Between the Lines podcast – Metrolinx CEO Phil Verster talks Eglinton Crosstown

Metrolinx President and CEO weighs in on a range of topics in his first appearance on Between the Lines: A Metrolinx Podcast. Have a listen.

When will the Eglinton Crosstown light rail transit (LRT) line open to customers?

It’s a question on the top of mind of transit riders as well as Metrolinx’s President & CEO.

This week, Phil Verster sits down for the Between the Lines podcast to weigh in on what needs to get done before customers can ride the Crosstown LRT – as well as his message to businesses along that LRT line and other planned transit priority routes.

Host Matt Llewellyn also asks Verster about his professional and personal goals for 2022.

Episode 17 – Fifty Years in Rail: Talking GO Transit's past & future with Rob Fuller Between The Lines: A Metrolinx Podcast

On this week's episode: we talk with Metrolinx's Director of Rail Operations, Rob Fuller. He takes us into the Willowbrook Rail Maintenance Facility and talks about the changes he's seen in the rail industry in the last 50 years and where GO Transit service is heading in the future. Watch: Rob Fuller takes us through the Willowbrook Rail Maintenance Facility Host: Matt Llewellyn (@mattrolinx) Guest: Rob Fuller, director of rail operations Producer/Social: James Wattie (@jameswattie) Learn more at blog.metrolinx.com Credits: Czar Donic / Red Red Shoes / courtesy of http://www.epidemicsound.com Dusty Decks / Golden Crates / courtesy of http://www.epidemicsound.com Nylonia / Last Question / courtesy of http://www.epidemicsound.com — Send in a voice message: https://anchor.fm/metrolinx/message
  1. Episode 17 – Fifty Years in Rail: Talking GO Transit's past & future with Rob Fuller
  2. Episode 16 – #AMAwithAMA – Who is Train Guy, can TBMs be reused and more!
  3. Episode 15 – Tunnel Boring Machines
  4. Episode 14 – #AMAwithAMA – Your Light Rail Transit (LRT) questions answered
  5. Episode 13 – Navigating market volatility in transit

Story by James Wattie, Metrolinx media relations senior advisor and Between the Lines podcast producer

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

Between the Lines – episode #3 transcript

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 leading global experts in the transportation field.

This week, we chat with Metrolinx president and CEO Phil Verster.

Phil, 2022 is shaping up to be a big year for transit in Toronto. There’s tunnel boring beginning, groundbreaking’s getting underway and a grand opening that’s nearly a decade in the making.

We’ve heard you say publicly before that the LRT along Eglinton is going to open this year. The big question, I think for many transit riders is when do you think that they’ll actually be able to expect that? When will they get to ride?

Phil Verster

Well, Matt, it’s going to be close to the end of the year. September, October, November, that span of time. We’re not very precise at this point in time because, you know, when these big projects complete, there’s always a few loose ends that must be clarified and must be resolved before the service kicks off.

But what is really exciting here is that Eglinton Crosstown is now nearing completion, and it’s a phenomenal connection for the network of transit services in the city.

And as it crosses east to west and connects GO lines with TTC subways and with buses, it achieves exactly that network we are after. So it’s a super exciting build and we are working very closely with both the TTC and our constructor to actually complete this.

You know, Matt, it’s one of those things. We’ve had two years of this awful pandemic. But we have relentlessly focused on delivery throughout this period. So it’s an exciting time, 2022 is, Matt. We have great expectations that this is the year when the new normal settles down in our region.

Matt Llewellyn

In terms of Eglinton, can you take us through some of the work that still needs to happen there in order to make it, as you say, tie off those loose ends?

Phil Verster

Yeah, most of the work now would be construction work on three or four of the key underground stations, Eglinton-Yonge being one of the most important ones, that’s on the critical path. That’s really important.

What’s exciting about the vehicles… we’ve delivered all of the 76 vehicles to the line already, and they are in various stages of testing, which is extremely important. And I was really excited when we started the above-ground testing on the eastern section.

