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TTC learning from Philly's transit revival

U.S. city offers lessons on how to turn around a system plagued with problems, rider complaints

Complaints about old-fashioned tokens, dirty stations and surly service aren’t unique to the TTC.

Officials at Philadelphia’s SEPTA (Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority) system were hearing them long before Torontonians began publishing pictures of sleeping subway collectors.

But when Joe Casey became general manager of SEPTA two years ago, he decided it was time riders knew their gripes had been heard by those at the top of the system, which includes regional rail similar to GO Transit, as well as buses, trolleys and a subway.

Casey’s innovations - from making information kiosks more visible in stations to creating “quiet cars” on the regional rail - have transformed some of SEPTA’s harshest critics into constructive allies.

“Communication, cleanliness, convenience and courtesy - those were the areas that our customers ranked us as lower in our customer surveys,” he said.

Toronto officials, plagued with similar complaints, have been in touch with Philadelphia in their search for solutions, said Gary Webster, the TTC’s chief general manager.

To transform SEPTA’s culture, Casey named a general manager of customer service, Kim Heinle, who has a background in the hospitality industry. They introduced weekly classes in customer service for transit workers.

The system still gets just as many complaints - and Casey admits it’s hard to gauge the success of that program. But on the other side of the equation, in two years, customer commendations have doubled.

SEPTA tries to follow up with customers on complaints and compliments within two days. Employees receive gift cards as rewards for good service. Managers also regularly visit train and bus stations to survey customer satisfaction.

Administrators assist on the front lines during service disruptions, and everyone’s job review has a customer-service performance goal. Even retirees have been tapped to help assist riders at major community events.

SEPTA is also introducing some of the technology the TTC is trying to expedite in the wake of its recent troubles, including next-bus-arrival notifications. A proposal for a smart fare card is expected to roll out in the spring.

“Joe (Casey) is a commuter. He’s ridden the railroad for years so he sees the system from a commuter’s perspective,” said Matthew Mitchell of the Delaware Valley Association of Rail Passengers. The group, which lobbies for transit funding and accessible service, used to have a more adversarial relationship with SEPTA.

Although the group is still critical, Mitchell says, “We don’t have to make a public stink about things to get action.”

When he got the job, Casey said he was going to clean up the system. Before a single cleaner had been deployed, people were congratulating him on the improvement.

“We had a negative image before I took over,” he said. “That’s slowly changing, but a lot of it is image.”




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