Metrolinx launches first podcast – Between the Lines

Audio storytelling features more intimate, detailed transit conversations, which is why Metrolinx is launching a podcast today. This first outing takes an in-depth look at GO Transit service changes, though future podcasts will explore every corner of Metrolinx’s world. Here, Anne Marie Aikins, the transit agency’s head of media and public relations, wades in on why hearing the voices of transit experts and connecting with communities, customers and those who are following the largest roster of transit projects in Canadian history, is important.

I have a simple job description – to reach you.

As the head of media and public relations for Metrolinx, my days are spent building a bridge to you. Whether you are a customer of GO Transit, UP Express or PRESTO, a community member interested in our work in your neighbourhood, a member of the media, an industry expert, a transit buff or one of our stakeholders, my job is to inform and be informed by your feedback and address concerns and questions.

Beyond my ability to talk and, most importantly, listen, I also have an arsenal of communication tools at my disposal, including Metrolinx News, to help me do my job.

So, when it was suggested we add the more intimate medium of audio storytelling – which we’re doing today with the kick-off podcast episode on temporary service adjustments – it was an easy decision.

Stay tuned – and thank you! Between The Lines: A Metrolinx Podcast

Thank you to all of our thousands of listeners who have joined us so far. The Between The Lines team will be taking a short break over the summer, but we will be back. We want to hear from you! What topics should we focus on? What Metrolinx projects do you want to learn more about? What are you liking about the podcast? What would you improve? Send us your thoughts: podcast@metrolinx.com Have a great summer. Stay tuned… Host: Matt Llewellyn (@mattrolinx) Producer/Social: James Wattie (@jameswattie) Learn more at blog.metrolinx.com Credits: Gregory David / Shifting Out / courtesy of http://www.epidemicsound.com — Send in a voice message: https://anchor.fm/metrolinx/message
  1. Stay tuned – and thank you!
  2. Episode 21 – Top 5 reasons customers get in touch with GO Transit customer service
  3. Episode 20 – #AMAwithAMA – Terrifying near miss video, what are sun kinks and Pride Month begins
  4. Episode 19 – Walking The Entire Eglinton Crosstown Line
  5. Episode 18 – #AMAwithAMA – GO & UP service changes, rail safety and your transit questions answered

The stars were aligned to launch ‘Between the Lines’, a Metrolinx podcast, as well as a companion ‘AMA with AMA’ segment that I’ll lend my voice to as I answer questions. The pandemic certainly increased the public’s desire for timely, transparent information. The interest in podcasts as a news and entertainment source has soared during the pandemic, too.

We also have some of the best in the broadcast industry now on our media team to lend their skills. Matt Llewellyn, with his recognizable radio voice and interviewing skills is our host, while James Wattie, an award-winning broadcast producer, is producing Between the Lines.

Together, they have planned some fascinating and timely discussions.

But the podcast is also about hearing directly from Metrolinx voices and experts who can explain the transit advances and changes the best.

It’s important you get the story from them.

What can you expect to hear in the podcast?

There will be many conversations coming – our first podcast features an in-depth discussion with senior leaders about the current impact of the Omicron wave on both ridership levels and our staff’s mental and physical health.

Podcasts Tuesday and Thursday

We’re starting with, every Thursday, an in-depth ‘Between the Lines’ feature. And then, every Tuesday, we’ll have ‘AMA with AMA’ (an actual dream of mine) where I’ll attempt to answer some of your most timely questions.

There will be a fascinating, behind-the-scenes discussion with our chief of customer protection and another with our new chief of inclusion planned in the weeks ahead.

Image shows a large construction area.
Construction progress continues on many transit projects in the GTA, including here on the Finch West LRT in Toronto. (Metrolinx photo)

We will regularly put our CEO, Phil Verster, in the hot seat and other senior leaders, like our new chief communications officer, David Jang, to help pull the curtain back on the latest Metrolinx news.

Our experts have remarkable perspectives, and can explain, in captivating detail, how and why we’re doing things. Metrolinx is in the middle of the biggest transit infrastructure build in Canadian history. So, there are so many great stories to tell.

I am thrilled to launch our first edition of Between the Lines which you can find wherever you get your podcasts, and I look forward to hearing about your ideas and questions.