And so that was a big step forward. But I’ll be honest, Matt, even now, we still have a COVID influence on the CTS [Crosslinx Transit Solutions] construction.

And we have a really challenging supply chain for delivery of materials. So these are the types of things that we just have to deal with, but that’s basically where we are. You know, it’s the last stages of construction and finishing stations, which is now getting done.

Matt Llewellyn

You joined Metrolinx in 2017. At the time, this project was already well underway. But you came in with a fresh set of eyes. I really want to know from your perspective in that time that you’ve been here now, what do you think the biggest challenges of this project have been?

Phil Verster

One of the biggest things that had to change right up front… because at that stage when I joined, the delivery of the vehicles by Metrolinx was in great difficulty. People were going to court and into final arbitration panels and the like, and I stopped all of that and re-established relationships with what was then Bombardier, now Alstom, and setting up these relationships with key suppliers are really, really, really crucial.

But as far as construction projects go, Matt, what was evident then to me already is that the conventional P3 [public-private partnership] model that’s used in Ontario for procuring large projects… of course, great, great advantages for the province. And we had to experience it on a transit project to see whether it really can work for complex, unique transit projects.

And I think we learnt a lot over the last couple of years as an organisation and as a province.

And we are decidedly shifting towards more collaborative or what’s called progressive contracting models, where the contract form is more about exploring the risk transfer with your contractor rather than just passing all of the risks on, there are risks we retain, and we therefore need to structure ourselves differently to deliver the projects differently.

And we’ve seen, as we’ve made these big changes, especially on some of the subway projects, we’ve seen a phenomenal response from the market where the market is very positive and very participative in these new contract forms.

What happens with the new contract forms is very simple, for the listeners that aren’t too involved with the type of procurement details that we’re talking about. But basically what it is, you can’t pass all of the risks onto the contractor and we as Metrolinx and the province retain some of the risk and we have to fix and deliver the scopes of work that pertain to those risks. But in broad, it’s about more collaborating with a supply chain, which is the way of the future for us.

Matt Llewellyn

When you say it, it makes it seem very common sense. It seems straightforward, like, of course, yes, that’s what we should be doing. But it wasn’t what was happening. I’m curious, did your previous work and your previous experience, did you bring that with you? Is that a procurement model that you’ve used before?

Phil Verster

Yeah, yeah, you’re right, Matt. Look, in the United Kingdom, we use these progressive construction models very widely and very effectively. Every contract form has its quirks and its pros and cons, and you have to carefully figure out where to apply and how to apply it.

And you have to, as an organization adjust yourself as well. Metrolinx as an organisation, four years ago, which was sort of: place a contract and stand back a little bit and be hands off in terms of how the delivery works.

So we had to invest over a couple of years in resources and people and leadership to be able to now shift to the more progressive contract forms.

So it’s not something you can just click your fingers and it happens overnight, either.

So as an organisation, we had to change, and I think that’s really important and we are a different organization now to what we were four years ago.

Matt Llewellyn

You’ve talked a little bit about sort of the procurement models of the subway projects. Is that going to be the big determining factor in these going forward? Do you see there will be many more benefits in terms of building these new projects?

Phil Verster

Without a doubt. You know, Matt, there’s an interesting saying, interesting saying in transit projects. If you’ve done one transit project, you’ve done one transit project.

And the humour behind that is there’s no such thing as you’ve done one, you’ve seen it all type of thing.

The uniqueness of every transit project means you have to have an adaptive delivery model and adaptive contractual model. I think the success of where we are now with our early tunnelling contracts is because we are a much more incentive-based scheme.

For the first time ever, we’re paying bonuses to contractors for achieving scheduled milestone dates, which are really important. And the market have responded superbly to that. And as we shift now to more of these progressive contract models, the relationships and the settling of disputes doesn’t have to be through court cases and strong arming each other. You know it can be through just an adjustment in scope, which is how you build relationships and how you get a successful contract.

