Thursday, January 25, 2007

GO chief defends service - Toronto Star

GO chief defends service
January 24, 2007
Curtis Rush thestar.com staff reporter

GO Transit is going through a tough time in the first month of 2007. Trains and buses have been late or cancelled due to weather, equipment and labour problems. And GO Transit is getting an earful from customers. The Star's Curtis Rush spoke with GO Transit's managing director and CEO Gary McNeil.

Q It was a tough start to the year, with GO bringing in reduced CN engineering staff and switching problems along the Lakeshore line. How would you characterize the first part of 2007?

A The first part has really been abysmal. We acknowledge the on-time performance has not been as good as it should be. We are going through some teething pains right now with CN. A lot of the issues associated with the reduced crewing are now under control.

Q Why do switching problems keep occurring, especially on the Lakeshore line, but not on other lines?

A On the Milton corridor, for instance, our train movements are single direction. In the morning, all the trains are coming in to Union Station and in the evening they're all going back out. On the Lakeshore line, the trains are going back and forth, back and forth. We have a lot of freight activity happening along the Lakeshore line because of the auto industry. And also VIA trains operate back and forth there. That is a heavily used corridor.

Q What do you tell people who think you blame switching problems to cover up other problems?

A We're telling them the truth. We're telling them the information we're receiving from the railway.

Q Why do trains in Montreal operate more efficiently, when they have more ice problems than in Toronto?

A Montreal doesn't have the same issues because most of their rail corridors are uni-directional. They're operating trains in during the rush hour and out in the evening rush hour, so they don't really have the multiple train activity that GO has.

Q What do you say to riders who say they're losing confidence in the system?

A Bear with us. It's growing pains. We will come back on stream. I think our reliability is still much better than the road system.

Q What improvements are planned for riders in 2007?

A You're going to see some of these infrastructure improvements coming to fruition. For example, on the Lakeshore West, we end service at Burlington. In 2007, we will be extending that to Aldershot station. So we will be taking that all-day service out one station further. That will off-load some of the parking situations that we're having in Burlington where we don't have enough parking spaces. We're putting in our rail-to-rail grade separations on the Bradford line, so we can now start to look at operating more trains on the Bradford corridor. And services to Barrie will tie in to that. We should be opening our services to Barrie by September.

Q Do you expect on-time efficiency to improve in 2007?

A I think you will find this coming year, once we get through some of the teething pains, our on-time performance will probably go up. I think we learned a lot from last year. We didn't bother looking at actual construction schedules so, for example, when we were actually doing work on a section of track, we didn't build in five minutes of additional travel time that we probably should have. Going forward, I think you're going to see that happening.

Q How good are the blowers that melt the ice on the switches?

A We're putting in 10 to 20 blowers every year. Last year we put in 40. Since 2000, we've tripled the number of hot-air blowers at Union Station, so right now, half of them are equipped (125 more are needed). On the main corridor, most are either cold-air or hot-air blowers. Cold air blows the snow away so you don't get any accumulation. But the big issue with ice is that when a freight train or a GO train goes over a switch (and you feel a bump when you go over that), if there have been extended periods of snow, chunks of ice drop down from the undercarriage of trains. For example, in some cases, it hasn't even snowed in the Greater Toronto Area for a couple of weeks, but a freight train is coming in from who knows where – where the snow has built up from the Midwest or something like that – and when it comes into the Toronto area, some of that ice drops in between those switch points, so when the switch has to move, it's hitting this block of ice. You can have a hot-air blower on that, but it's like an ice cube. You can put an ice cube under hot water and it takes time for it to melt. So you can still have a switch problem even with hot-air blowers.

Q How good has GO Transit been at meeting on-time targets?

A If we're at the 90 per cent mark, I think we're doing well. Typically, we try to do 90 to 95 per cent. The last reporting month to the board (in November), we were at 84 per cent. What's typically happened since July is that we went down from that overall 90 to 92 per cent range. One month, we had about a 76 per cent on-time performance. That was the month of the derailment. Our service was essentially shut down for three days.

Q Is GO Transit facing a public-relations challenge over the delays?

A In a way, we're victims of our own communications. We send out e-news messages to all of our customers who request on-time status reports for trains on every single corridor. What we're finding is that when people get that message, even though they're not taking that train, they're starting to say that GO service is really bad, even though they may have been delayed only once or twice in the month. We're advertising our failures. We're not advertising our successes. In the business world, we'd be out of business now because a business never advertises its failures. We report delays of anything over five minutes.

Q How unfair was the treatment you received from the public during the ice storm on Monday, Jan. 15?

A On the Monday of the ice storm, CN had three switch problems – two where the ice had built up and the circuit breakers blew when they were trying to move the switch back and forth, and another where the ice got into the actual switching mechanism and broke some components. On that day, a lot of customers complained. But when I looked out this window, this parking lot was about 10 per cent full, which meant tonnes of people who use the road system stayed home that day. No one complained about the highways being icy and not being salted. But because GO got people into work 30 minutes later than they normally would, everyone was complaining about it. It was like, `This is terrible.' Probably because GO still got people into work, the financial district kept moving. We kept the financial district going.

Q Is the criticism unjust?

A I'm amazed that people don't complain about the road system. I think they should be complaining about the road system as much as they complain about GO Transit. I'm not saying they shouldn't complain about our service. But people on the highways should be saying, "Why don't the salters get on the roads?"

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