Listening to Northumberland commuters important to Via’s future

Change is never easy. But, the mismanaged communications by VIA Rail toward local commuters is unnecessary and insulting to those who depend on the service, demonstrating once more how disconnected the independent crown corporation can be from the public it suppose to serve.

During a passionate plea to Cobourg council two weeks ago, Bill Pracwecki sought support as VIA Rail attempts to introduce an e-ticketing system, meant to streamline the system and save money.

It means passengers cannot board any train they find convenient when they buy tickets in advance and in bulk to save money. The system will allow commuters to book tickets in advance, but either print out a bar code or force them to pick up the tickets at the train station window or automated kiosks. Train staff will be able to scan the bar code from either a smartphone or paper.

Using the typical patronizing corporate language, VIA representative Malcolm Andrews said VIA has safety concerns and the motivated to migrate to the new system for the convenience of passengers. The employees will have a better idea of who is travelling on the trains, in case of an accident. And, during peak travel times, the new system will better manage the seating.

Pracwecki said commuters are upset because the online books system often says trains are full, when in fact people cancel last minute or other circumstances arise, leaving seats, in fact, open.

There are also concerns about a $50 fine for cancelling in advance of a departure. For commuters who might miss a train due to work responsibilities at the last minute or a delay in the subway arriving, this is a problem and an expense.

Each Northumberland County commuter spends approximately $8,500 on tickets annually. For total revenues, estimating 120 passengers boarding regularly, it represents nearly a million dollars.

The commuters simply want the open-ended tickets, without reservations kept; price the monthly passes the same as two 20 ride packets; get the Ministry of Finance to allow train tickets as tax deductions, similar to TTC; and include riders in communication plans to services or policies impacting ridership. That is not much.

Commuters raised their concerns in a letter, along with a petition, sent in early June and had not received a response by the time of their presentation to Cobourg council on June 27. VIA responded through the media a few days later. The tone of the responses makes it sound like the commuter’s concerns are not real, but simply misinformation, which are corrected easily, if the situation was properly understood.

Yet, it is VIA who should take responsibility for the bad information and misunderstanding, not commuters. Before an e-ticketing system was even considered for implementation, commuters needed to be consulted and continued to be asked throughout the process. It is ridiculous to wait until after decisions are made or as an afterthought when protest arises.

There is one motivation for this change and one only: saving money. By booking tickets online, VIA reduces the need for employees. VIA Rail users will be reduced to web pages and automated kiosks. Help on the phone will come from a call centre on foreign shores rather than face-to-face.

Regardless of motivation, VIA owes its customers well-managed change. Despite where one falls on issues of modernization, the need to consult, respond and engage users must be hallmark to management in the 21st century, leaving the dictatorial top down approach with the old steam engines for scrap. By investing its time in working with commuters, the company will have fewer misunderstandings and maybe a better system than even the people around the board table imagined.


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