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In recent years, I’ve had an up-and-down relationship with Canada’s national passenger rail service, Via Rail Canada. I like to think of myself as a fair person. So when I experience or observe something positive about a travel experience, I will usually tweet that observation, as in this tweet about Via’s great new Renaissance trains.
Similarly, if I’ve had a negative experience, I will also let the world know via social media. Why do I bother? Why not. It’s how I entertain myself.
I’ve been rather impressed of late with Via Rail’s customer service responsiveness via Twitter. I don’t know if there’s a team of people or just one guy running their Twitter service. But they’ve usually responded quickly and sensitively to whatever I’ve written. So I give them great credit there.
I was in Toronto earlier this week. Usually when taking the train, I splurge for Business class… because, frankly, I dread the 4-5 hours of boredom, and a little food/booze/pampering goes a long way to making it tolerable. But lately, due to Via’s reduced prices, I’ve been opting for Economy class travel. I mention this because I wonder aloud if the experience I will relate to you below would have been different in the Business class car.
When I arrived at Union station in Toronto, I went to the ticket counter to get my ticket printed. The woman staffing the desk was not particularly engaging, and barely looked at me throughout the whole encounter. So I tweeted something about the employees being surly. Instantly, Via Rail tweeted me back to offer to investigate, and I appreciate that sort of responsiveness. But in truth –as I tweeted back– the employee did her job efficiently and I had nothing to complain about. See? I can be fair and I can acknowledge when I’ve been a whinging fool. I value efficiency more than pleasantness, and that woman was entirely in her rights to be surly, so long as she processed my request effectively… which she did.
So then I boarded for my 4.5 hour trip to Ottawa. This particular train was actually en route to Montreal, but I would be getting off at Ottawa. I slept for almost the full trip.
Then it was announced that we were a few minutes from the Ottawa station. I waited patiently. I’d been sitting still for almost 5 hours. I have several postural medical issues that are exacerbated by prolonged immobility, so I was eager to extend my limbs. I waited until I recognized scenes from downtown Ottawa outside the window, so I knew we were only 2-3 minutes from the station.
Remember that this particular train was en route to Montreal. Our stop in Ottawa would be brief. As a seasoned train voyager, I know from experience that often there isn’t a lot of time to disembark, especially if there’s a parade of people struggling to get their luggage off the racks. So I was eager to be in the front of the disembarkation line. For those unaccustomed to traveling with Via Rail, I would like you to know that this is common practice. We voyagers typically line up as the train is approaching the station, so that we can get off in a timely and orderly fashion and help minimize the delays that plague this particular rail service.
So you will understand why the events that then transpired were a tad surprising to me.
I stood at the front of the train, headphones on, reading my messages on my phone, minding my own business. I had no luggage to unload. A Via employee (what’s his role? Conductor? I don’t know) approached me and said something to the effect that, “If you stand, everyone else will stand.”
I looked behind me. No one else was standing. “I’m just waiting to get out,” I said. “We’re almost at the station.”
Then he said, “Actually, I find your behaviour very disrespectful to the other passengers. They are all sitting and you are standing.”
I found this argument to be rather condescending. There is always an announcement as we pull into a station that passengers are requested to remain seated. But it’s stated as a request, not a requirement. I have never seen any rules posted that stipulate that we must be sitting during these times. Indeed, during any Via train journey, there are people standing and walking around at all times, even during starts and stops. The nature of a request is that the it remains with the recipient to decide whether or not to honour that request. I chose not to honour it. And, frankly, phrasing the request as a notion of “disrespect” to other passengers was so nonsensical that I felt my intelligence insulted.
So I said, “Thanks, but I think I’m going to remain standing.” Then I quickly added, “But I will stand further back, out of your way.” And I immediately took a few steps backward.
At this point, the Via employee became, in my opinion, unreasonably belligerent. He stepped toward me, put a finger in my face, scolding, and actually said, “I’m going to stop this train and have you arrested.”
Really? Arrested? Because I stood up?
I think it’s important to note that I —how do I put this— I don’t look like what I am. I’m a middle-aged university professor. But I look like an unkempt vagabond 10 years younger than my true age. I was unshaven, wearing baggy jeans and a leather jacket, and carrying a book bag slung over my shoulder. Part of me had to wonder if I would have been so aggressively confronted if I’d been wearing a suit and standing in Business class. And, as others would later point out (though it did not occur to me at the time), would I have been treated differently had I been a white man wearing a suit in Business class? (I’m a brown man who always gets the “random” search at airports.)
So I had to chuckle to myself — wait till we see the headlines tomorrow morning: “University of Ottawa professor arrested on train… for standing up.” Yes, I would look foolish. But Via Rail, and this employee in particular, would look doubly foolish.
