“They know that when they get on the train that they can fall asleep, which we don’t encourage people to do when they are driving,” McNeil says with a smile.
“They can read their newspaper. Quite often on the train it’s a social gathering because a lot of our customers are repeat customers. They sit in the same seat all of the time. Their friends are sitting there waiting with a cup of coffee for them when they get on the train. So it really becomes an extension of their work or social life.
“I know myself – I take the train as many times as I can – I take it probably four days out of five each week.
“You know 15 minutes of sleep is worth a lot of money. I would pay an awful lot of money for 15 minutes of sleep, and I think a lot of our customers are the same way.
“A lot of people take us for quality of life issues. While we have reliability issues, 80 percent of our people are getting home on time, whereas if you were driving in your car I can almost guarantee everyone would be getting home at a different hour every day. One day would be good, one day be bad, the next day would be worse.”
McNeil says the Toronto area is looking at a large transportation infrastructure problem in the near future with few extensions or expansions built to area freeways in the past two decades, but that problem is one that creeps up on you.
“In a way transportation congestion is like cancer, it slowly eats away at you. And because it takes so long for big, big problems to materialize, governments tend to put off doing anything about it.”
So have these rate increases affected GO ridership? Not according to McNeil.
“We never have a problem getting people to take GO Transit. That’s never been a problem. We’ll put a train out and in two weeks it will be filled to the brim. We have big latent demand — standing room only.
“Most of our trains in the rush hour are standing room only. Our parking lots are jammed. Our trains are jammed. Customers are complaining about reliability issues, but also saying they want more services.”
As with many agencies here in the United States, GO Transit’s trains run on freight lines. The majority of those lines belong to Canadian National (CN) Railway, with the rest belonging to Canadian Pacific (CP) Railway. Using the freight lines for your service often means being at their mercy when push comes to shove, and for GO, whose trains are also operated and dispatched by CN employees, things can get … tense.
“It’s a strained partnership. Like in the States, it’s the same really up here in Canada. The freight railways, we’re not their main business,” McNeil says.
“Even though we provide them with a fairly good revenue stream for railway access fees and crew overhead and things like that, their main business is moving freight. I sometimes jokingly say, but there is probably a certain amount of reality in there, the freight railways wish we would go away because we interfere with their trains.
“So it is a strained relationship. We realize that there are certain things that have a major impact on us.”
McNeil says that while GO doesn’t necessarily interfere with CN’s trains, they do fill most every block during the rush hour period.
Adding to this tension is that as of the time of this interview CN operators were currently on strike. Both CN and the workers’ union, the United Transportation Union (UTU), have pledged to not let the strike effect GO service (and so far it hasn’t); there is always that potential for the trains to stop. And in fact it did happen about a decade ago when GO service was halted for nearly two weeks. To forestall this sense of helplessness, GO has begun a process of taking control of its rail lines and locomotives.
“We’ve gone aggressively to buy any rail corridor that the railways are interested in getting rid of. And we now own about one-third of the tracks we operate on,” McNeil says.
“As the railways start to rationalize their own services and get down to defined corridors, if they’ve got a corridor where they are only running a few freight trains on, then we say to them well we’ll buy it and you can still run your freight train on it, but it allows us to do the maintenance on it to the level we would expect and provides as much service on it as we can.