You can send them in to podcast@metrolinx.com or tweet them to me @MetrolinxSpox using the hashtag #AMAwithAMA.

Story by Anne Marie Aikins, Metrolinx head of media and public relations

Find her on Twitter @MetrolinxSpox

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Want to follow along while you listen? Here’s a full transcript for this episode of Between the Lines:

Between the Lines episode #1 transcript – Jan 19, 2022

Matt Llewellyn

Hey, I’m Matt Llewellyn. Welcome to Between The Lines: A Metrolinx Podcast. Every week, we’re going to tackle some tough transit related topics and let you hear from some of the brightest minds and the leading global experts in the transportation field.

This week, the Omicron effect. As Ontario experiences a surge of new COVID cases and a return of pandemic restrictions amid a more transmissible variant, Metrolinx has announced a reduction of GO transit service. We brought together a team of experts to talk about all the reasons why this decision was made, how Omicron is affecting GO’s lifeline services and its front-line workers.

Here to talk about train service is Rob Andrews, the director of rail operations. Eve Wiggins is the vice president of GO Bus Service and keeping everything running inside the Metrolinx Network Operations Center is senior manager Doug Tuira.

Of course, keeping everyone informed is Metrolinx chief spokesperson Anne Marie Aikins.

I want to start with this service reduction. I mean, for years, it seems like every time that there was an announcement about GO, it was good news for commuters. There was more trains around the Greater Toronto area.

There were more busses, new stations being announced in new areas. However, throughout the last two years of this pandemic, it has felt very different. Ridership has been a bit of a roller coaster dropping, coming back up. Anne Marie, you’ve been out this week talking about another round of service reductions.

Are you ready for this ride to be over?

Anne Marie Aikins

Oh, Matt, I think we’re all ready for this to be over. It’s been a very, very long, nearly two years for our staff especially on the front lines. But you know, when I think back to the March 2020, we opened the Emergency Operations Center and I would walk there and it would feel like I was walking through a zombie movie and the zombies were all hiding, but there was just no one around. It was, it was pretty… it was scary. It was actually very scary. And we knew so little about this virus. And over the course of two years, ridership would come back, never recovered fully.

By the fall, we had recovered the most ridership we had in the past two years, so that was feeling pretty good. So this wave with Omicron is particularly demoralizing. One is, people are very tired generally, and our staff have been on the front-lines continuing.

Now many of them are getting sick, and it just particularly a demoralizing time that it feels like we’ve come full circle back at in March 2020 all over again. But there are some things that are different. We know more about the virus, we know how it transmits.

We know we can test for it and detect for it. We just have many more tools available. And the most important, of course, is that vaccines are available now, so it is different, but it’s going to take us a while to come out of this latest wave.

Matt Llewellyn

You know, Rob, I know that as Anne Marie is talking about sort of that zombie type feeling, you know, prior to the pandemic, I’m a Lakeshore West rider most nights it’d be standing room only. I mean, I was on the train earlier this week, and there isn’t anybody, you know, to be seen on some of these trains sometimes.

It’s got to be challenging. I mean, take us through what this last month has been like for your side of the business.

Rob Andrews

Yeah, you know, unfortunately, the reality of our business right now this past month, and I’ll say probably this past couple of years have been brutal for us, operationally. We strive to provide an excellent, safe, efficient service for our customers.

And it’s been a real challenge for us with everything that’s been going on. We started to see some recovery, as Anne Marie pointed out, we saw some passemgers coming back, but Omicron hit. And it’s impacted us significantly. I mean, we started with some challenges on the operations side.

And then on top of that, we added in Omicron and with a number of employees that have been affected by that. It’s really impacted the service that we’ve been able to offer.

Matt Llewellyn

Yeah, let’s talk about a little bit about that. You mentioned that sort of that labour shortage. I mean, it’s not as simple as just going out and finding somebody to operate a train. It takes years and years in order to get somebody, you know, for example, to be a qualified commuter train operator or a locomotive engineer.

Rob Andrews

Yeah, that’s correct. There’s this misconception that we can put out an ad and hire some locomotive engineers right off the street, and that is not the case at all with us. For those that ride our service, you’ll be very familiar with your customer service ambassador.

Well, the plan is and has always been, that that customer service ambassador will one day be driving your train. The hiring progression is first and foremost as a customer service ambassador. They then work for a certain period of time to become qualified conductors.

