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Scathing TTC service report fails to derail museum plan

Passengers board a TTC streetcar; the TTC come under fire recently over rider photos and videos of what they deem unacceptable service.

Peter Power/Peter Power/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

On the same day as Toronto's transit commission was handed a damning 50-page report detailing its broken customer service, it moved forward on a museum - dedicated to itself.

The museum, with a price tag expected to top $5-million, will explore "not just the past, but the present and future of public transit." It will be part of new transit commission headquarters, but the TTC said no additional public money will be dedicated to the project.

The disconnect between the museum plan and the customer-service report caught some off-guard.

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"It did seem a bit surreal being in the commission meeting and hearing what seems like a great idea - a centre to talk about the history of public transit - but the same day, have people talking about simple changes needed to improve customer experience," said Jamie Kirkpatrick, a campaigner with the Public Transit Coalition.

Others were more blunt. "On the day the TTC got its marching orders from its citizens, from its users, it continues to be preoccupied by things that should not be confused as its core business," said mayoral candidate George Smitherman.

Mr. Smitherman said he's not opposed to the idea of a transit museum, but given the choice, he'd scrap the project, which has cost the city $323,000 so far.

"It demonstrates a regrettable lack of focus. … At a certain point, leaders need to choose between 'need to have' and 'nice to have.'" Mayoral contender Rocco Rossi echoed those statements, arguing "this nonsense has to stop."

Front-runner Rob Ford said he supports a museum as long as no taxpayer money is spent on it.

Mayoral candidate Sarah Thomson has also said this is the wrong time to put time into museum-planning, arguing instead in favour of focusing on training for front-line TTC employees.

Efforts to derail the museum are political opportunism, mayoral candidate Joe Pantalone argued. "There's never a right time to do anything. Now is a good time as ever."

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The report found that the TTC has a problem with communications: When buses are late, for example, transit users aren't sure what's going on and neither, more often than not, are the front-line employees.

The report's 78 recommendations range from the practical - such as better, more informative platform screens that tell riders when their vehicle is delayed, full or rerouted - to the abstract - a chief customer service officer and the fostering of a "culture of customer service."

There should be initiatives specifically geared towards children, improved signage, new maps and a review of customer service training, as well as more frequent "refresher courses."

"It's a unionized environment, it's a big transit system, it's a monopoly, they're not competing with anyone. But they'll come around," said Ryerson University business management professor Roy Morley, who authored the report - all 17 drafts.

Prof. Morley added that there's a training disconnect between operational imperatives and basic interactions with riders. "If you touch a curb with a bus, you're out of there. So it's extremely rigorous training for everybody. But not on customer service."

TTC general manager Gary Webster said there's no connection between the customer-service report and the museum vote during the transit commission's Monday meeting: The commission had to move forward on the museum if they want to continue talks on plans for new Yonge Street headquarters. He said no private investors have agreed to put up cash for the museum yet, but there are no provisions for further public spending.

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The report comes after a brutal several months for the transit commission: Riders spent months hoarding tokens in the months leading up to a 25-cent fare hike, photos of TTC employees apparently asleep on the job infuriated commuters and TTC chair Adam Giambrone found himself at the centre of a sex scandal that sunk his mayoral campaign.

TTC union boss Bob Kinnear argues it all comes down to resources for employees. He noted the report makes no provision for where the cash-strapped TTC will find the cash to make needed improvements to communication tools or training.

"The more important question is, 'Where are the resources coming from?' … You can train a carpenter to build a house but if you don't give him a hammer and a nail, he can't build the house."

Mr. Giambrone said he's "very pleased" with the report, adding that the commission will report back on the feasibility of the recommendations next month and will get started hiring a customer service czar immediately. The report makes a point of not costing out its recommendations.

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