“We move 180,000 people a day right now and the majority of which are into and out of the downtown core. We’re probably going to break 50 million passenger trips this year and most of it is into this downtown, serving the business community of the downtown of Toronto.”
If you ask Gary McNeil what the No. 1 concern for GO Transit is, he will likely say ontime performance. With performance dropping by nearly 20 percent recently, this is a major concern for the agency and a major complaint of its riders. What makes it all that more difficult is that CN and CP dispatch GO’s trains for them, which leads to a collision of philosophies.
“This is the hard thing for us. It’s kind of like … there has been a bit of a philosophy change I think in the railways. Five years ago or whatever there was a philosophy out there that says a scheduled train takes precedence over an unscheduled train. So if you’ve got a scheduled train move that would have a priority,” McNeil says.
“It seems that the railways are slipping freights in front of us and also slipping VIA trains (Canada’s interregional rail service) in front of us, which then causes us to have like a, in the case of a freight train, 20-minute hit because it takes that long for the freight train to get through the block it’s operating because the block could be 3km long.
“And likewise with the VIA train, although they slip them in front of us, typically the VIA train is operating about 95 mph, so it’s going a lot faster. Our GO trains operate at a maximum speed of 80 right now. So sometimes when they slip in front of us it has less of an impact. But still if that causes us a delay to get out into that window, typically it’s impacting another train that was operating in another window and it ripples right through the system. So our ontime performance has been suffering quite a bit.”
McNeil says the railways state that their profit lies in moving freight, so the freight trains will get priority. And now with profits being ever more critical, GO isn’t getting the priorities they used to. And GO’s customers?
“They hate us,” McNeil flatly states.
“Probably the last six months have been really, really bad for us. We’ve historically maintained an ontime performance level of anywhere from 90 to 95 percent and in January we were down to 77 percent. We seem to be holding at around 82 percent right now, 82 to 85 percent. Without much signs of really significant improvements, and it’s a combination, some of them are our fault because our equipment is getting old, and we’re bringing new locomotives on board, but it takes time to cycle a new locomotive onboard.
“So we’ve got equipment problems. We’re fighting a lot of signal problems from the railways. Their infrastructure is old. It almost seems and I can’t prove it, but it almost seems like they’ve stopped preventative maintenance. It seems like it’s more of a failure maintenance, a mode, in order to cut costs. So the signal maintenance size is probably a lot smaller than it was before.”
McNeil admits that the problem is again a clashing of philosophies and a concept of time — both wildly different when it comes to comparing freight versus commuter rail service.
“When a signal goes out, for example, when you have a signal problem on the Lakeshore Line, it may take about an hour to two hours to fix that signal problem. That doesn’t impact the freight to any extent at all,” McNeil says.
“For them coming in and fixing something in two hours doesn’t have a big impact on them, whereas for us it’s a big impact on our customers. So like I said, our customers are really not too happy with us.”
McNeil admits that while the GO Trains are operated by CN and CP crews, for the riders this makes little difference.
“From the riders’ perspective they are getting on a GO train, the CN crews which operate on our trains wear GO uniforms. So from the riders, they just go, ‘yeah there may be an issue with a CN plant, but you are responsible for the trip, so fix it with CN.’”