Image shows Keri offloading a ramp.

GO Transit customers to Anne Marie Aikins – ‘We’re getting ready to ride again’

As many GO Transit and UP Express riders return, or prepare to come back to riding trains and buses, Anne Marie Aikins, Metrolinx’s head of Media and Public Relations, recently reached out on social media to ask how passengers are feeling. They responded – in substantial numbers. Here’s what they had to say to her.

There’s a proverb that says, absence makes the heart grow fonder, the longing to see the familiar when forced to stay apart – like when a prolonged global pandemic hits.

All signs now point to recovery and transit customers are gradually returning to GO Transit and UP Express. Both their excitement and nervousness are palpable.

So, I recently asked people to tell me what their long-awaited reunions with transit were like – both the good and the not-so-good experiences. Some of the replies were expected (although the ‘proposal’ was a little surprising) – more service, more ambassadors to refresh their memories and more directional signage.

I also gained a lot of insight, however, into changing travel needs after a two-year, exceptionally challenging pandemic – heightened awareness of and sensitivity to their surroundings, hybrid working, the subsequent impact on service, and an increase in anxieties and fears in public places.

Image shows Keri inside the train coach.
GO train customer service ambassador, Keri Merrimen, is shown – thanks to a self-timed photo taken on her phone – at her station inside the accessibility coach. (Keri Merrimen photo)

All the feedback customers took the time to share is appreciated and has been provided to appropriate Metrolinx teams in planning, the contact centre, station services, customer protection, bus and rail, as well as all leaders. The awareness will help customers.

I received all this valuable feedback (and it is still coming in) after sending a tweet out recently, asking my followers to share their feedback if they were heading back to GO or UP for the first time. A lot of very diverse people across the region replied – all at different places in their personal and emotional journeys. Students, seniors, youth, caregivers and parents. Frontline healthcare workers (thank you!). People who essentially haven’t left their homes to keep themselves and others safe (thank you, as well).

Some folks have been travelling with us throughout the pandemic, but many just resumed transit, mostly infrequently as they are working hybrid models. And others are back to the old grind full-time in their offices.

Dealing with those who won’t wear a mask

A young professional woman said she’s just recently returned to riding GO trains and although it feels ‘normal and good’ to be back, she’s unsure how to navigate a person in her quad with their nose sticking out of their mask. Staff educate, remind and provide masks, but enforcing usage is difficult. Shaming or vilifying doesn’t work and confronting someone aggressively can be risky.

My suggestion is to always wear the best mask you can anywhere where there are lots of people, such as on transit. Customers can also move to another quad or level or another coach altogether. Masks remain mandatory on GO and UP at this time and we are increasing our announcements for customers as trains and buses get full (ridership is still low, in the mid-20 per cent of pre-COVID levels, so there is lots of room to move around).

On occasion (such as my condo elevator), I have gently reminded someone by saying: “I would feel much safer if we all wore our masks over our nose and mouth.”

If they don’t get the hint, I’d add: “Do you mind lifting yours up over your nose? I’d really appreciate it.”

Make sure you have your best ‘smize’ on.

“Rahul Mehta @OpportunCity told me – and this was something I hadn’t thought before – that the “noise is overwhelming” on transit after two years of very quiet isolation.”

Anne Marie Akins

People are in very different places emotionally, I discovered. I’ve heard that the pandemic won’t feel like it’s over for everyone at the same time. Many are feeling tired, impatient and anxious after so many months. Others expressed stories privately of feeling afraid and vulnerable out in public spaces. One young woman bravely shared a story about experiencing a panic attack during a fairly routine trip and how much the non-judgemental support and compassion from a couple of Special Constables meant to her. Kindness is always an effective strategy.

From the quiet to a place of transit noises

Rahul Mehta @OpportunCity told me – and this was something I hadn’t thought before – that the “noise is overwhelming” on transit after two years of very quiet isolation. Many forget we have a Quiet Zone on trains – but they also asked for it to be expanded to all day, everyday.

Many, like Ryan @ryanphanna are using GO for leisure activities, they said, and hope we’d promote the affordable and convenient weekend passes more. Good idea. Many were surprised to see that we launched open payment on UP while they were gone. And some just took their first flight to go on vacation so used UP Express. Brandon Schaus and Damian Baranowski are both eager, as we are too, to return to 15-minute service.

A University of Toronto student, Anika Munir @munir_anika, shared the tweet with students returning from reading week and now coming back to transit. Students asked about their bus schedules, their transit passes and if their PRESTO card would even work after two years sitting in their sock drawer. They’ve missed a lot of improvements with PRESTO – from a new, improved app, new instant loading with a smartphone and the launch of contactless ways to pay fares with credit or debit cards. Here’s a refresher of all things PRESTO before they jump on transit again.

I also heard that escalating gas prices (along with new fare deals) has made transit a more attractive option for commuters, and we can see that reflected in recent ridership growth.  Increasing highway congestion has also encouraged some to get out of their cars and choose transit – some for the very first time.

Many shared they’d love service to return to pre-pandemic levels and that is certainly in our plans to gradually reinstate services and get back to expanding trains.

Some suggested we could add coaches to the busiest trains – each train trip is being monitored very closely and adding coaches is certainly part of the strategy. Now that capacity limits are lifted, we are also adding extra trains when big games are scheduled.

I heard from a number of customers who are really eager to use Niagara and Barrie weekend trains again – both very popular services and it is in our plans to ensure we bring them back as more riders return.

Time and distance have made many of us forget routine tasks – like our daily commutes. It’s like we are all newbie transit riders and need some extra help navigating through unfamiliar territory as we emerge from the long pandemic.

Even long-time GO customers said they forget how to locate the full schedules to plan their day, or activate their reserved parking spot and if we still have our service guarantee (yes). They spoke about the importance of helpful staff in stations or on the phone to assist – seeing friendly faces or talking to a patient voice on the phone really made the difference in their comfort level. 

Many customers have not been on GO since the new Union Station Bus Terminal opened (and the old one is gone) and the beautiful new Bay Concourse also opened (did you hear about Cinnabon news coming to the concourse?). There is lots of room at Union Station with two big concourses to serve customers. We heard your request loud and clear for more directional signage (in all stations).

Curious folks were also wondering about fares and if they’d gone up since they last were on board. No…in fact, recently it was announced some fares are going down. Kids are still free and fares for youth and post-secondary students are reduced as well.

If you have missed us even half as much as we’ve missed you, it’s going to be a very happy reunion.

Column by Anne Marie Aikins, head of media and public relations