An Anne Marie Aikins column – Hello to a fresh new start in 2021 for transit riders and beyond

Putting 2020 in the rear-view mirror is going to be a challenge. But in this column by Metrolinx’s well-known media senior-manager, Anne Marie Aikins, she writes there’s plenty of reason to feel good about looking straight ahead this year – while allowing some good things to tag along.

I dare you to disagree.

The end of 2020 couldn’t have come fast enough. It was a, well, hell of a year.

Our collective psyche took a wallop last year – not only from the worst global pandemic in a century, which dealt not one but two waves of illness, but also world-wide impacts to transit ridership and a long-awaited awakening to anti-black racism.

Not to mention those murder hornets, stampeding feral monkeys and Brexit – I don’t pretend to understand any of those things.

Image shows signs on a door.
Anne Marie Aikins’ office in Union Station. She largely, like many, has worked from home, when she hasn’t been needed to be around a Metrolinx property. (Matt Llewellyn photo)

It was an exhausting year. In spite of the terrible losses and the anxiety of not knowing what was coming next, 2020 provided glimmers of hope for better times ahead and moments of simple joy as we clung tightly – at least virtually – to each other.

So this first column of 2021 – by choice – is one of hope, gratitude and progress.

Watching the first Canadian frontline healthcare hero get the long-awaited vaccine that will inoculate us against the virus brought tears to my eyes a few weeks ago. For me, it represented optimism – a way out of this. Perhaps not today or in the next month, but 2021 is looking much more positive if we continue to maintain our commitment to all of our safety actions until the full rollout of the vaccine is complete.

There is a light at the end of the tunnel that grows brighter every day, which gives me a renewed sense of determination to keep up the fight.

Metrolinx is monitoring the COVID-19 vaccine rollout closely, under the guidance of Chief Safety Officer Martin Gallagher. We will be focusing on educating staff as the province continues vaccination of the most vulnerable people in our province. The Incident Command Team, which has been working for a full year now managing the pandemic response at Metrolinx, will continue to meet throughout the New Year.

Many of our employees are coming to work every day, and thanks to their dedication and commitment, we have been able to provide a lifeline service throughout this pandemic to the people of our region – many of them the frontline healthcare heroes who began getting the vaccine last month.

Revenue Protection Officer Shawn Miller checks the PRESTO card of a Lakeshore West customer on their way to Union Station. Fare inspectors look a little different as a result of COVID-19, equipped with face coverings, goggles, rubber nitrile gloves and hand sanitizer for everyone’s added safety. (Matt Llewellyn photo)
Revenue Protection Officer Shawn Miller checks the PRESTO card of a Lakeshore West customer on their way to Union Station. Fare inspectors look a little different as a result of COVID-19, equipped with face coverings, goggles, rubber nitrile gloves and hand sanitizer for everyone’s added safety. (Matt Llewellyn photo)

In spite of devastating impacts of the pandemic, we’ve continued to make progress on many of our transit projects. We completed Cooksville station and York BRT and launched tunnel procurements on the Scarborough and Eglinton Crosstown West Extension.

In December, we celebrated the opening of the spectacular new Union Station Bus Terminal, and while not quite as sexy as an opening, but we also issued two very important Ontario Line procurements.

Last year, we also implemented a number of PRESTO benefits and improvements throughout the year that customers are really appreciating.  Improvements include app enhancements such as instant load for both iOS and Android phones, the ability to check transfer windows, removed the overdraft fee and reduced minimum load to five cents on all online channels. We also almost completed installing the new PRESTO devices for GO and UP and across the 905 to get ready for the initial launch of contactless credit and debit payment.

Speaking of customers, we have really missed you and look forward to welcoming you back on GO Transit and UP Express. Again, for many of you, not today or even in the next month,but I feel confident that as we gain control of this virus, in time you all will come back and take advantage of the progress we made while you worked from home to keep others safe.

Image shows Chris.
Transit fan, Chris Drew, standing inside the new USBT on opening day. (Matt Llewellyn photo)

We are waiting and eager for our customers to return.

I also hope our hand hygiene remains just as immaculate to help stop the spread of all kinds of bugs and that I’ll be less inclined to blabber while on mute and leave my virtual hand up at my Teams meeting like a car with its right signal on forever.

And I hope our expressed gratitude to frontline workers and the essential transit staff who get them to their jobs lives on.

But this column isn’t just about my optimism for our staff, communities and transit riders. It’s about a wider mood I feel at the place I work, including from Metrolinx CEO Phil Verster.

“Throughout the pandemic, we ensured safety precautions were in place to keep our construction projects moving forward,” Verster said. “That means we will break ground on three subway projects – early works for the Ontario Line will be underway, and the Scarborough Subway Extension and Eglinton Crosstown West Extension will both begin early works and construction on the tunnel launch shafts.”

Metrolinx will also release an updated business case this year for the Yonge North Subway Extension, which will be our go-forward plan for making that vision a reality, Verster added.

“We will also celebrate the completion of and new service beginning at Bloomington GO Station, as well as the completion of Bay Concourse in 2021,” he added.

“And I expect we will make great progress on all LRT projects, including getting off the Eglinton roadways – at last – as we see Mount Dennis, Keelesdale and Science Centre stations near completion.”

Image shows the front of the station.
A look at advances in construction at the Bloomington GO station. (Metrolinx photo)

Verster also expects, once a vaccine is broadly deployed and extensive inner-city travel habits resume, the importance of the subway projects like Ontario Line will be abundantly evident.

“Clearly, ridership in the region has been affected in the short term by COVID-19, but our projections stretch out for the next 60 years – we are building for the future,” Verster noted.

Newly appointed Metrolinx chief planner, Karla Avis-Birch, concurs and is bringing a renewed energy to what she describes as an amazing opportunity in her new role to: “Shape a pragmatic and sustainable vision for how we plan and make good transit decision.”

Avis-Birch – a 15 year Metrolinx employee and civil engineer – is also relieved we will have an opportunity to see how: “(The) promise of the COVID vaccine will help us all see a light at the end of the tunnel and plan future celebrations with a little more confidence.”

She looks forward to celebrating with her two sons as each close academic chapters in their lives.

A customer looks at his phone.
A customer stands and looks at his phone as he waits for a GO train at Oakville station in this Sept. 15 image. (Matt Llewellyn photo)

 “To start new journeys, one completing University and the other completing high school,” she told me.

Jennifer van der Valk, who recently became Metrolinx’s chief communications officer, said she’s: “Excited about 2021 as we embark on an unprecedented era of transit delivery.

“It’s more important than ever that we connect with communities with clear and open communications that help residents, businesses and stakeholders understand what’s happening in their neighbourhood. We need to continue to build trust with our customers through an ongoing commitment to bring everyone home safe, every time.”

Metrolinx pivoted during the pandemic to do all public consultations – beyond the walk-throughs with residents, phone calls and one-on-one meetings – virtually. In 2020 we conducted over 25 virtual engagements which had a 150 per cent increase in participation. In 2021, van der Valk is committed to offering enhanced face-to-face and in-person digital equivalencies during the pandemic and beyond, as there’s value to our customers and stakeholders in being able to participate without time and geographic or physical constraints.

“The year 2020 was difficult and the change and uncertainty has been a struggle for so many of us,” van der Valk added. “But I’m determined to reflect on the good that came about – the precious time to connect with my children, a renewed focus on balance and the shared understanding that we are all in this together.”

As I said, hope, gratitude and progress.

That’s what 2021 is now opening with – the sound of hopeful possibilities of what’s to come and grateful reflection of having come through what was.

Story by Anne Marie Aikins, Metrolinx senior manager of media.