Updated January 24 at 5:30 pm: The TTC has decided that it will accept the temporary adult tickets for refund until the end of March rather than having them turn into worthless confetti on February 1. The original concern was with redemptions of counterfeit tickets, but few people would have any reason to have a large number of tickets on their own. Only organizations that hand out TTC fares to their clients would buy large stocks in advance.
Updated January 24 at 8:00 am: The TTC has added route-based advisories to its schedule pages. 47 Lansdowne now tells me about the diversion at the north end of the route. 504 King tells of the bus replacement on Roncesvalles. 41 Keele has three advisories — two for construction at Keele Station and one for the diversion at St. Clair.
This change addresses the problem of having to search in multiple locations for notices affecting the same route.
Updated January 23 at 11:00 am: Revised and expanded to include comments on the Commission meeting of January 20 and CP24’s “On The Rocket” of January 21.
At the January 20th TTC meeting, on proposals by Chair Adam Giambrone and Commissioner Peter Milczyn, the Commission decided to seek out a “blue ribbon panel” to review customer service and improve the TTC.
What’s missing here is the very first step in any such review — a recognition that “customer service” is not just a smiling face on the front line, but an organization that really, truly, top to bottom believes that this is important. Too much of what the TTC talks about is focussed on the employees’ interaction with customers. Of course that’s part of the overall picture, but that relationship is coloured by the tools and support employees are given.
The TTC takes every chance to pat itself on the back, to tell Torontonians how great the system is. Inevitably this shows up with praise for TTC management. Indeed, Commissioners are loathe to publicly criticize management’s efforts.
That’s a huge shame because it sends the message that management is just fine, thank you, and doesn’t have to change the way they do business.
Many times, the TTC has received complaints about fare disputes, and a common response is that operators should use discretion depending on the circumstances. However, the TTC spends an inordinate amount of time telling anyone who will listen how much money they are losing on fares, and stressing the need for greater vigilance. (In the next breath, they will tell you how low the fare evasion rate is.) Some customers make honest mistakes, but some are trying on whatever tactics they can use to avoid paying a full fare. Just how much “discretion” should an operator use?
The recent fiasco about token hoarding, tickets and the fare increase has been worn, politically, by the politicians on the Commission, and, operationally, by the front-line TTC staff who suffer customer wrath about the botched implementation. Everything in this can be traced directly to TTC management, but they get none of the blame.
- In previous fare hikes, tickets were the fallback medium when the system ran out of tokens. Now there are no adult tickets. Ooops! What did management do? Suggest that people could pay full cash fare (a 50-cent premium to pay for their screw-up), and then send out a series of modified messages about where a lower cash fare might be acceptable (in a subway station but not on a bus).
- Roughly half of the new revenue to be gained by the fare increase was from repricing the Metropass to a higher fare multiple (2 fares higher). This was directly opposed to a Commission and City policy of some years that passes should fall, not rise, in price relative to tokens to shift more riders to the “all you can eat” mentality of transit use. A reversal of this policy was never approved at the political level, but it was central to making the numbers work for the fare increase. Indeed, net of projected riding loss impacts, the revenue jump for 2010 is much smaller than the overall expense increase in the budget. This remains unresolved.
If there is a political lesson in the fare increase, it is that fare freezes (such as the one we had in 2009) are counterproductive. In the short term, politicians look good because in tough economic times, we give people a break on transit fares. But in the long term, there will eventually have to be a larger increase with much worse effects on riding and on the credibility of the Transit System. Smaller increases in 2009 and 2010 might have had much less effect on riding, and the system would be in better shape for it.
Updated January 24: The temporary tickets created to bridge the fare hike were originally set to expire and become non-refundable at the end of January. The intention was to deter counterfeiters. The TTC has extended the deadline to March 31 for refunds only, and will look carefully at anyone with a large volume of tickets to turn in.
The TTC has a long history of winning awards, so much so that I remember one staffer joking that a senior (now departed) member of the management team was looking for more awards for the TTC to win. This sort of industry back-patting allows management to preen, to show what a great job they are doing. Sometimes, they even share the glory with operating staff who actually make the system work.
At the January 20 meeting, we were treated to a long, rambling presentation that, on paper, sounded intriguing: “International Benchmarking of Subway Cost and Performance”. This came from a review launched in London (UK) of the performance of the private contractor responsible for running the tube system. How well did they stack up against other agencies worldwide. I will write this up in detail in a separate post.
The problem with this presentation was that it was badly done, and the presenter clearly didn’t really understand the behaviour of the data. Some of it looks very bad for the TTC, some looks very good, but it is unclear why or which we should take seriously. This all droned on for half an hour while the Commissioners did everything other than paying attention. I expected to hear snoring.
