Monday, October 13, 2008

VIVA Strike: A Rider's Perspective

On Thursday September 25th VIVA drivers hit the picket lines after rejecting their latest offer from Veolia Transportation (the private company contracted to operate VIVA Rapid Transit Services in York Region). Throughout the newspapers there were stories about the driver's perspective of the contract dispute and how Veolia, the company, was unsure of why the driver's rejected the company's offer and went on strike. But somehow in all of this the rider's perspective got lost.

That is until now. Below is a timeline of the strike from my perspective in attempting to figure out what was going on as well as an attempt to contact York Region Transit (YRT) in order to get a refund for my September and October monthly passes as well as my fiance's GTA Weekly Pass.

September 15th - Possible VIVA Strike on September 22nd announced by the Region of York. Region advises riders to make alternative arrangements for the Monday commute. I way my options, the GO Train at this point is looking very appetizing.

September 21st - VIVA Strike has been averted as the company and the union have reached a deal. The union's executive, lead by Union President Bob Kinnear, unanimously recommend the deal to the drivers. Yvonne and I head into Twins Convenience at Bernard Terminal to purchase her GTA Weekly pass and, after reaching Aurora, I pick up my YRT Monthly pass for October. We believed, as did YRT and the Region of York, the strike had been averted. In fact, VIVA was scrolling the fact the strike had been averted on the screen at Bernard Terminal as well as the VIVA driver announcing the fact on the VIVA Blue Northbound bus.

September 24th- VIVA drivers voted 61% against the company's offer. The Region of York in a press release and YRT management interviews with the media encourage riders to make alternative arrangments due the strike. Yvonne and I come consult our GO Train schedules for the commute to work, her to Union station in Toronto , myself to Keele & Rutherford in Vaughan.

September 25th - VIVA Drivers on Strike no VIVA Service! Yvonne and I enjoy a train ride into work. That night I consult the YRT website for instructions on how to get a refund for my YRT Monthly passes and Yvonne's GTA Weekly pass. I called YRT Customer service and a friendly gentleman customer service agent picked up. He said there would be prorated values for YRT Monthly passes but didn't know anything about the GTA Weekly pass problem I had. He suggested I e-mail transitinfo@yrt.ca for the GTA Weekly pass problem. Also, if I had any other questions about the strike that I could consult the YRT website strike information section.

Before sending my e-mail about the GTA weekly pass, I consulted the website to see if there was anything on the GTA weekly pass. I came accross the Q & A section on the website and under question 6 it asked "6. Can I exchange or get a refund for my September YRT/Viva monthly pass or GTA Weekly Pass?" The website answered the question and said there was a mail in option available for YRT Monthly passes for a prorated refund. But nothing was mentioned about the GTA Weekly Pass despite this being included in the question. What is even more frustrating was YRT asked the question themselves and then refused to answer it! I called YRT customer service again and talked to the same gentlemen I talked to earlier pointing out this problem. He said he would pass along the information to see if it could be fixed.

I then sent the following e-mail to transitinfo@yrt.ca:

Based on the current VIVA stike, I notice at this web address on YRT's website: http://www.yrt.ca/news/strike.asp There is information on receiving a refund by cheque for a monthly pass.

However, I notice that on question #6 on that page it says "6. Can I exchange or get a refund for my September YRT/Viva monthly pass or GTA Weekly Pass?". But it doesn't give any details on if or when the GTA Weekly Pass was refundable. I called Customer Service and the agent that picked up wasn't sure if there was a refund available.

If someone could contact me with a full explanation if this refund is available or, if not, a FULL explanation of why YRT refused to provide service. This is especially so considering VIVA advertised on the Bernard Terminal message board that the VIVA strike had been adverted and had the GTA weekly pass on sale without any warning of a possible strike on Thursday if the ratification vote didn't go through. Thanks in advance. Michael

September 26th - That afternoon, after not hearing back via e-mail from YRT, I thought I would try contacting YRT Customer Service again in order to see if they had come up with an answer to provide to their Customer Service agents.

When I called a friendly female agent answered and said a prorated refund for the GTA Weekly passes would be provided.

September 30th - I received a reply from my e-mail to YRT sent on the September 25th:

Dear Mr. Suddard,

Thank you for your email.

Refunds will not be provided on the GTA Weekly pass as customers may still use YRT, Brampton, Mississauga and TTC services. While the Viva strike is ongoing, YRT will continue to operate all other services.

Sincere Regards,

Rhonda DeBaeremaeker

Customer Service Coordinator
York Region Transit (YRT)
50 High Tech, 5th Floor
Richmond Hill, Ontario L4B 4N7
Tel: (905) 762-2100
Toll Free: 1-866-668-3978
Fax: (905) 762-2113
www.yrt.ca

OUR MISSION:To provide quality public transit services which support the economic vitality,environmental sustainability, and health of the Regional community.

At this point I'm ready to explode! Don Gordon, YRT's General Manager, on Rogers Television's First Local asked people to consider alternative means of transportation as did YRT and the Region of York in the Press Releases posted on their websites! Then I get an e-mail response from Rhonda saying a GTA Weekly Pass is non refund despite what her higher up, Don Gordon says.

At this point I start writing an e-mail to Aurora Mayor and Regional Councillor Phyllis Morris about how YRT/VIVA is a total fraud during the strike towards customers. But after writing the first paragraph I decide to pick up the phone and call YRT Customer Service in order to see if I can speak to someone in the fares area about the problem.