His voice had been rather loud throughout this whole exchange, so the front part of the car was privy to this conversation. Egos were now at play. There was no way I was going to back down before this ludicrous threat. Was he really going to stop the train seconds before it arrived at its destination? He clearly wasn’t going to back down from his ridiculous position, either.
Now, I sort of see his point. I’m sure Via employees are fed up with passengers lining up before the train stops. And maybe there is a safety concern involved, as some people don’t have sufficient balance to stay upright as the train decelerates sharply.
But –and I cannot stress this enough– sitting during arrival was never expressed as a requirement for Via train travel, only as a passing request; and it has never been enforced on any train voyage that I’ve been on. Certainly, as a “rule” it is not written anywhere that is obvious to passengers. Therefore I still remain ignorant about whether it is indeed a rule. Certainly, this particular employee did not say that it is.
Had it been expressed as a rule, I would have immediately complied. Indeed, had the employee simply asked me as a favour to sit, to make his life easier, I would have happily done so. But no. His immediate statement to me was a threat to have me arrested. So the egos were now at play, and I’m certainly no stranger to public confrontations or clashes with bureaucratic power.
But, unbelievably, I had a moment of sympathy. I decided to give this fellow a way out, a way of walking away and saving face. I told him of my medical issue compelling me to stand to avoid pain. I figured this gave him an excuse to backtrack from his hardball position. But he did not take the offer. Instead, he retorted with, “I don’t believe you” and something more about me being a bad example for the rest of the passengers. I looked behind me again: no one else was standing. I think at this point they were all too scared to do so.
Frankly, I wouldn’t have believed me either. But that’s not the point. I had given him a rational reason to leave me alone and to defuse the situation, and he did not take it.
What’s really funny to me is that ten years ago I was on a Via trip from Toronto to Montreal. On that trip, Via Rail had oversold its seats. How is that possible, you ask? I never received an explanation. I and about thirty other passengers were forced to stand for at least an hour, through several stops at several stations, while employees freed up some seats in various sections. I wrote an article about the experience for the Ottawa Citizen, as a result of which Via Rail did contact me to follow-up.
Isn’t it interesting that on my trip last week, I was being threatened with being arrested for something that the same company had forced me to do against my will on an earlier voyage ten years ago?
The employee didn’t say another word to me. When the train arrived at Ottawa station (no more than two minutes later), he opened the door and walked off. No announcements were made. I looked behind me and, as far as I could tell, there was only one other person disembarking in Ottawa. As I walked down the tracks into the station, I passed the employee, who glared at me.
“Thank you very much,” I said to him, in all genuineness, and got the frack out of there. I was the first to exit the station, and I don’t recall anyone else behind me, though the crowds might have been straggling.
Honestly, I hold no ill will toward him nor Via Rail. I sense his frustration with dealing with hundreds of ill-mannered passengers. I like to think that he had immediately regretted his choice of tactic in addressing me and did not know how to defuse the situation. I will extend to him the grace of assuming his remorse, and thank him for eventually having the maturity and good sense to walk away.
However, I want to be clear that I believe that this was an instance not only of the over-reaching of powers, but also of judging the quality of a passenger by his appearances. Would someone of a different look, race, gender, age, or size have been threatened with arrest? I honestly do not think so. He had chosen an aggressive, legalistic tactic because he had judged me as someone most likely to be cowed by such a threat, and perhaps most deserving of such a threat. That is the lesson I have taken away from this episode.
To Via Rail: after a series of unpleasant experiences, I am not presently inclined to use your services anytime soon. But I probably will do so again eventually, because human beings have limited emotional memory, and I’m a sucker for a deal. However, I would encourage you to (a) be publicly clear about which expectations of passengers are indeed laws and which are merely requests; and (b) help your employees choose more effective and less confrontational strategies for coercing the participation of shit-disturbers like me.
Interestingly, the Via Rail Twitter team never reacted to my tweet about being threatened with arrest. Take from that what you will.
UPDATE: (Oct 1, 2013) – Via Rail customer service has been trying to contact me. I will call them back when I get a free moment. I give them respect for responding to this issue.
UPDATE: (Oct 4, 2013) – Just spoke with Via Rail customer service, who offered me a heartfelt apology. I gratefully accept that apology. I want to make clear that I understand the employee’s frustration and position. I want nothing bad to happen to him, since his job is to keep us safe, and I think he was doing his job as he saw it. But what I want is clearer expectations from Via Rail regarding the rules around passenger behaviour, and better training for employees about when it is appropriate to threaten passengers with de-training.
UPDATE: (Oct 10, 2013) – AAAHAHAHAAAA!