They then have to work as qualified conductors for a number of years before they become qualified locomotive engineers. So we are years getting someone qualified from the minute they step into the operation to the minute that they’re actually qualified to pull that train safely and efficiently.

So it’s a really difficult challenge for us during COVID. And because of the restrictions that were in place in terms of our operating environment, we weren’t able to do any training. So now we’re getting back into that now to build up that conveyor belt of training again.

And to date, I think we’ve hired upwards of 70 CSAs so we’re starting to build that push again. But it does take a considerable period of time to be able to get that fully qualified crew on the head end of our trains.

Matt Llewellyn

Over on the bus side of the business, you know, it doesn’t take quite as long to get somebody into the driver’s seat, but Eve, I mean, your part of the business has also experienced its fair share of challenges.

From a logistics perspective, was there anything that you think that’s happened during this pandemic in the last couple of years that surprised you or you might say, has been unexpected?

Eve Wiggins

Yeah, things like tires. So the 315 tires that we had … getting nervous because our tire supplies were getting low. So as we have to replace tires at regular intervals, we are keeping our eyes very closely on the actual supply of new tires coming in.

The DEF head sensors, so for all diesel vehicles relies on this sensor that knows when it needs to inject fluid into the exhaust system to keep the diesel emissions down. And so globally, there was a DEF head sensor shortage.

So we were affected just like the trucking industry, just like elsewhere and how we had to get innovative in terms of again keeping track of which vehicles needed them. We might get… we might have 20 busses down, just waiting for those sensors.

We can’t put them on the road if this function isn’t happening, obviously, from an emissions perspective. So we’d get eight in, hooray and cheers, and then get them on the busses that were slated and ready to go out.

I’d say the unexpected piece is how strong and important bus became during these times and how truly different the two modes are, but how they really rely on each other and how integrated and interconnected rail and bus are and how closely they work together.

In terms of customers, rail was virtually decimated and traveling downtown, customers just aren’t coming in from the suburbs like they used to. And it became so clear on how much we really rely on those suburban office commuters to fill the trains.

But bus relies on a larger, like a different segment of travelers. Yes, we still have the suburban office commuters, of course, but we also have factory workers, hospital workers, cleaners, real essential pandemic front-line people who must still get where they need to go, and students who are still trying to get to in-class learning.

And when we opened up as a transporter of leisure customers, it was amazing how many people actually flocked to bus and how strong when things were positive, how we did see this resurgence of leisure riders, weekend riders and bus was really on its way to a positive recovery.

So if I was talking to customers, I’d say, keep traveling, keep, keep having confidence and faith. We are so much cleaner, so much better at doing this than we were before. We’ve learned so much here. We have new filtration systems on our on our HVAC systems.

We have new methods of cleaning. Our busses are certainly cleaner than they’ve ever been before. We have the dividers, talk about a logistics exercise getting those put in. But it just it happened, right? Because it was the right thing to do.

And so I think the message to customers is just keep traveling.

Rob Andrews

Just to build on what Eve was saying there. And I would say one of the things that’s really become obvious to us is the GO piece of business in the rail piece of business are very distinct.

But the thing that we’ve really become acutely aware of during this time is, as Eve mentioned, how much we rely on each other. We would not on the rail side have been able to deliver the service that we have delivered, albeit at a reduced amount.

But the service that we have delivered has been, you know, supported 100% by Eve and her team on the bus side to fill in those gaps where we had to cancel trains or move service around to accommodate us better that way.

So it’s been a real success story and a real eye opener for all of us about how interconnected we really are

Matt Llewellyn

And the people responsible for doing those changes, Doug, that’s your team in the NOC really the beating heart of the transit network. What do you think from, you know, trying to keep everything moving smoothly and safely? How hard is it been to really keep your team healthy?

Doug Tuira

Yeah, it’s been… it’s been tough. It’s been tough. My team obviously is front-line as well, and we’re kind of a unique environment and where we are frontline office workers. So while we have our frontline, you know, our bus staff and our rail staff, we have kind of frontline office workers as well where we’re all in the same room under the same roof, sitting side by side one another. So from a health perspective, that creates unique challenges. We have to be very conscious of our of our distancing between one another within the NOC itself. We use things like, you know, dividers.

