined which trips are most vulnerable to delays and have developed a number of strategies including additional resources and staff to mitigate those delays.

We are all committed to do everything we can to rebuild confidence in the GO service.

Dear Mr. Percy

I think you hit the nail on the head with your final sentence - passengers are losing faith and confidence in a system that when it works as it should, works really well but when it fails, we're an awfully unforgiving lot and our tempers run hot and we become frustrated. The answer why is quite simple. Money. It all comes down to money.

GO Transit passengers pay a lot of fare to commute to work, which for many, is equivalent to a car lease payment (in my case it's $343 a month). Because of my website and Twitter presence, I have built a loyal following. I am incredibly passionate about the commute and am honored that others respect my work, sense of humor and desire to advocate.

Passengers trust me and they reach out to complain about service and value, hoping I've achieved enough influence so someone who matters at Metrolinx might pay attention. There's this steadfast belief no one listens to the little guy so let's get someone bigger. So they come to me. And I rattle a cage here and there but after six years, it was starting to feel like there's no point.

And then a note arrived in my Twitter inbox...

I'm truly grateful that day has come. I appreciate the attention you have given to me today. And I am appreciative that Ms. Aikins extended an offer.

No doubt the past month has been stressful for street level/on-board employees and executives.  And there's little faith anyone truly cares about how this trying experience has greatly impacted the work life balance for thousands of people. I know I'm not alone in this situation where I now work a 9-hour day because taking the 4:30 pm Lakeshore East train resulted in being physically assaulted on three occasions by passengers pushing and shoving to board the train. I am dismayed by the mob mentality and frankly, appalled.

So instead, I now work 8 am to 5 pm and catch the 5:15 pm LSE because it's less crowded and less emotionally taxing. I get home an hour later than I am used to which makes it a very long day away from home - 615am to 705pm. I chose not to start my day later because the crowding on the Lakeshore East in the morning is too much for me to handle mentally on trains leaving Oshawa after 730. I tried that for two days. It's a no from me. I quickly learned I wasn't the only passenger now working different hours due to the new schedule.

I realize the service has also impacted your own commute.  At least you're not paying for it financially and feeling ripped off. But you do understand the frustration of arriving late and leaving late and this impact on your life is clearly fueling a desire to do better. I appreciate you are not discrediting the problem and dismissing these concerns. It truly felt you were just giving boilerplate responses. We're all tired of hearing apologies.

Which circles me back to your last statement. If Metrolinx sincerely wants to repair confidence and trust in the system, a fare freeze for 2017 has to be considered by the board as a way of thanking us all for our patience. Actions speak louder than words. This summer and the impact of construction is the straw that broke the camel's back for many after enduring two winters of failing equipment, switches and signals. Stations such as Burlington that are years behind schedule. Smoking and vaping on GO Transit buses and station platforms.  Quiet Zone fights. Shuttle buses that never arrive when there's a service suspension. Email alerts that come out hours late; trains where it looks like the seats are never cleaned, poorly air conditioned coaches or heaters that don't work, and double decker buses that blow black soot into the cabin areas that no one can truly say is not toxic. Let's not forget lights turned on during the day at GO parking lots and on Union Station platforms outside. When it's time to reload the Presto card, one can't help but ask how much of our fare dollars are being wasted on unnecessary hydro bills?

The best thing that ever came out of the transit agency in the past three years was the implementation of a strong social media presence. Interacting with passengers in real time is something many seem to take for granted. It annoys me when people fail to realize that Ms. Aikins, the transit officers and the Twitter team are real people. The abuse and foul language infuriates me. But it doesn't shock me because these are probably the same people who will eat your babies to get a seat on a train. But I want to take a moment and let you know I greatly value and appreciate the work they do online. It's not an easy job.

I realize my email was lengthy. I had a lot to say. I look forward to the improvements. I hope passengers get what they are looking for in the end: value, validation and a reprieve from a fair hike.

Thank you,


G said...

Exactly right, CJ: It's about the money. For $20/day, it would actually be cheaper for me to drive. If both my spouse and I worked downtown we'd have to be crazy to take the train. By raising fares each year (despite the dropping price of oil), GO Transit is becoming increasingly untenable.

When the schedule change happened I expected a bit of chaos as riders adjusted. But I didn't expect GO Transit itself to screw up so badly. There were so many "operational errors" that it was comical. My email inbox was literally clogged with dozens of messages about their various delays and cancellations. To blame it all on the hot weather is insulting. And to think that I paid more than $4000 for this in the past year--a significant fraction of my annual salary--just adds insult to injury.

Unknown said...

My concern is the trains are bad now, how bad is it going to be during the CNE? None of the trains start at Union anymore so already packed trains will be worse with the CNE crowd.

The cost is getting to be too much as well. My husband and I considered taking the train and then the subway. Even with me using Presto it was over $50 return. We parked in Chinatown for $5. Even factoring in gas it was no where near that much.

I hope things improve and fares do not go up next year.

Unknown said...

We were going to the AGO

Unknown said...
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Bicky said...

I'll be interested to know if he responds to your email, CJ. Please keep us posted.

Unknown said...

I now catch the 6.17 express LSE into work and the 5 or 5.15 express LSE home. This is mostly to avoid the hoards of rude people. People are hot, tired and fed up with the "service". I have also had to start driving to the station. This is because I never knew how late we would be arriving and I would have to wait 30 mins to catch a bus home.

These delays and such has also meant I cannot schedule any classes or activities in the evening. As I would never know if I would make it or not. You get tired of missing classes because the train was 20 mins late because of "operational issues". No work life balance is to be had this summer.

And on top of it all "operational issues" is the eyeball equivalent to nails on a chalkboard. We pay too much money for this to happen, day in and day out. Without fail, every afternoon, the text messages start rolling in and I turn to my co-worker and say "it's time!".

Get your shit together.

Skin Man said...

I wish I could tick the Love box more! The challenge in motivating people in the non-profit sector is that there is no market based repercussions for service failure. If you are in the service industry and you provide poor service people will stop using your service, and you will eventually go out of business...or you could significantly drop the fee, (and everybody's salary - b/c there is less money available to pay) and people would use the poor service recognizing that, 'you get what you pay for'.

In GO's case, they are for most users, a monopoly. So people don't really have a choice. However, even if we clogged the highways and the few other transit options, there would be some workforce reduction by attrition, perhaps some handsome retirement packages for those aged 50 and up at GO, but no bankruptcy. Remuneration and employment need to be tied to performance to get a similar experience that for profit, (read taxpayers), employees must endure.

That I am sure that is a very scary concept for many, and why I cringe when we discuss government employee compensation. One of the biggest benefits is the job and salary security. It is difficult to quantify, but not impossible. Ask a steel worker how much salary (s)he would give up to know that they will never lose their job or suffer a significant salary reduction because of market conditions, (I am not talking about incompetence or criminal activity - although unions have done a fairly good job at eliminating those employment risks). I would guess upwards to 25% of their salary could be taken for such a guarantee. Nothing scientific about that number, just a guess based on my experience.

Rant over...sorry so long.

Anonymous said...

They need to look at adding another loyalty level onto the presto cards. Or maybe have the discount starting at 30 rides opposed to 35?

That way they can keep the fares the same, while at the same time giving the riders who use the service day in day out some relief from the joke it has become... One can dream...

Skin Man said...

Oh...and very nice email exchange! But I do miss those crazy text battles of yore! (hint, hint)