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Saving the TTC ... and a mayoral bid

`We’re getting it from all sides: customers, the media,’ says TTC boss

Published On Thu Jan 28 2010
By Royson James City Columnist

At least they came clean.

Battered and bruised by weeks of unrelenting public criticism, transit officials yesterday apologized, accepted the blame and vowed to do better.

“We owe our riders an apology,” a grim TTC chair Adam Giambrone told a news conference at city hall yesterday.

“They have a right to expect good quality, reliable and customer-friendly service,” he said, adding that the avalanche of public vitriol has “acted as a wake-up call.”

It was classic damage control. And it was well done. But will it work?

We’ll see how effective the proposed changes will be, especially the promise to do what they admit is a most difficult task: change the culture of transit staff to put customers first.

At stake is more than the mood of an apoplectic public. After a while, people just give up complaining, begin to accept bad service and either stomach it or move away from transit, slowly.

The greater risk is a political one for Giambrone. The transit file, once thought to be his passport to the mayor’s office, now threatens to imperil his campaign for mayor even before it starts. Giambrone is expected to register and enter the race Monday.

His backers - expected to include manager John Laschinger, who ran David Miller’s two successful campaigns - no doubt told Giambrone he had to get out ahead of the issue. Deal with it forthrightly and immediately or it will hang around the campaign like a bad case of H1N1 at a wine and cheese party.

So Giambrone stood there yesterday and offered few excuses.

Why has customer satisfaction plummeted under his watch, he was asked.

“It has become a growing concern. I don’t know why,” he offered. “We were focused on incredible expansion. At some point, we have to come back and focus on customer service.”

The TTC should have been better prepared for the fare increase announcement, the run on tokens and the fiasco of crowd management following the shutdown on the Yonge subway in December, he said.

Subway fare booths will get new microphones to better communicate with patrons, he said. Cellphone users will be able to text a number at each transit stop to find out how close the next bus is. All but four subway stations will have time-of-next-train-arrival by year’s end. And 50 new vending machines are to ease the purchase of tokens and Metropasses. As well, the TTC will develop a customer bill of rights guaranteeing good service.

When a reporter asked how the system will afford the changes being proposed, he said: “Changing the attitude across the entire organization” doesn’t cost money.

While attitude change among the segment of staff that “don’t get it” will be most difficult, chief general manager Gary Webster admits, motivation is building.

“They’re embarrassed,” he said, describing his staff’s reaction to the cacophony of complaints he describes as “a bit of a feeding frenzy; a bit of a crisis. We’re getting it from all sides: our customers, the media. It’s painful to hear when you’re proud of the TTC.”

The political calculation is that the furor will subside, now that someone has taken responsibility. Years back, the TTC followed a similar script following a train crash and restored public confidence.

Giambrone and his backers should know there is no room for error. One more public relations disaster on the transit system and his candidacy for mayor is crippled.

Yesterday, they figured the 32-year-old took a big step.

“At his age, he’s the real deal,” Laschinger said last night. “He’s mature beyond his years.”

Royson James usually appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.