Matt Llewellyn

With all of that in mind, I want to go back to Eglinton. Every few months, it seems there’s a story about some of the businesses along there. They’ve been in some cases struggling for about a decade. I want to know what your message is to those businesses along Eglinton and what would you say to the businesses and the owners along the new priority transit routes who are perhaps uncertain about some of the uncertainty that comes along with building these big infrastructure projects?

Phil Verster

Yes. You know. I’m a very reflective about this, and I’ll share with you a conversation I had with colleagues in Hamilton last week as we planned for the Hamilton LRT, we’re going to build over there.

Any subway, any LRT project that you build through the heart of a modern city is always going to be painful. And what we have done is we focused on what we call community supports/benefits. How do we help businesses and the structure of BIA’s [business improvement areas] where businesses are represented and interact with our construction liaison committees throughout the construction period.

And what we make available like a digital Main Street website to help to market these businesses. Everything from cleaning of facades and windows to make these shops attractive, clearing out pavement space and ensuring that people can still get access to the shops. We do quite a lot of this.

But there’s no way to look past the fact that when you have to build stations underground, that you affect traffic flows and you just affect the community significantly. So we work closely with the community. That’s the only way that you can do this. This is the only way that you can listen and hear what’s going on. And we continuously work at getting better at this. It is tough, though.

It is tough. You know, when you’re building in a community, it’s tough.

Matt Llewellyn

Would you say it’s right up there in terms of priorities, in terms of, you know, getting a project built on time and on budget is about caring about the community and sort of what that community will look like after it’s done?

Phil Verster

Oh, without a doubt, without a doubt. And it starts early. If I look at where we are on the Ontario Line project… again, you know, the difficult conversations start early.

It starts with the environmental impact assessments, which we are completing now and releasing now on Yonge North, as well as on the Ontario Line. It starts with difficult discussions around where we place big parts of the transit projects, such as the maintenance facility on the Ontario Line.

We’ve recently worked very closely with the Islamic Society of Toronto to procure and buy the current mosque and to facilitate the building of a new Islamic centre on 20 Overlea which is a property owned by the Islamic Society of Toronto. These are big, difficult decisions. And it only happens through the relationships that you build and through going to the community, speak truth, honesty and hard messages.

And look at what the community’s ideas are about alternatives. And see what’s possible. We adjusted our route and alignment through Thorncliffe Park as much as we could in response to community feedback.

But you can’t always make adjustments that fit all of the requirements. And I think that’s it as a concept, really Matt. It starts right from the early stages of the project. And it’s maintained throughout the delivery phases of the contract and the project. And it remains one of the top priorities we have is to stay close to the community.

Matt Llewellyn

It is interesting it’s a bit of a double edged sword, as you say, because you go to the community early, you be as open as you can, you explain, but people don’t necessarily hear what they want to hear or it does give them concern.

And then you end up having people who are not necessarily in full support of the project from a very early stage. And so that’s got to be challenging to try…

Phil Verster

You have to have empathy Matt, you know, you have to have empathy. Many people that are affected by some of our construction decisions are experiencing it firsthand. And it is a very different experience when you hear that a transit system, such as a subway, is going to get built, for example, under your houses.

And then we have to be great at explaining it, but we always have to be empathetic. The fact that these big projects will benefit tens and hundreds of thousands of people for generations to come and millions of people, generations to come, is a fact for sure. But that does not compare to the fact that people are really experiencing firsthand how these projects can affect them during the construction phase. And we have to be empathetic and we are and it is challenging. But look, we work hard at it and it’s it remains a priority for us.

Matt Llewellyn

You know, in that same vein, Metrolinx is an agency of the government of Ontario. Obviously, there are many pieces of legislation that govern what we are and what we do. But I want your thoughts on the Building Transit Faster Act and if you believe that a piece of legislation like that could have actually helped accelerate, say, timelines around perhaps a project like the Crosstown.

