National Post

Fresh eyes from new transit boss

- Chris Selley


‘We are not a capt ured market for B o mba r - dier,” says Phil Verster, the new CEO of Metrolinx, the Greater Toronto Area’s regional transit authority. “We welcome suppliers and builders of rolling stock from anywhere in the world.” It’s the sort of thing anyone in his position would say, as Bombardier struggles halfhearte­dly to fill its very large, very expensive and very late orders with both GO Transit and the Toronto Transit Commission.

Verster added: “I think the days of national champions considerin­g markets as their captured backyards ( are) largely over.”

We shall see. Even having forgotten how to make trains, Bombardier has many advantages in protection­ist Ontario. But Verster, a South African engineer who arrives in Toronto via England’s EastWest Rail Consortium and ScotRail, comes by that opinion honestly. For 15 years, GO and the TTC have exclusivel­y bought Bombardier rolling stock. ScotRail, meanwhile, isn’t even run by Scots: Dutch national railway operator Abellio has the franchise. Its rolling stock, past and future, is built in such places as the Czech Republic, Spain, Germany and Japan. That’s normal. In theory, we can be normal, too.

Practicall­y speaking, on the Bombardier file, there’s not much Verster can do differentl­y than his predecesso­r, Bruce McCuaig. In July, a court rejected Metrolinx’s effort to walk away from a $ 770- million contract; the prospect of the Eglinton Crosstown line being finished with nothing to run along it remains real. But his outsider perspectiv­e is nonetheles­s welcome, especially as the province intends to spend tens of billions electrifyi­ng the GO network and rolling out all- day express rail service — a potentiall­y transforma­tive moment, but a project with a gazillion moving parts and political interests in play.

For better or worse, McCuaig was the ultimate insider — steeped like a tea bag in the traditiona­l ways of doing things. He came to Metrolinx straight from being deputy transport minister. While Metrolinx is supposed to operate at arm’s length from government, the length and strength of that arm has never been more questionab­le: presented with a Metrolinx analysis of potential new GO rail stations, the ministry insisted on two the agency had recommende­d against. One happened to be in Transport Minister Steven Del Duca’s riding; the other key to Toronto Mayor John Tory’s “Smart Track” vision. Funny how that works.

Verster isn’t promising a power grab, by any means. He thinks better and more thorough internal processes, and more transparen­cy — the lack of which was key to the Del Duca fiasco — will help politician­s make deci- sions based on more “mature” informatio­n. But ultimately it’s the elected officials who sign off, he says, and that’s how it works pretty much everywhere. Still, it’s easier to imagine an outsider pushing back against especially poor ideas than someone who knows Queen’s Park like the back of his hand.

As for Verster’s vision for mobility in the Golden Horseshoe, he talks a big game. Express rail or no, he says, if we want to move people around as quickly and efficientl­y as possible, single- occupant cars will have to make way for public transit vehicles. That means tolls, basically. “Pricing is always part of the portfolio of policy instrument­s,” he says, carefully. “It helps to focus the mind.”

We know what Premier Kathleen Wynne thinks of road pricing: she supports it, and won’t allow it to happen. Her opponents, meanwhile, simply oppose it. So, that’s a challenge for the guy in charge of revolution­izing mobility in the GTA. Fare integratio­n across TTC, GO and the myriad smaller operators is another.

“Due to the heritage of incomplete investment plans, the focus is all about spades in the ground and building stuff,” says Verster. “(But) after we’ve built everything, do they interwork in a network effect ... to actually make movement across the Golden Horseshoe area easier?”

That doesn’t just mean into and out of Union Station, he stresses; it means a huge network of all kinds of modes facilitati­ng movement from any Point A to any Point B. Fare integratio­n is both es- sential for that to work and a key “prompt” to get people thinking that way, he insists, and he doesn’t think it should be too difficult to reconcile the fare-by-ride culture of the TTC and the fare-by-distance culture of GO.

I would be surprised if he were right. But everyone agrees the GTA is many years behind the curve on public transit. You want someone from outside who can spot the most glaring deficienci­es and demand they be rectified, never mind why they exist. It’s a concept that has worked rather well with TTC CEO Andy Byford, who also came to Toronto from Britain. Whether those who are really in charge — the politician­s — will actually listen to reason is another matter entirely.

 ?? TYLER ANDERSON / NATIONAL POST ?? The Golden Horseshoe is “not a captured market for Bombardier,” says new Metrolinx chief executive Phil Verster, a South Africa native who brings fresh perspectiv­e to the role of running the area’s transit system.
TYLER ANDERSON / NATIONAL POST The Golden Horseshoe is “not a captured market for Bombardier,” says new Metrolinx chief executive Phil Verster, a South Africa native who brings fresh perspectiv­e to the role of running the area’s transit system.

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