They obviously have our N95 masks that that we started to use. We even brought in medical nurses to apply rapid tests to our employees, as well as far as in order to kind of create an additional net of safety.

So it’s been hard. We’ve been hit with the same amount of reductions from an absenteeism perspective related to COVID as well. While at the same time having our workload increase. So we’re kind of it’s, you know, getting it on both sides here.

Here, we’re kind of exposed to staff reductions on the rail and bus side, but our workload actually goes up because we deal with the exception based reporting and kind of filling the busses and finding the drivers, calling in the overtime, taking the initial book off, getting the calls from on the rail side as well, and saying

OK, we can’t run this trip. So we got to run it with busses to see if we can. It really has been bus to the rescue that seems to be one of the one of the kind of the coined phrases that keeps popping up and up.

Matt Llewellyn

I want to ask each of you and I want to sort of peel back the curtain for our customers, you know, sort of speaking about that. I’ll start with Eve in bus. I’m just curious what’s keeping you up at night in terms of, you know, the business and how things are going?

Eve Wiggins

Yeah, that’s a good question. I say it always changes. If you asked me last month, I would say what’s keeping me up at night was about developing plans for our future. We were very focused in that way of OK, it felt like the worst was over.

It felt like we were entering into 2022 with optimism about growth. And now, like, we have put those action plans in place. But now it’s getting the timing right that when customers want to start coming back, that we’re ready at the same time to come back for them and that we have the drivers in the right place, the vehicles all ready to go and that we’re serving the right cities, right.

We’re serving the right connection points between our coverage area. That’s really what I’m focusing about.

Rob Andrews

Yeah, this is an interesting one because what may have kept me awake two years ago has changed considerably today. So right now, what keeps me awake at night is the constant fear, if you will. And I think that’s a fair description of it, of what the morning will look like when I go to bed

Because I have a plan, when I go to bed at 2200 or 2300 at night and after I’ve had an outlook of what the next day is going to look like business wise and how we’re going to crew all our trains with the Alstom operating crews.

What effect of Omicron will there be with those employees that run our trains are experiencing at home? They all have children or elderly folks living with them or partners or friends that are living with them, whatever. So we run that constant risk of greater exposure right now.

So you know that that fear for me or the thing that keeps me up at night is making sure that we are keeping everyone on the frontline safe and healthy so that we can continue to deliver the great service that we do.

Matt Llewellyn

Mhmm. Anne Marie?

Anne Marie Aikins

If you asked me literally what kept me up last night was COVID sweats… a little graphic, but that’s something that happens when you test positive, which I did, like thousands of other people, tested positive this week. So that’s what’s kept me up last night.

But what generally keeps me up through this wave is the level of illness of our own staff. All the way through the pandemic, we had less than 3% of our employees contract COVID and it was very gradual, came with the waves.

Early on we did have one of our employees did pass away, but our illness level was pretty low. But in the last three or four weeks with Omicron, the number of cases have more than doubled and that’s currently what keeps me up.

I want to make sure my own team and all of those teams on the front lines get through this.

Matt Llewellyn

And finally, Doug, you in the NOC?

Doug Tuira

Yeah, I would say what keeps me up at night in the same vein is just the health of our people within the NOC. The NOC engine’s running pretty hot right now. There’s a lot of exceptions being kind of managed by my team.

And, you know, I’m conscious of their mental health, worried about burnout, things of that nature. So just doing what we need to do… core business, keeping our trains and busses moving our passengers happy. The customers are the first part of every conversation that we have and their safety, their, you know, the reliability of the service.

They’re always first like, we’re always talking, they’re the reason why we exist. So they’re always part of that conversation. So we always have them in mind. And I think that’s important for them to know that they’re top of our agenda.

Matt Llewellyn

That’s Between The Lines: A Metrolinx Podcast for this week, thanks for your time. We know there are a lot of choices out there and we appreciate you checking us out. Now, do you have a question that you’d like answered on a transit topic that you’re interested in hearing more about?

Be sure to send us an email podcast@Metrolinx.com. And if you do like what you’re hearing, be sure to subscribe wherever you get your podcast. James Wattie is our producer. He also edits each episode and handles our social.

And I’m Matt Llewellyn.