On Commuter Trains, Ice and Lawsuits

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Hell hath no fury like a commuter train rider scorned! Citing persistent hits to his work schedule and quality of life due to persistently late commuter trains, Yves Boyer (and his lawyer Normand Painchaud) have launched a class-action lawsuit against the Agence métropolitaine de transport. Boyer is asking for a judgment of $65 million. Hardly pocket change.

I’m not sure what grounds Boyer is suing on. This article in La Presse cites a laundry list of grievances, but no particular offence. A CBC article notes that Boyer’s quality of life was severely compromised; frankly, I didn’t know that quality of life was grounds for a lawsuit. But here we are: Boyer demands $1000 for all negatively impacted riders, on top of a rebate of 30% on all monthly tickets purchased since December 2007. The incredible logistics of disbursing the sum are apparently left as an exercise for the imagination.

The obvious question is this one: if one is to make the leap of faith that all delayed or cancelled rides should be refunded in full, well, were 30% of rides between December 1, 2007 and February 1, 2009 affected? I suspect that they weren’t. And even if one takes the broader view that riders deserve refunds for more than delayed rides but also for what La Presse describes as “les problèmes mécaniques de toutes sortes, des erreurs ou des bris d’aiguillage et la désuétude générale du matériel roulant, inconfortable et mal chauffé,” is 30% a reasonable sum? Using this year’s transit pass price, Mr. Boyer pays $119 per month for his zone 4 TRAM pass that he uses to board at Pincourt every day. So he is billing the AMT about $2428.

To make it to a judgment, this suit must be vetted by the Quebec Superior Court. I hope it doesn’t make it that far. Though if it does, I’m sure that riders of the perennially late, bunched, and overcrowded 535 STM bus down du Parc and Côte-des-Neiges will be ecstatic to know that after all their duress, the light at the end of the tunnel might one day come in the form of a fat check from the STM, pending the successful completion of someone’s class-action lawsuit.

Let’s be frank: suing transportation providers for missed trains or buses is madness. They signed no contract agreeing to have you at your destination on time. Once, the last 51 bus failed to materialize at 1:30 AM to whisk me across to the other side of the mountain. For the next 24 hours, I groused and grumbled about the $20 taxi fare that I paid to get home. I cursed the STM to hell and high water. And then: life moved on. Unless Boyer can demonstrate that life and limb were at risk, or truly serious monetary damage resulted, or really anything happened beyond inconvenience, stern looks from bosses, and a few missed family dinners, suing the AMT is basically not justifiable.

Of course, none of this should be taken as an endorsement for late trains. As a public, largely taxpayer-funded organization – what, you thought most of their revenue came from the farebox? – the AMT has a responsibility to the greater public interest to be on time, and they are failing to live up to it. This is not acceptable. But for what it’s worth, on-time trains and accurate, trustworthy schedules are enticements toward further mass transit ridership, and are therefore in the interest of the AMT. In other words: they don’t want to be late.

I’m glad that the province is launching an inquiry into the matter. And because I fear that an inquiry won’t be enough, I’d humbly suggest that the province follow up with something of a carrot-and-stick approach: we’ll fund some of your wish list of capital improvements, to help the trains run on time. But screw up much more, and the agency gets reorganized, or some of its executives get fired, or whatever.

The ultimate irony in this lawsuit is that because the AMT is taxpayer-financed, Boyer is asking for a taxpayer handout to be dropped directly in the pockets of himself and other delayed commuters. To finance any potential judgment, the AMT will be forced either to suspend some of its capital investment (fewer track and train improvements), curb its operating costs (fewer trains), or ask the province for more money (higher taxes). If Boyer wins, everyone loses. Including Boyer.

So here’s the unsurprising conclusion: what all the parties need right now is a good dose of sanity. The AMT should be more transparent about what is going on right now, about what the agency is doing about it, about how it maintains its trains and tracks, and about just how it works as an organization. The new delays web page is a farce of the kind of soul-searching that should be going on right now. But riders: we live in the snowiest large metropolis in the world. Sometimes, you’re going to be late to work. For what it’s worth, so will your boss.

This entry was written by Sam Imberman , posted on Wednesday February 11 2009at 11:02 pm , filed under Canada, Politics, Transportation and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

3 Responses to “On Commuter Trains, Ice and Lawsuits”

  • Tux says:

    I think suing the AMT is the right move. What else will get through to them? They don’t care about ridership satisfaction. As long as they keep selling tickets, issuing fines, and getting government handouts they don’t much care if the trains run on time. Like you said, they are taxpayer funded, and the executives get paid whether the trains run on time or not. The “it sucks but life goes on” approach is all well and good, but it provides no incentive for the AMT to change, and neither does simply expressing our rage to them. We have to hit them where it hurts, their bottom line.

  • Shane says:

    If underfunding is a partial cause of poor transit service, then more revenue would be a partial solution. Reimbursing fares and paying legal settlements would have the opposite effect. The AMT’s bottom line is tied to tax-payers’ wallets, not those of the AMT management.

    Commuter rage should be directed toward a political solution. Politicians are accountable for funding priorities and management’s performance.

  • rafael says:

    I heard about the “chinese moving day”, when chinese government relocated people from their houses to get them near to their home… is it true? could you post something about it?