Given recent complaints and well publicized incidents with subway service delays, signal problems, crowding, track fires, one might expect a presentation on these issues. What is the TTC’s history? Has the rate and/or length of delays been going up or down? Are there specific changes the TTC can make to reduce these delays? But no, there was nothing of that sort on offer. Nothing to show how the system can address service problems, or even that it knows how current experiences fit into ongoing trends.
The TTC keeps coming up with ideas for better information for customers, but they are often fragments and suffer from half-hearted implementation. There’s info on the web (if you know where to look), there’s info available by email, there’s info by text message, there’s even info by phone (business hours only, please hold for the next available operator), and soon there will be a trip planner.
The website, indeed the electronic information sources, suffer from disjointed implementation. If you want to know what’s going on, you have many options:
- A major disruptions box appears on all TTC pages, but this only tells you about serious problems such as subway shutdowns or major (but temporary) surface diversions.
- If your route is on diversion, this info might be found on the Route Diversions page or it might be found on the Construction Projects page. Where it almost certainly will not be found is on the page holding the route’s schedule and route description. There won’t even be a hotlink to the other pages. Moreover, I suspect that the folks responsible for the Route Diversions only work business hours, and if something happens off hours, it may never appear anywhere at all. Updated January 24 at 8:00 am. This problem has been fixed by the addition of links to all service advisories affecting a route on its schedule page. I will check to find out whether ad hoc diversions will be posted in the same way.
- You can subscribe to eAlerts which arrive by email. At this point you cannot subset which alerts you receive by route, but most alerts are for the subway anyhow. As I have discussed elsewhere, these alerts are subject to delays common in all email systems. Sometimes they arrive quickly, but often come in 8 minutes or more after they were sent.
- You can follow Twitter or Facebook via SMS text messages on your PDA. (If you don’t understand the preceding sentence, it probably does not apply to you.) Technically, the advantage of text messages is that they tend to arrive much more quickly than email, typically within a few minutes of being sent.
- Only recently has the TTC synchronized message content between eAlerts and text messages so that all the info goes out on all channels at once.
When the subway platform video screens were installed, there was much controversy about the intrusion into the system. The advertising was sanitized by the provision of a band for TTC info displays and, more recently, the next train info. If anything this is a boon to advertisers as it encourages people to look at the screen on a regular basis. It’s rather like product placement in reverse — put some real content in with the commercials.
The problem with these screens, oddly enough, is that there are far too few of them. Most platforms have only one, some have none at all, notably at TTC’s head office station, Davisville. There is no information at mezzanine or surface level where it could be seen by customers using other parts of the station or even by TTC staff. Meanwhile video screens are popping up as an advertising medium replacing static wall cards. The visual clutter in some stations has reached the point where it is hard to find the actual transit information.
Collectors in the booths and operators on surface vehicles have almost no information about what is happening on the system. A surface operator, at least, could subscribe to text messages, but they’re not supposed to read them while driving. Indeed, there is some question about whether they are even supposed to look at internal messages sent via the CIS (vehicle monitoring) system from Transit Control while their bus or streetcar is in motion, or pick up calls via their vehicle phones. Doing so may contravene the anti-cell phone legislation.
Signs are a special subset of information, and their content does not lend itself to conversion to electronic media. There are, broadly speaking, two types of signs: directional information that rarely changes and ad-hoc information about maintenance programs, special events and route diversions.
I will leave it to others to declaim at length about the vagaries of TTC signage both for content and for style. Last fall, we saw new area maps go up in stations, only to discover that they were hopelessly inaccurate. New ones were supposed to appear, if memory serves, by the end of October. It is now January.
That such error-filled maps could be produced says much about their importance to the organization.
As I mentioned above, some stations have become so cluttered with “Station Domination” advertising that it is hard to find the actual directional signage.
When access between parts of stations is partly or completely closed, signs directing people to these routes should be blanked off. For example, at Broadview, the new east stairs from platform to street level have been out of service since early fall, and will remain so until at least May 2010. However, signs advertising these exits are fully lit and could, especially in an emergency, draw a passenger to an exit that is not actually available.
Temporary signs abound in stations, both in Collectors’ booths and in various other places. The booths are simply a mess, and the TTC has yet to deal with this problem even though at least six months ago they claimed that they would provide proper laminated signs to replace the many hand-written ones. Special event and diversion signs remain posted months after the event is over. These are misleading to occasional riders, and should be removed, but it doesn’t appear to be anyone’s job to actually do this.
I left this to the last, given the recent publicity of the snoozing collector at McCowan Station. Presuming that he was not ill (something the person who took the photo failed to ascertain even though he watched for five minutes waiting to see some signs of activity), yes, sleeping on the job isn’t a great advertisement for employee dedication.
