Kathy Haley a scapegoat? Not so much.

Kathy Haley has resigned as head of the Union Pearson Express effective March 31st. She has been employed by Metrolinx since July 2011 and came in with high hopes to run a successful airport express. There are two interesting videos on YouTube that encapsulate the hopes and aspirations of Ms. Haley and they certainly don’t seem to mesh with reality.

Watch this first video taken in Vienna when she confidently announces, “I’m developing and building a new air-rail link for Toronto”. Along with giving the impression of building the train single-handed, she frames herself as a person able to explore and adopt the needed expertise.

In the second video, taken in late 2014, Ms Haley makes some excellent points about marketing and the customer, “If you put the voice of the customer on the table, it’s hard to argue with his or her voice”. Unfortunately those words were uttered just months before the UP Express opened in July 2015 with outrageously high fares. Presumably once the train began running, it became hard to listen to the customers because they were nowhere to be found.

Once the UP Express was up and running, Ms. Haley became its official cheerleader and her new goal was to get more bums on seats. The bean counters in the Ontario Liberal Government had decided that operating costs had to be recouped through passenger revenue and Ms. Haley was given the impossible task of encouraging people to pay exorbitant fares that were devised by and approved by the Ontario Government through the nodding heads of the Metrolinx Board. All this in spite of the Auditor General’s advice (based on Metrolinx’s own figures) that ridership would be low and a fare price over $22.50 would be too high. The Board decided that regardless of the reality, high fares would not be a problem for the target customers (presumably those mythical captains of industry for whom money was no object).

As the months dragged on with no significant change in ridership, Ms. Haley was regularly seen earnestly arguing that despite the awkward facts, passenger numbers really were improving and a breakthrough was imminent. This flew in the face of many anecdotal reports of almost empty trains. Each grudgingly parsimonious fare promotion and discount was greeted with excitement by Ms. Haley and with a yawning indifference by the public. Bums remained off seats.

The final straw came during the most recent Valentine’s Day giveaway when hordes of people waited for hours to try out the service. The glaring gap between the huge interest in UPX and Ms Haley’s declaration that ‘once people know that we’re here, passengers will flock to the service’ simply became untenable. The truth was quite simple. Fares were too high. Their reduction finally came about through a humiliating but necessary intervention by the Premier. Already passenger numbers have doubled as fares have become affordable. Weston residents have a fast portal to downtown for a reasonable cost.

It’s hard to feel sympathy for someone who earns an such an awesome salary ($249,020.54 in 2012). No doubt she has a golden parachute to soften the landing until the next well-endowed gig comes along. While her resignation is understandable, the other players in this debacle (in the immortal words of Ricky Ricardo), “Have some ‘splainin’ to do”. These would be the Metrolinx Board of Directors, Metrolinx Chair Robert Pritchard, CEO Bruce McCuaig and Transportation Minister Steven Del Duca.

Last but not least, the Premier was herself Transportation Minister in 2010 when private consortium SNC Lavalin pulled out of building UPX when it was clear there was no chance of making a profit. She knew the task was impossible from the start. Wouldn’t it be nice if all players acknowledged their individual blame in this sequence of events instead of hoping that Ms Haley’s departure will clear the air? Some more resignations would not go amiss.

The Future of UP Express

 

A UPX train. Note the difference between the UPX platform and the adjacent GO train platform. (File)
A UPX train. Note the difference between the UPX platform and the (foreground) GO train platform. (File)

Officials at Metrolinx are looking over their shoulders after the unprecedented intervention by the Premier in forcing a rapid and substantial revision of UPX fares. When the Premier has lost patience in your effectiveness, other questions from the top may follow, such as, ‘Where else are they screwing up?’, and, ‘How many people did it take to make that idiotic decision?’

It doesn’t take much digging to uncover their inadequacies. Whether it’s the inability to coordinate a VIA Rail stop in Weston or their continued insistence that UPX needs to recover its investment, management has shown that they have a tenuous hold on the idea of serving the people (watch the most recent Board Meeting to get the idea) while ignoring the realities of transportation in the GTHA. The lack of a unified fare structure between TTC, UPX and GO and the failure to connect the UPX Bloor Station to the Dundas West TTC Subway station also come to mind.

Even before the outrageous fares were set, the whole idea of a boutique rail line serving business professionals was simply a non-starter. Back in 2012, WestonWeb asked,

Can you imagine captains of industry schlepping their own bags along miles of platform at either end and onto a train?

Captains of industry want to be carried (preferably in a limo) from door to door and don’t care about the cost as long as they get a receipt.

WestonWeb was not alone in predicting a tough time for UPX. Mike Sullivan, the Clean Train Coalition and many others voiced their concerns but the experts knew better. One wonders about the high priced consultants (expert experts) that Metrolinx was tapping into. How did they all get it so wrong?

UPX President Kathy Haley (screenshot from February 23rd Board Meeting )
UPX President Kathy Haley (screenshot from February 23rd Board Meeting )

No doubt there needs to be a scapegoat and according to media reports it’s likely to be UPX President Kathy Haley who was given the impossible task of making an unviable service financially self-sustaining. Her cheerleading for the service rang more and more hollow in recent days as evidence mounted that while people would clamour for a free ride, they weren’t prepared to pay more than a TTC or at worst a GO fare. Metrolinx head, Bruce McCuaig and Transportation Minister Steven Del Duca bear some of the responsibility for their stubborn expectation of the impossible.

What should be the future of UP Express?

The first should be a recognition that this is truly public transit and like all public transit should not be expected to recoup its cost. There are reports that the service will be pulled under the GO Train umbrella and that would seems likely given the recent fare alignment with GO. Regardless of the overhead, in this day of electronic fares, there are attendants galore and a ticket inspector on every train. Some re-deployment of staff to other GO positions would no doubt cut down on costs.

Will the lower price increase ridership? Probably, but the trains will not be full even at the new fare structure. Many people have suggested that the train be made part of the ever changing SmartTrack plan with additional stations along the way. An obvious site is Mount Dennis where a Crosstown Line station will be located. One problem needing a solution is the high platform of the UPX (see photo above). Regardless, many communities along the line would also welcome a quick commute to Union Station. That is likely the future for UPX but for now, Weston residents can bask in a fast (14 minute) service to and from Union every 15 minutes.