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TTC hires expert to ease friction with riders

After a decade spent in the hothouse of London's massive transit system, Chris Upfold, the Toronto Transit Commission's newly appointed customer service czar, knows a thing or two about the complex psychology of commuting.

Shortly after he started at London Underground in 2001, the 37-year-old University of Guelph graduate found himself with an assignment to install new ticketing machines in some tube stations. The precise location of a machine, he discovered, could shave almost 10 minutes off a rider's journey and set the tone for the day that followed – an important footnote in the life of a harried London office worker. "It made me realize how important transit was," he said in an interview.

While the London Underground's ridership is more than twice as high as the TTC's, Mr. Upfold knows he's got his work cut out for him. He applied for the job after closely monitoring the TTC's public relations feud with its customers over the past year and a half – a period that's seen growing friction as riders wielding cellphone cameras post unflattering images of TTC employees on the Internet.

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The appointment – his exact title is "chief of customer service" – fulfills the top recommendation from the TTC's customer service advisory panel, which issued its report in August. The move comes amid reports of renewed sniping between TTC drivers and passengers, and dovetails with chair Karen Stintz's goal to bolster customer experience on Toronto's increasingly overcrowded transit system.

Ms. Stintz (Eglinton-Lawrence) says the commission needs a "culture shift" and was interested in Mr. Upfold's expertise with a transit system that takes a very different approach in its dealings with riders. "We know that if we're going to implement a customer service culture, we need to rethink the way we approach customer service," she said.

Panel chair Steve O'Brien, general manager of One King West, applauded the appointment. "I think that's fantastic. It's certainly a move in the right direction."

Before moving to London in his late 20s with his English-born partner, Mr. Upfold lived in Toronto and regularly used the TTC. But as he steps into his new job, which begins in May, he says he will ride the rails differently, talking both to customers and TTC staff to learn the issues. "It's going to be an awful lot of listening for me."

It appears Mr. Upfold has done this sort of thing before. During London's four transit strikes last year, he and other back-office staff were required to spend hours camped out in tube stations, fielding customer questions and complaints.

Mr. Upfold was also directly involved in efforts by Transit for London to improve accessibility for the city's hundreds of thousands of physically and perceptually impaired residents.

Asked whether he's confident the TTC will allocate the resources needed to implement the panel's 78 recommendations, Mr. Upfold acknowledged that he expects he'll have to make a "business case" for such changes to the system's managers and its political masters. But, as he observes from his training in London, "Improving customer service means improving the bottom line."

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