Not any more

Chris Selley: Hey, GO? Just make the trains run on time

In Canada on November 9, 2010 at 21:22

There’s a sign at the Beer Store location I frequent that promises to “open another cash register for purchases whenever more than five customers are in line.” Its sole effect, as far as I can see, is to infuriate people while they stand in lines that are much longer than five people. I don’t blame the staff for that. There’s only so many of them in there. Unless HQ is going to chopper in another employee whenever an unexpected rush hits, it’s an unfeasible promise, clearly designed by customer service experts who see follow-through as someone else’s department. As far as I can see, customer service experts think we’re all idiots.

I was reminded of this as I read GO transit’s hilariously absurd new “passenger charter,” which is as follows: They’ll try to be on time. (Genius.) “If there are delays, we will provide information about them.” (More genius!) They’ll do “whatever we can to ensure that you get home safely.” (Why does it sound like there used to be a “but” at the end of that? But … for God’s sake, stay out of the washrooms at the Brampton terminal?) And they’ll provide a comfortable ride on a “modern, well-equipped vehicle, giving you well-deserved time to yourself.” (Time to myself on a train, eh? I guess if I put my jacket over my head.) Oh, and if you have questions about things, they’ll endeavour to answer them.

In other words, GO’s passenger charter is a big, showy pledge to live up to the minimum standards of First World public transit, to which passengers will already have quite justifiably felt themselves entitled. I think the campaign might actually make things worse.

There are two fantastic lines in the accompanying promotional video. “99% of the time,” a station attendant cheerily explains, “people come to see me in a state of panic.” How’s that for an advertisement for suburban living? But this, from an earnest customer service representative, takes the cake: “It’s not just about getting there,” he says. “It’s also about the experience of getting there.”

Look, assuming this guy’s the real article, good on him for trying to brighten people’s lives. But you know what? It really is just about getting there. There’s watching the sun set across the prairies from the dome car on The Canadian, nursing a gin and tonic. And then there’s watching the sun rise over Aurora on the 6:48 from Barrie to Union Station, wishing you’d gotten a bigger coffee. It’s sad that these experiences are so different, but such is life.

Full disclosure: As a midtown elite, I don’t ride GO transit. But I can’t imagine the experience is much different than the TTC — just longer and more remote, and thus with more potential for massive delay. As I said back when the TTC caught this customer service flu, it’s all based on a false premise: If people are delivered to their destinations on time and quickly, by reasonably empathetic (and, ahem, awake) fellow human beings — i.e., if public transit systems simply deliver effective public transit — there will be no “customer service crises” to address in the first place.

I don’t ride GO, but I can imagine myself on a freezing, windswept platform in Ajax, waiting for a disastrously late train. I can imagine myself looking at the passenger’s charter — “We will do our best to be on time” — and contemplating the futility of the pledge, divorced from the follow-through. And I can imagine myself hurling profanities into the icy gray dawn.

National Post
cselley@nationalpost.com

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