Monday 11 May 2015

We lose time on our travels, an hour on departure, (originally I suspected an hour being turned but subsequent research shows that this is a normal operational move) and then we reach a loop which we are told is 30 miles short of Hornepayne where motion ceases.  We have lost more time (about an hour) to a points failure where we had to draw through a loop and out the far end, then set back into the loop from the wrong end to allow a passing freight to pass and we have to give way as the train is, I suspect, one of those longer than the loop!  The sequence of events and stopping pattern clearly indicate a problem which someone had difficulty solving easily.

Finally the engineers have reached their 12 hour driving time limit and may not drive further – but the replacement engineers are at Hornepayne.  Now someone, somewhere knows the rules and knows that this problem has been coming probably for around three hours.  We have been passing freights coming east as we progress west.  Quite easily our replacement engineers could have hopped aboard and been transported to meet us to enable a changeover to be facilitated and keep us moving.  Sadly not.  Nor presumably do the contracts have a clause whch permits the application of common sense which allows the 12 hour rule to be over-ridden so that the engineers can – if they consider themselves fit and able to continue.  And if they did not then I entirely accept it – but so far the passengers (who are not dumb pieces of freight) are only told there will be a short delay; this is eventually quantified at around three hours.  In any terms a disaster which poor management makes worse.

This line is busy and each line occupation takes up operational space.  So they use a special vehicle to bring the engineers to us – preventing movement of a freight train and the same vehicle then uses further paths to take the end of shift staff to their lodging.  They have worked hard and deserve their rest period – but putting the problem right needs managing and that is not thinking at the moment.

Consequently we reach the plains and Winnipeg near to six hours late.  Well I am on holiday – does it matter?  Oddly it does because this is where I feel that decent management would have mattered.  We knew we were six hours late before we went to bed and instead of arriving at around 8am we were likely to arrive at 2pm.  A number of people were allocated to the third sitting for lunch for 2pm.  As there is a crew change at Winnipeg it is a lengthy stop and allows travellers a chance of fresh air and legs to be stretched.

There are some photos of the refurbished station at Winnipeg can be found here.

Shortly before arrival our cabin staff member advises we should not get off at Winnipeg as third sitting would be called on time.  Then he pops back to say that we could get off on arrival (actually 13:15) but must return to the train when called at 14:30 to enable immediate service (clearly the new crew had to board but it would be reasonable to assume that much of the food had been cooked and was being kept warm for final sitting).

Not a problem, chance to wander down, see the restored station area and use the wifi. At the bottom of the slope there is a check in desk and a notice confirming the times. Good I thought someone does know how long it takes to load and go – the stop here is normally around three hours and is I suspect often used for running recovery.

After some fitful wifi use (I am not sure Colin ever did get that email) I return to the barrier to reboard the train at 14:30, along with everyone else.  No announcements, although some were told it would be another 15 minutes.  Nothing.  Nothing.  Come 15:15 I had had enough.  Locking us out of the train was not explained.  So I ask.  We don’t know answer say the “Customer” staff.  Sadly in this day and age that does not wash.  We were 45 minutes beyond the time when we should have been on the train and 35 minutes beyond the stated departure time.  Clearly no management was managing.  I asked for a manager this caused a concern and walky-talkies were deployed, in my view the manager should be on the front line managing.  I decided that this was a time for action and walked through the unlocked door and back up the ramp. It was subsequently alleged that I had left the three girls in tears.  I was neither rude nor did I physically touch them.  Good people providing service know the answers.  Nothing I did would cause tears to be shed – a shaking of heads perhaps; but not tears.

If the oft quoted health and safety was the reason for keeping us off the platform I could have pointed out that was a lie.  There was one piece of equipment which could be easily avoided and frankly there had been far more potentially serious bits of kit around when we disembarked – without warnings or guides.  Reasoning that despite the obvious lack of problems the platform had been declared dangerous I re-entered the train itself and returned to my cabin to appraise my wife of events.  I went through the dining car and the serving staff were sat not working, dining places were laid and I could not comprehend why steps were not being taken by management to get at least the diners back on the train and the final sitting served.

This could easily have been achieved once the crew swap was complete and the new stores had been put away.  The diners could have been gathered at the bottom of the ramp and one of the girls could then have called down the dining crew; each of the latter could have escorted a table of four to the top of the ramp and onto the train (the internal corridor HAS to be kept clear as there were still passengers on the train).  Once on the train they can walk through and the next table could be escorted.  The seating could and should have started at the published time of 14:30 and explanations could have been made.

Once on board I voiced my wish to see a manager and she eventually appeared towards the end of the meal.  She lacked any iota of customer care or concern and apology was only extracted almost under duress.  I expressed the view that it was not right and she agreed.  I proposed that those eating, who were the ones who had suffered principally should be offered a free drink.  She made it clear that she would offer us a free drink but could not extend the offer.  In the event no free drink was provided so even that offer was not kept.

The lack of communication throughout the period, given that this had all been foreseeable many hours in advance, merely re-inforces this passengers view derived from the problem over driver hours that there are a set of rules and no-one is empowered to think or behave outside the rules.  The lack of follow through on the proposal of a free drink (and the failure on the promise to talk to the others who were in a similar situation) is plain rude and this is a pity as all of our earlier encounters show no evidence that Canadians generally have any knowledge of how to be rude.

The problem we were advised which delayed the return to the train was the failure of some toilets.  These had been out of service from Toronto (and presumably earlier).  Attempting to fix them may mean people and kit on the platform – but there are ways of managing these things and providing ongoing explanations should be an element of that.  Whilst VIA Rail cannot fix the track or the pathing the matters on which they have failed are capable of being fixed.

[Amendment] Whilst in Whingipeg mode another couple of comments about VIA Rail.  A nice little Toronto – Vancouver route guide has been printed and provided; no doubt at some expense but did anyone copy approve it?  Inside it purports to give mileages between stops (none of this metric nonsense I am pleased to note).  Until you get to Gogama which is mile 86, whilst the previous stop was Capreol at mile 276.  Even more annoying Winnipeg (yet again) is Mile:0, yes zero, even though the prior distance was 1the Manitoba border at mile 159.  Complete nonsense as someone has just taken the miles from the VIA guide and not applied any thought.  Similarly in terms of attention to detail was the provision of some customers with timetables so they might have some idea of where they are (and consistently were not) and not to others.

No doubt the defence from VIA is simple – you are one time travellers and will never come back for repeat business so it does not matter how we behave.  And no doubt few people will read this blog.  My wife has published her thoughts on Trip Advisor and I can only hope that will get some response from VIA because writing letters (according to TripAdvisor) does not work.

Until such time as there is evidence that they understand caring and cossetting of passengers (not mere customers) I cannot recommend this trip through beautiful countryside and providing a wonderful vista of Canada; sorry.