Phil Verster

For definite. It could have. At the same time as I applaud the Building Transit Faster Act and some of the potential mechanisms it gives us in order to get projects delivered, I have to say that, very carefully, each of the issues, that the Building Transit Faster Act gives us mechanisms for, we still relentlessly try and achieve those same objectives without using that act. And the reason for that is it comes back full circle to delivery of projects is a network of relationships.

It’s relationships with utilities and with shareholders and stakeholders such as the cities and the municipalities and the councils and the elected officials at the local level… elected leaders at the local level. As well as with our suppliers in the market itself. So every instinct in me as a business leader that delivers projects is to not use acts and regulations when I don’t have to and to try and find ways to fix issues.

And you know, I give you the example of the mosque that we are relocating with the Islamic Society of Toronto. We have a procurement mechanism that we can use and relationship building to secure transaction… Then we don’t have to use expropriation as the first step, but perhaps just as a procedural step thereafter. And this is what matters, you know, is that you achieve these outcomes in the best practical, possible way.

Matt Llewellyn

Let’s put the spotlight back on you for a moment. It’s a new year, you’re a big supporter of things that can get measured, can get done. I’m wondering, what are your goals for 2022, not only professionally, but perhaps personally as well?

Phil Verster

Biggest goal by far: reinvigorating our GO ridership on buses as well as on trains. We’ve got a fabulous service that connects the region in so many ways and is such a lifeline for people throughout the region. And we’ve seen the bus ridership recover much faster than the train ridership, and a lot of that’s got to do with what businesses decide the work from home policies are going to be going forward. But we’ve got a fantastic offer not only just for commuters, but also for leisure travel and for staycations and getting people across the region. We’ve seen huge interest in that.

People just want to get out. They want to get out and they want to travel and see folks around them. So that’s a big thrust that we have for 2022.

Second big one for me is to place the two big contracts we have on the Ontario Line. Our first contracts for early tunnelling on Scarborough Subway extension, Eglinton Crosstown West Subway extension.

Both of those have gone phenomenally well and we should have launch shafts completed by March, April and tunnel boring machines in the ground by April, May, which is just phenomenal. That’s in a record period of around 15 months from the critical in-market phase that we have progressed.

This is how transit projects should be done with that type of rapid deployment.

The third category which is a really, really big one for us, is our GO Expansion. On GO Expansion, we are in the final stages of placing the contracts that will lead the construction for the next seven to eight years and expand the GO lines to a capacity that’s about three times where we are at. And three times the capacity will move people significantly better and we’ll have more bi directional flow, two way all day train services.

And perhaps the fourth and last area that’s really important for us is as an organization, we focus very much on being an inclusive organization, respectful for diversity, with a focus on creating engagement in our teams. And that’s a personal objective of mine. When people are engaged, it’s just the discretionary effort, the extra discretionary effort that they put into their tasks and into what they do every day makes a fabulous positive impact on the business. You know, I’ve seen it, Matt, this year and this last two years during the pandemic. It’s amazing the momentum we’ve been able to maintain as an organisation.

So those would the four big strokes for me. And if I talk to you longer, I’m going to come up with four more because it feels like we’ve got so much to do. But those are the four big ones for me, Matt.

Matt Llewellyn

And personally, I know you’re a runner.

Phil Verster

Yes, yes. Yes, I do. I do run and and gym and exercise like I stay healthy, you know? It’s a way for me to process things.

I find that when I run, my mind floats around somewhat and I look at the challenges we’ve got from a slightly different perspective, and I often have my best ideas after run or during a run. That’s my secret.

Matt Llewellyn

Well, thanks so much, Phil. I really appreciate your time, and I know a lot of people will appreciate it too.

Phil Verster

Thanks, Matt.

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 podcasts. James Wattie is our producer. He also edits each episode and handles our social.

And I’m Matt Llewellyn.