That said, and among other complaints in the press and the blogs about rude employees, my day-to-day experience with TTC staff is fairly good.
One major problem the TTC does have is with poor labour relations. This is a very dictatorial organization prone to demanding rather than working with its employees. Good customer service comes from people who feel good about their job and their employer, and no amount of “training” can overcome a bad working environment. Some years ago, every operator went on CUTA’s “Transit Ambassador” course. It was considered a joke, simply a way for some time off, by many.
If employees feel badly about their jobs, the reasons need to be understood and addressed. This won’t solve everything, and the bad apples will still be just as rotten. However, the vast majority of good employees will be able to do better.
That said, a recent example shows how the attitudes in the field show up with on street service. The Queen split experiment was resented by many, including those in TTC management, and this message hit the street loud and clear. Many riders complained that they could not ride around the loops to destinations with better connections (Dufferin in the west, Broadview in the east). Two separate orders went out from TTC head office saying “do it”, and these were ignored.
I have heard a lot of bilge about this related to the privacy of operator breaks, but this could have been addressed by changes in the operation. (In the west, lay over on Dufferin, not on Shaw, so that passengers can connect to the Dufferin bus. In the east, loop counter-clockwise so that a connection at Broadview is maintained and lay over southbound on Parliament.) At times, it is easier to blame the union than working to find a solution.
At The Commission
As a long, long time attendee at TTC meetings, I am sadly familiar with the process of making deputations to the Commission. Cap in hand, we supplicants come forward for our five minutes hoping that at least one Commissioner will even listen to our stories.
Far too often, people with legitimate issues are dismissed with, at best, a “thank you” and little followup. One good example this week was a presentation about the St. Clair project. Perish the thought the TTC might acknowledge their foul-ups, and the comments were more or less ignored. This tactic may avoid a conflict with management in a public meeting, but it also sends two messages. To staff, it says, we’ll back you up no matter what you do, and to the public it says, you don’t matter.
When those who would advise the TTC on service talk about how it must “start from the top”, that’s the kind of thing they mean. Why should staff be polite to customers when the Commission will dismiss any complaint? I know that’s a slight exaggeration, and some deputations (including even mine) can be trying, but that comes with the territory.
On The Rocket
Thursday’s show was Adam Giambrone’s last as the election campaign is about to start. (I’m not pre-announcing anything — he said so at the end of the show.)
This program has always suffered from Giambrone’s wearing two hats. He is the host, and as such, should be able to take the viewer’s point of view, to be an advocate for their concern in grilling an on-air guest. Unfortunately, he is also the “guest” who answers many of the questions, and he spends too much time dolling out the official line without fully understanding what the caller’s concern might be. The dual role is not workable.
In the first part of the show, the topic was the Queen route and the split operation trial. Although I will write about this subject in more detail once I have analyzed all the data, one comment by the TTC merits rebuttal. It was claimed that in having to turn off of Queen (left at Parliament eastbound and Shaw westbound), the streetcars created their own delays. The answer should be that this scheme, to work, needed transit priority signals such as the one eastbound at Broadview and Queen. In any event, the delays at the turn locations were nowhere near the main source of problems. Giambrone should have challenged the statement, but let it pass.
There were many more short turns during the split operation than without it, but this is directly traceable to different line management techniques. Something that was already known to work for the unified route was dropped for the test split operation with predictable consequences — short turns went up.
At no point was there any discussion of the alternative 507/501 split scheme put forward by many (including me) that would see a Long Branch to Dundas West service operate independently of a Neville to Humber service. Indeed, one wonders if the TTC will now dismiss any request for a 501/507 split on the grounds that they tried a split and it failed.
The major issue on the show was customer service and delays. One of Giambrone’s guests was Lecia Stewart who, among other callings, was for a time involved with the West Coast Express, Vancouver’s commuter rail operation, although much smaller than GO. On the basis that this company managed to achieve an extraordinary 99% customer satisfaction rating (itself highly suspect), Stewart was introduced as a transportation expert. She also happens to be a lobbyist for Bombardier, but this was not mentioned. (Full disclosure: I have eaten one breakfast on Bombardier’s tab paid for by Lecia Stewart. There was no booze.)
I was amused that Stewart kept trying to pull Giambrone away from a focus on training staff and push him to recognizing the need for organization-wide commitment to good customer relations. As long as we pretend that a smiling face and a pleasant voice will fix everything, we will fix nothing. Getting staff the information they need to be able to advise customers accurately is essential, and the business has to focus on customer service even though it would prefer to just run the railway.
In the end, if the TTC expects to find a “blue ribbon panel” to advise it, that panel will almost certainly say “Talk to your customers” and “talk to your staff”. They should also say “don’t promise miracles, but what you do promise, deliver”.