Metrolinx marks anniversary of first COVID-19 lockdown – Changes? Anne Marie Aikins touches on just a few

Word of a novel pneumonia virus began circulating around the globe in late 2019. The Metrolinx Incident Command Team began its work early in 2020 to ensure we were ready. When the first lockdown began in mid-March 2020, no one could ignore the reality that a global pandemic was upon us. But that was just the beginning. Nothing, not all the planning, the early warnings and years of experience in emergency management could have prepared anyone – least of all emotionally – for what was to become of our lives for the next year. As we also mark Transit Operator and Worker Appreciation Day this month (March 18), Anne Marie Aikins, head of the Metrolinx Media Relations team, looks at how far we all have come.

A year ago, most of us were blissfully unaware of what lay ahead.

The first few months of 2020 was a very busy time at Metrolinx; we were consumed with pandemic planning, implementing safety actions and listening to daily updates as the science evolved on the novel virus. We were also managing protests that were resulting in rail blockades during peak times. And we were planning four subway lines as we continued building light rail transit projects and GO expansion.

Nothing particularly unusual for a big transit organization. Busy is normal.

For me personally though, something shifted on March 12, 2020.  

I had just returned to work following the death of one of my younger sisters and was feeling quite sad. So busy was good for me.

A worker scrubs the inside of a bus.
Linburg James wipes down the grab rail inside a GO bus at the Streetsville Maintenance Facility. While Metrolinx has always disinfected vehicles and stations daily, it has stepped up the frequency to ensure all high touch surfaces are cleaned regularly throughout the day. (Matt Llewellyn photo)  

Towards afternoon rush, I was summoned to York Concourse in Union Station to assist reporters who had arrived to cover a shutdown of Lakeshore West that was preventing thousands of people from boarding trains. The crowd was quickly building, and I could sense customers were becoming understandably agitated as anxiety levels increased.

“I recall seeing the worries deeply etched on faces as staff did their very best to calm fears and keep customers informed while quelling the burden of the same concerns.”

Anne Marie Aikins

In between media interviews, I chatted with staff and waiting customers. The conversations however were not about the annoying delays – each person only spoke about the global pandemic, their anxieties and worries about the future and the uncertainty of what was to come.

It’s been a century since the world has seen a pandemic of this scale and little was known at this point about the COVID-19 virus. There were few answers and a lot of insecurity creating a perfect storm of fear.

A woman poses for the camera.
Comfort Osei-Yeboah, Guest Services Representative at UP Express. Metrolinx has distributed thousands of ‘care packages’ to staff including reusable cloth face coverings, face shields, gloves and hand sanitizer. (Matt Llewellyn photo)

Earlier that day, it had also been announced that schools would close for two weeks following March break. This meant customers were less worried about when their train that day would arrive and more consumed by what they were going to do with their children while they worked. Many families had vacations planned.  Would they be allowed to board a flight? Would it be safe?

I recall seeing the worries deeply etched on faces as staff did their very best to calm fears and keep customers informed while quelling the burden of the same concerns.

Watching transit staff working under this pressure that night, gave me a sense of deep gratitude for their dedication – something I would come to do regularly throughout the pandemic.

A man works on the front of a train.
A mechanic at one of GO’s preventative maintenance bays inside the Willowbrook Rail Maintenance Facility ensure that cables are correctly connected to the front of locomotive 630. 2020 marks a decade of service for nearly three quarters of GO’s MP40 locomotives. (Matt Llewellyn photo)

As I walked home later that night, I picked up the phone to talk to my siblings about our sister’s funeral planned for a few days later. That seemed implausible at this point. Despite all the doubt, we agreed to monitor the situation – but in my heart I knew.

By the very next day, after years of steady growth on GO Transit and UP Express, ridership began to quickly dip. Then on March 17, a state of emergency was declared in Ontario and businesses closed, including daycares, recreations centres, bars and restaurants, malls and theatres.

It was then that my darling sister’s wake – like so many other important life events around the world – was cancelled.

By March 20, our ridership had dropped by 50 per centand within another week of lockdown as many staff began working from home, the streets and transit systems in the city were eerily empty.

A woman stares at a bus.
GO bus driver Kim McDonald does a pre-trip inspection inside a bus facility in Streetsville, Mississauga. In addition to prechecks and strict scheduled maintenance schedules, MTO inspections are also completed every six months. (Matt Llewellyn photo)

The Incident Command Team switched our efforts to an on-site Emergency Operations Centre (EOC) close to Union Station. As I walked there every day, I remember feeling like I was in a bad post-apocalyptic movie. It was a surreal time.  

And this was just the first few weeks of what a year of a rollercoaster of emotion has been.

Through it all, every single day our staff and contractors were there on the frontlines – both the ones you see and the ones you don’t – to keep an essential regional transit system going throughout an exhaustingly long global public health crisis.

