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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.