There's more construction in store for Union Station, says the new CEO of Metrolinx, who in his first weeks on the job has concluded that the transit hub has to operate much more efficiently.
Phil Verster, a South African who has worked most recently in the United Kingdom, took the top slot at the regional transit agency earlier this month. He enters the job tasked with implementing the $13.5-billion plan dubbed Regional Express Rail (RER), which would mean greatly improved GO Transit service. And he arrives as the agency weathers controversy about bowing to government influence in its support for some transit stations.
Mr. Verster sat down with The Globe and Mail in his office this week to discuss what to do about Union Station, his frustration with Bombardier's chronic delays in producing light-rail vehicles (LRVs) for Toronto-area projects, his interpretation of agency independence and why he spends time every week riding GO, listening to his customers.
What are you hearing from them?
People I talk to are very satisfied with frequency and punctuality. The biggest comments I get back is that in the peak, services are very crowded. I get strong feedback on the need for WiFi on our trains, which I share. It is something that we're going to look at. I get very positive response on Presto. People do remark that in the past it's not been always that great, but broadly speaking a very positive response on Presto. And generally a sense that our customer-focused staff are very good. There's nothing that replaces being on site, talking to customers firsthand, and I just think that's hugely valuable.
Have you been out in the peak to assess the crowding customers have talked about?
I've spent peak periods down here at Union and I think if we focus on getting Union to operate effectively we will address quite a lot of the congestion. Union is absolutely key.
What has to be done to improve Union?
I'm very keen on level boarding. It allows lower dwell times, it allows for better throughput of fleets. If we are going to move towards a higher-frequency service, operations through that corridor needs to be segmented. The key in a busy corridor is to minimize [train] crossings. Even if it's half a minute, it's a half a minute lost. Definitely [we're looking to buy] a signalling system solution that is more automated. It allows you to safely manage a huge capacity of trains through a narrow corridor with great effect.
Part of that whole solution will include a rebuild of the platforms. We must build up the platforms, but the platforms aren't right. They're too narrow. In order to get increased capacity through that corridor, we going to have to sacrifice some of [the current platforms]. We have to come up with a combination of bay and through platforms, which we'll have less of because we need wider platforms where people come up. We have to create wider width around those entry points, because it's simply unsafe. I've asked the team to look at a Union station platform layout that's different. As we're going to redo the platforms, [we'll] lift the platforms to the right level.
I think a lot of Torontonians who've lived through the Union station rebuild going on now will quail to hear that there's another rebuild on the horizon
You can separate the two. The current rebuild is very much in the customer-service areas, and I don't foresee that anything we are doing on the current rebuild will change when we start to address what platforms look like and how platforms are constructed. Whatever's being done now is good investment and will improve the customer experience for years to come.
Region Express Rail is obviously the biggest part of your mandate. Why are you right person to lead the expansion plan?
RER presents us with that unique opportunity where we can run our existing services – which are intense, we move 69 million people a year – to something that has three or a four times higher capacity, while we maintain current services. And this is the type of railway activity that I've been involved in for a couple years now, building railways and developing it while you run services on an ongoing basis.
Metrolinx has lost a couple of legal rounds to Bombardier now, first over the LRVs and then over the GO contract. Are we going to see a different approach to dealing with Bombardier under your leadership?
I am extremely disappointed in Bombardier's delivery and it's not acceptable. For there to be a successful relationship there should be an alignment of objectives and I will be challenging Bombardier continuously to adjust to achieve that alignment with our objectives.
When Metrolinx and Bombardier were in court over the LRVs the agency thought they'd win for sure. And it was a crashing loss. Is that a cautionary tale for going back to court with Bombardier?
We do not want to manage our business through the courts. The focus should never be to end up in a legal dispute to resolve performance issues. The focus should always be for Bombardier to fix the difficulties and problems that they have had in their production processes, and I'm still not convinced that they have achieved enough progress.
There's a provincial election next year and a Conservative government could change Metrolinx in dramatic ways. Why would you come to an agency with that uncertainty hanging over it?
It's a huge opportunity to contribute to a fantastic program. When I consider what Metrolinx's role is, it is to provide independent excellent advice to government on how to operate our transit solution, how to provide excellent planning and options on how to continue to improve mobility across the region. I think the purpose of what we are here to deliver will continue to be a requirement, and whichever way the world develops we will still have a requirement to move passengers and to provide the exact same service as we provide now.
You talk about providing independent advice, and certainly on a strategic level it's the government's decision, say, to do a program like RER or not to do a program like RER. But if the government of the day wants to have a station at a certain spot and MX doesn't believe that's the right thing to do, should MX simply follow the government lead or is that an [instance] where you should act independently?
It's unambiguous for me that when we put proposals to government, the proposals should be giving government options and it's government's choice which option they decide upon. And what they're doing on Kirby and Lawrence East [stations] for example, is exactly that. We will now continue to do what's best practice. A typical transit program would have three or four business-case stages. And when you look at those stages, different decisions are required at each junction, and I think the commitment that our chair has given for us to follow through on those two stations to the next stage of business case review is exactly the right one. That's how it needs to be done, and that's how [we'll] continue to do that.
You talk about best practices. Is it best practice for the board to approve a station, or two stations in this case – that the analysis it commissioned found did not make sense but was what the ministerial level wanted?
My previous answer sort of [lays out] how I see things should be done, and what I've explained is how I think it should be done and how I will continue to do it and how I will steer our organization going forward
Are you willing and able to say no to a minister of transportation when you're in this role?
Clearly is depends on what question I'm being asked. It is my very strong view that a technically independent transit authority with independent, solid, fact-based advice is of huge benefit to the province. Independence is not independence with a capital I, it is independence with a small I, in the space of domain knowledge and technical expertise to deliver transit solutions. That is our role, and any policy decisions and choices that must be exercised is for elected representatives to exercise.
This interview has been edited for length.