Monday, January 08, 2007

GO must resolve labour difficulties - Toronto Star

GO must resolve labour difficulties

January 04, 2007

Adding to their post-holiday blues, GO Transit commuters heading to work on the first business day of the year had to cope with cancelled buses on some routes and several delayed trains. Unlike previous winter snarl-ups, these problems were not storm-related. This time, officials cited labour difficulties as a factor in Tuesday's trip cancellations and slowdowns, raising the spectre of chronic trouble in this vital transit system.

Lingering labour problems, such as ongoing staffing disputes and unexpected days-off taken by drivers, must not derail a service that is critical to Toronto's economy and vital in the movement of masses of people.

About 195,000 passengers ride GO Transit buses and trains on an average weekday, mainly travelling to downtown Toronto, and back, from surrounding communities. If they all switched to driving, the resulting gridlock would render the region's already-jammed highways almost impassable, affecting the movement of goods as well as people across the GTA.

Starting 2007 with labour problems is an ill omen for GO, and a clear signal that more effort must go to improving union-management relations. Both the system's administrators and its labour leaders must take the initiative in defusing tensions before matters spiral out of control as they did last spring at the Toronto Transit Commission. The TTC was hit by a one-day wildcat strike in May that affected the lives of 700,000 commuters and cost the local economy millions of dollars in lost production as people arrived late for work or not at all.

The GO Transit slowdowns Tuesday appear to have stemmed in part from the trimming of 34 train engineer jobs on GO's busy Lakeshore routes. Those jobs were cut Dec. 29 as a money-saving measure. Some of the bus drivers taking the day off may have done so in solidarity with train engineers. And a spokesperson for CN, which supplies GO Transit's train crews, blamed rail delays on labour "work-to-rule behaviour" in the wake of the cuts. In contrast, a union official attributed tie-ups to administrators who were unable to cope with the job of reassigning crews.

One thing is obvious – labour relations at GO need improvement. The system has experienced worker-related slowdowns before, most notably last summer, when some CN train crews didn't show up for Friday shifts resulting in several train cancellations. Such incidents undermine confidence in the system and do nothing to attract, and keep, riders.

GO Transit has been a remarkable success story since its launch in 1967. Today the system's trains and buses carry some 48 million riders yearly.

However, the needs of the GTA have grown dramatically over the past 40 years. GO Transit must meet those needs through improved service, including such things as larger parking lots and more trains and buses serving more areas. But if GO Transit is to have any hope of effectively filling those needs, the first thing it must do is get labour relations in order.
Only then will commuters enjoy a truly reliable system.


Its unreasonable to think that labour difficulties can be completely eliminated. Even if we make transit an essential service, there is nothing to stop a wildcat strike. By its very definition, such a work stoppage is illegal. All we can do is try to make a working environment where employees are safe, happy, and paid well for their troubles. ...And no, we can't just fire them all and start over. Everyone hates it when the cashier they get at the grocery store is a trainee. They will likely be very slow and make mistakes. Do you want a fleet of large vehicles being driven entirely by trainees?

For GO's specific case, they should be, and are, looking at the contract they have with the railways on the train operation.

Railway engineers are only allowed to drive trains on the subdivisions they are qualified for. If an engineer is qualified only for the Lakeshore line, they cannot transfer over to another line on a pinch. This is all fine and good if you have enough crews. Problems arise when there is a shortage of crews - people cannot be moved around the system. CN should either qualify their operators for more subdivisions, or simply do what it takes to ensure that there are more crews available so trains don't have to be cancelled when crews can't report to work. CP doesn't have the problem of crews being unable to switch lines, as only on GO rail line runs on CP trackage.

In order to remedy this, GO has called for operators to bid on the contract to operate all trains. Veolia Transportation (the VIVA operator) and Bombardier have been identified as possible bidders, and CN and CP can still bid, but if GO wants to reduce delays due to staffing issues, they must play hardball. A penalty should have to be paid if the operator cannot perform their duties.

When it comes to the bus fleet, there's a shortage of operators at both the TTC and GO transit. Increased recruitment is the answer, but it takes time to train new bus drivers, and fast-tracking them isn't a good idea. I suppose sometimes a little patience needs to be had by all, and things need to be kept in perspective. A dozen runs may seem like alot, but is pale in comparison to the hundreds of runs made every rush hour of every day.

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