“Well I think a lot of it really is from an operational perspective. I think the main thing that has changed is that we are really focusing more and more on customer service,” McNeil says.
“We are really changing the way we approach things. And that is something that I’ve tried to bring to the organization. When we do something, look at it from the customer’s perspective; don’t just look at it from this is the standard and you’ve got to apply the standard or this is how we have to operate it because it is the way the railways tell us we have to operate it this way. We really have to look at these things and say, if I was a customer sitting in a seat, does this make sense. If I was a customer getting off the train, is this the best way to get to my car.
“It’s that whole approaching it as a business from the customers’ eyes as opposed to it being a government agency that has rules to follow and things. If we find that we’ve got rules or we’ve got some operating process or any other element that just doesn’t make sense from a customer’s perspective, then we’ve got to change it because we rely upon our customers so much for our business.”
GO recovers an astounding 89 percent of its operating costs from the farebox. With the intent of being completely self-sufficient for operating expenses, McNeil tells his employees that they have to remember who pays their checks.
“I try to tell my staff when you get your paycheck, the majority of that paycheck comes from customers, not from the government,” McNeil says.
And while a lot of transit agencies here in the United States would love to get that sort of recovery rate from the farebox, McNeil says it’s probably too high — a nice problem to have.
“As a public agency you’ve got that social side of the business that you’ve got to deliver as well as operating yourself as a business to be fiscally responsible. What 89 percent tells me is one we have a lot of efficiencies in our system and we do a lot of things very competitively and cost-effectively as best we can,” McNeil says.
“But at the same time it usually means that the trains are too crowded, that we’re probably not putting service out when there is a demand for it, but because we’re not recovering enough money from that service we don’t bother putting it out. So it really means we’re probably not providing all of the functions a public agency would be expected to do.
“Now a lot of that is driven by the fact that the province of Ontario, which is our state here, is not providing us with enough funds to put out more services. So it’s kind of like the cost recovery thing is being driven on us because they are only allowing so much money and because of that we force ourselves to deliver as best we can. But we really would like to provide more services for the customers but we just don’t have that subsidy.”
So what would be an optimal rate?
About 75 percent says McNeil, “There you’re still being fiscally responsible, but you’re probably putting out more off-peak services, services on the weekends that you know you may only be carrying 20 people on a bus as opposed to 50 on a full bus, but at least you are providing a service so people have a way of getting home with transit as opposed to driving their cars.”
For most transit agencies raising rates is a necessary evil done to get some much needed extra capital, but for GO Transit rate changes are just part of the plan — a very successful plan.
“Every year we’ve introduced a nominal fare increase, five cents, 10 cents, every year to keep up with inflation. And the customers while they don’t like it, they accept it,” says McNeil. “I think that most of them know that inflation is eating away at them as well and they’ve got to pay their way.”
McNeil admits that to keep GO’s amazing farebox recovery rate, you don’t provide discounts.