“And likewise we’re in the process right now of going out with our own third-party crewing contract to get away from the crewing component of CN and CP. And that mainly is because the collective agreements that the railways have with their unions really address a freight environment. They don’t address a commuter environment.
“So their operating areas, their work rules and all of these kind of things really reflect the fact that it’s a long distance freight operation, not the fact that it’s a guy who runs a train at 6 o’clock in the morning, gets off that train at 9 o’clock and comes back at 3 o’clock to run the train again.”
McNeil admits that while the third-party crewing and increased ownership of infrastructure will help prevent being held at the mercy of another company’s union, it won’t prevent it entirely.
“Until we’re completely owners of all the infrastructure we operate over, which I don’t think will ever happen because CN still has to provide an intercontinental train service. Until that happens we’ll always be open for a potential strike. And likewise because we are going out with third-party crewing, that will become a unionized workforce and they could go out on strike as well.
“It doesn’t avoid it, but it means that the issues that are being raised are specific issues related to GO and its services as opposed to an issue in Northern British Columbia, you know there’s a wildcat strike and everyone puts down their tools and walks out kind of thing, which is the potential right now with the railways.
“Again it comes back to you wanting to try to control and manage as much of your existing system as you can because you are masters of your own destiny that is very important.”
As to dealing with CN directly on these matters, McNeil says that they have a captive market — it’s their rail lines and GO has to operate under their timeframe.
“If it was a non-monopolistic contract with the railways, if we could go to the railways and say fix it or else we are going to take our trains somewhere else, then the railways may pay attention to us. But really, they’ve got us. It’s a captive market,” McNeil says.
“They’ll basically fix it, but they’ll fix it within their timeframe and we know that they’re being driven to keep their costs down. Even though we will say to them we will throw whatever money is required to fix the problem, it’s still not being fixed in a permanent way that we really need it.”
And how do you get past that mammoth roadblock to increasing or even bettering your service? McNeil says it will take time.
“Continued meetings, requests for cooperation, try to establish friendships with the people we are working with so there is a bond between us so this is not purely on a business footing. Try to convey to them the importance of this to themselves,” McNeil says.
“When the rail corridor goes down, you’ve got business executives coming into the major financial towers in Canada, so if a train is late constantly and you’ve got a senior vice president on that train, he knows that CN is responsible for it. So when someone comes along and says should I invest in CN — hmmm — he scratches his head and says boy there’s some problems with CN, their train isn’t on time all of the time.
“Our ontime performance is a reflection on the railway. And it’s trying to convey to them that it makes good business sense for them to invest. Especially when it’s a no cost investment because we pay 100 percent, well, probably 150 percent, of our expense to the railways. So they actually make a profit out of us even when it is related to infrastructure repair and improvements.
“It is a strange and strained relationship.”
McNeil says he feels that the railways subliminally don’t feel like commuter rail is going to be here for the long term like they will be. Passenger rail died in the 1950s, so who’s to say that commuter rail won’t die out just the same?
And McNeil’s thoughts on this, “We’re here for the long term. I think we’ll actually survive the freight railways really. You look at the European marketplace, less and less stuff is being moved by freight trains and more and more people are being moved. Especially in an urban environment we’re really going to be the key component of moving people around. The number of people we move that are important to the downtown core of the city of Toronto is just unbelievable.