Copenhagen metro: no driver, happy riders (Image: Pacsafe.com)

I used to travel a lot to Copenhagen. From the airport, you can take the metro to the city centre in about 15 minutes. The trains are fully automated; there are no drivers or similar staff. The trains run very well, and the system is efficient and safe. It’s called Automatic Train Control, and it helps to provide more frequent and reliable service in public transit systems in Barcelona, London, Paris, Washington, Hong Kong and Singapore – just to name a few.

So when I saw a newspaper story about how the TTC is moving toward this more automated approach, I thought it was an encouraging sign of progress. That was until I read a quote from Amalgamated Transit Union Local 113 leader Bob Kinnear (who represents TTC workers and in October was acclaimed to his fourth term). He said, “I have almost no concern that the TTC would to a fully automated system, cause I do not believe that the general public, never mind the pushback they’ll get from us, I do not believe that the public in Toronto would accept that.” The union will even oppose reducing the current two-man crews on each subway train.

Two bits of advice, Mr. Kinnear: First, don’t pretend you speak for transit riders. It’s quite clear by now that the average level of customer service provided by your members – mostly unfriendly, uncommunicative and generally resentful for having to deal with riders – is not acceptable to riders.  Second, if your union is so interested in being a credible and active advocate for transit in Toronto, then what kind of message does it send when your first response to a reasonable proposal is not to engage it, but to dismiss it?

Why does he make me think that he will fight against every suggestion that would make the TTC more efficient or more customer-friendly? Most certainly, he’s talking to his membership through the media – but that’s just union politics. He could have the union participate in public transit policy discussions, but maybe that’s too long-term for him. After all, he is an elected official accountable only to ATU members. I get the impression that the Kinnear is not too interested in improving transit or even transit policy. He’s only interested in his members’ jobs – right now.

That’s too bad, because the nature and number – and the future security – of those jobs is being shaped by debates about new transit technologies, new fare systems, new equipment, new approaches to transit and myriad other issues that will be with us much longer than this news cycle.

All this reminds me of last autumn’s Protecting What Matters campaign from ATU Local 113. Remember those transit ads profiling TTC maintenance workers? Or the slick video that played before movies? The campaign – which clearly wasn’t cheap – was meant to remind all of us about how ATU workers keep transit moving and convince City Hall and us that privatizing public transit is the wrong path.

The point, I admit, was lost on me. Ok, so your union members maintain buses, streetcars and subways? So what? I’m more interested in what the union thinks is the most sustainable approach to transit in Toronto.  If I were a union member, I would be asking what was that campaign meant to achieve? And was the goal achieved?

That money would have been better spent on promoting and sharing the voices and ideas of the people who know the TTC best – its employees – and being more actively involved in the bigger debates on public transit. That, to me, is a more practical and effective communications approach and a better way for the union to push for a future that will secure long-term jobs for its members.

I hope the members of the union think about how their president represents them in debates on transit. They should aim higher: to be seen as a modern, flexible and informed group of workers who care about public transit and where it’s going, if only because their jobs are on the line.

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