I call and a male customer service agent picks up and I ask to speak to the fares department. He asks to see if he can help. I quickly tell him how I'm getting mixed messages from YRT Customer Service on whether we can get back money for the GTA Weekly pass. He puts me through to Erin Straughn.

Erin picks up the call and says she hears I want to appeal the GTA Weekly Pass decision. I replied to be fair to her that I start from the beggining and run through the way I see things. I quickly run through my story.

Erin, after hearing my story, says she is willing to provide a refund on the GTA Weekly Pass on a prorated basis. I congratulate her on being one of the best YRT employees I've come accross in my dealings with YRT. I also said that if she had of said no to a refund that I would have written to my Regional Councillor on this issue.

October 1st - I check the YRT website for any updates on the stike. I notice the strike's Q & A page has been updated. I notice the mail in option has been removed for receiving a refund from YRT/VIVA for the YRT Monthly passes. I also note the only option to receive a refund is at YRT headquarters. I call again to YRT Customer Service and explain the problem. I point out to the YRT Customer Agent who received the call the change to the website from the September 25th version of the website (via the Google cache function on the search results) to the current website for October 1st. This leaves him scratching his head. Back to Erin I'm sent.

I point out the problem and ask her: "Is YRT making things up along the way during the strike?"

Erin replied that YRT has never had a strike so they are muddling their way through the problem. She also pointed out her side that many people are mailing in photocopies of the passes instead of the original pass despite the instructions on the September 25th version of the website. She continued that I should mail in the September and October Monthly passes with the GTA Weekly pass soon so I could get my full money back with the October Monthly pass.

I quickly write a letter, photocopy the GTA Weekly Pass and the YRT Monthly passes and drop them in an a Canada Post Express Post Envelope. I then drop them in the mail box.

October 3rd - Erin calls Yvonne at home and says she has receives our passes and will have them into be processed.

October 8th - The Toronto Star publishes an article pointing out how the VIVA Strike has gone unnoticed by most passengers. As I ride the GO Train from Aurora to Rutherford GO Stations I nod in agreement. As a perfect example of this article of how the VIVA Strike is not inconveniencing passengers is on VIVA's busiest line, the VIVA Blue. VIVA Blue operates along Yonge Street from Newmarket GO Terminal to Finch Subway station. This route is easily replaced, depending on where one is coming from and going to (in the below cases, Aurora to wherever):

1. To Finch Subway Station: A. Take YRT Route 98 and transfer to YRT Route 99 which has beefed up service during the transit strike to run more frequent. B. Take GO Transit's Route 62 "Newmarket "B" Service from Aurora to Finch Subway Station.

2. Using Yonge Street to connect to points westward of Yonge along Keele Street? Use Aurora GO Train Station on the Barrie GO Train line that includes a convenient stop for York University students at York University! As I work at Rutherford & Keele Street, this is my choice.

3. VIVA LE CAR! a.ka. when the TTC goes on strike...Take The Car!

October 9th - Veolia, up until this time, has held steadfast on it's offer made to the VIVA Driver's union on September 24th that got voted down. Veolia threatens to withdraw this offer from the table and put forth something less. They push the union to hold an immediate revote on the offer by the drivers. Coincidentelly, there have been some rumblings on the picket lines from the drivers who want to revote on the contract offer. This is mainly because the public uproar the drivers expected never materialized. Instead a the drivers are being villified for the strike by the ridership. Comments on local media websites, including the Toronto Star's website, throughout the strike point out that the drivers are better paid than a lot of other jobs out there.

October 10th - VIVA drivers vote 65% in favour of ratifying the original deal that they originally rejected on September 24th.

October 11th - VIVA Service returns, but with low ridership.

October 14th - The refund for Yvonne and my transit passes come in. At least YRT did come through with the refund. I did have my doubts considering what I went through in order to get them though.

The Future - The immediate future will see an uneasy tension between riders and VIVA drivers as a great distrust between the two has been built up. Ridership will probably be reduced due this distrust as some riders will have migrated over to GO Transit service or have decided not to put up with the hassles of riding VIVA in the future and have returned to their cars.
YRT has attempted to make amense by handing out free hot beverages on October 14th to 16th. This is a band aid solution for what really ails YRT, poor customer service from it's customer service centre employees. YRT General Manager Don Gordon has to clean up the major stench of hypocrasy and fraud towards ridership following the VIVA Strike. This stench of hypocrasy and fraud comes from the Region of York's Press releases (referenced above) and in Gordon's own media interviews. In the interviews Gordon requested riders to find alternative means of travel besides YRT if possible during the strike. Then Gordon's own YRT Customer Service Department turns around and refuses to hand out refunds for GTA Weekly Pass holders who are following Gordon's instructions to find alternative means of travel. This is despite these GTA Weekly Pass Holders going to the added expense of paying for the alternative means of travel (e.g. GO Transit, car pooling, etc.). Instead of handing out free hot beverages, those responsible should provide a decent explanation to riders, and by extension, the taxpayers, why they screwed the message to riders about VIVA Strike refunds so badly.

Fare hikes are probably coming in January 2009. This is evident when considering that in January 2007 and January 2008 YRT implemented fare increases. Perhaps if YRT/VIVA actually gave up handing out hot beverages, cheap banner advertisements, etc. and instead concentrated on provided buses that actually showed up on time along with proper customer service to back up a good transit service, ridership would at least go up. Obviously a fare hike wouldn't help matters considering what the ridership has gone through with this strike in terms of poor customer service and lack of buses on the road. But then YRT never seems to acknowledge the ridership's perspective. Then again, I can only hope management of YRT might actually be reading this and other posts this rider has made.

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