Image shows a man holding a mask that is wrapped up.
Bombardier Guest Services Representative Ismail Bhikha sells GO and Metrolinx branded face-coverings at the UP Express ticket counter. Within four weeks of launching the sale of these reusable face covering, Metrolinx, sold approximately 1,000 of them, raising very close to $2,000 for the United Way. (Matt Llewellyn photo)

Bus operators and train crews. Station staff, cleaners and maintenance crews. Transit safety, K9 unit and revenue protection officers.  PRESTO, IT and transit control teams. All the safety, management and administrative staff working in the back offices and from their living rooms to support the teams on the frontlines and communicate with customers and residents.

Transit construction was also deemed essential all these months so the subway, light rail and GO expansion projects continued. That takes a lot of effort from our construction teams, planners, designers, community relations and communicators. 

Important projects in progress like WIFI on trains and buses and an open payment pilot for PRESTO on UP Express were kept moving as well.

A woman sits at a desk.
Comfort Osei-Yeboah, Guest Services Representative [GSR] at UP Express, waits to greet customers at the Pearson Airport terminal. While there are fewer international travellers these days, the entire GSR team can communicate effectively in three or more languages – with a total of 23 languages combined. (Matt Llewellyn photo)

Metrolinx CEO Phil Verster, who has not missed a single day going into the office to work alongside his dedicated employees, recently recognized the grim anniversary and expressed his appreciation to every single Metrolinx employee.

“I know you are doing your absolute best to cope as we deal with the fatigue of a year-long disruption to our lives,” he said. “Our frontline and operations staff are making us proud, offering lifeline transit service to those who need to travel in our region.”

For our employees working for home, he said, the long-term goal remains to work together in our office locations once more people are vaccinated, and it is safe to do so.

“Our focus remains on long-term planning for the day when people return to their offices in larger numbers once the region shows further consistent recovery,” Verster noted.

For now, until it is safe to do so, hundreds of Metrolinx employees will continue to work from home. 

We’ll take another look at the plan again in June, Verster said.

Image shows two men cleaning.
William Wells (left) and Jalal Lazer (right) wipe down high touch surfaces along platforms inside the Union Station train shed. In addition to the daily disinfecting of trains, buses and stations and all surfaces customers commonly touch – such as handles, buttons, railings, armrests and fare devices - are being given extra attention and cleaned throughout the day. (Matt Llewellyn photo)

Although there are clear promises of better days ahead, we are still in the middle of this exhausting fight.

The negative economic and mental health impacts on everyone are continuing to grow, but we know this pandemic has disproportionately affected the disenfranchised, parents of young children, caregivers and healthcare heroes who have worked non-stop.

As a transit agency, staff in the frontlines could see first-hand the impact of the pandemic on vulnerable communities. It has helped protect our collective mental health to give back.

A customer is served at a window.
Guest Services Representative, Phyllis Helbert, speaks to a GO train customer inside York Concourse at Union Station. Metrolinx has implemented dozens of safety changes to cope with the new COVID-19 reality, including a new policy mandating customers and staff wear face coverings at all times. (Matt Llewellyn photo)

During the last year, staff have been involved in a number of community initiatives, such as collecting groceries for food banks, distributing thousands of respirators for health care workers, as well as care packages to Toronto Aboriginal Support Services Council and Mississauga and Halton Health Network. Bus drivers also helped transport farm workers in the Windsor-area and volunteers created face masks using 3D printers for the health-care community.  Transit safety officers have distributed care packages to the homeless.

Being kind to others is good for the soul and is helping get us through a second, long lockdown this winter.

Surviving this past year has also required resiliency, imagination, patience, willingness to adapt to ever-changing safety procedures and new technologies, flexibility and being open to asking for help and accepting support.

A man sits and uses a radio inside a GO train.
Qualified Commuter Train Operator (train engineer), Jerome Goncalves performs a radio check as part of all crews’ pre-trip requirements for GO trains. Just like all other areas of the business, these crews are required to undergo health screenings before each trip and wear a face covering at all times inside the locomotive. (Matt Llewellyn photo)

This time has given me a deeper appreciation for the importance of our inter-connectedness.

When this pandemic began, a vaccine seemed like a dream perhaps several years in the making. To know we now have three vaccines approved and inoculations of our most vulnerable underway in less than a year seems nothing short of miraculous.

A dog exists the back of a vehicle.
Special Constable Tyler Long and K9 partner, Dougie, patrol the area around Union Station. Each four-legged member of the K9 team is carefully selected based on a combination of genetic and behavioural qualities. In Dougie’s case, it’s his keen nose, unstoppable drive and his tremendous stamina that made him stand out from the pack. (Matt Llewellyn photo)

The vaccine along with the promise of Spring gives me hope that better days are ahead.

We’ve all come so far – though many have suffered immense losses along the way – from where we started a year ago.

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