It was the biggest challenge to-date for TransLink interim CEO Doug Allen (left), since CEO Ian Jarvis was shuffled into a board advisory role in February.
Part of SkyTrain’s Expo Line had gone out of service around 11 p.m. on May 21. When it got its story together the next morning, TransLink claimed that a spark from routine track-grinding maintenance near Main Street/Science World station ignited a bird nest and flames spread to a communication cable. It remains a mystery why there was no routine, precautionary visual inspection for foreign objects.
Thousands of commuters who rely on SkyTrain were late for work, school or personal appointments as repair crews kept working through the May 22 morning rush. TransLink declared a fare-free rest-of-Friday to compensate and Allen held a noon news conference near the station to apologize.
During the news conference, the precise location of the alleged bird nest and the cable fire was not pointed out and no photograph of the damage was shown to reporters. The service outage also coincided with a breakdown in the Canada Line’s ticket vending machines.
It couldn’t have come at a worse time. A week remained until the end of the non-binding, mail-in plebiscite on funding TransLink’s $7.7 billion expansion via the proposed hike of the Provincial Sales Tax from 7% to 7.5% in Metro Vancouver. A leaked business plan for TransLink’s SkyTrain subsidiary said the July 2014 service outages and escalator maintenance caused a $2.1 million budget overrun last year.
Waiving fares for the day, system-wide, could cost as much as $1.38 million in lost revenue, based on TransLink’s 2014 fare revenue forecast of $504.8 million.
Allen dodged my question about the official cost estimate but gave lip service to my query about the postponed statutory annual general meeting and 2014 financial report. The meeting, he said, would be in late June.
This is significant. TransLink’s AGM is traditionally in the last week of May, but not this year. Common sense says if the bottom line was really something to celebrate, TransLink would be promoting it to the hilt during the plebiscite period, so as to garner last-minute Yes votes from the undecided or to convince potential No voters to switch sides. It is not surprising. This is the same organization whose board of directors rejected my request to observe and report on its March 30 meeting; it would rather do business behind closed doors, even when the public is questioning its transparency and accountability.
With questions pending from several reporters, Allen walked away from the microphone after being there for seven minutes. He did not stay for a scrum. He didn’t bargain on a reporter coincidentally heading in the same direction as he walked with TransLink communications director Marc Riddell, the former award-winning executive producer at Global BC News.
I caught up to Allen, but he kept walking and refused to answer questions. Riddell told me to contact the media relations office for answers, to which I explained it has an uncanny habit of referring me to the Freedom of Information office which tends to take five weeks to answer a question.
I asked Allen about whether Lynda Cranston and Sage Group have consulting roles with TransLink (Cranston was fired from the Provincial Health Services Authority in 2013 after giving unauthorized management pay hikes; Sage is the consultancy Allen co-founded). Is he staying as CEO until mid-August or longer? What is the status of the search for a new CEO?
More silence from Allen.
“Mr. Allen,” I asked, “you want the public to trust the company, and pay more for its service through taxes. Can’t you be more accountable to the public, and answer questions?”
Even more silence from Allen, who eventually rode shotgun in a Ford F-150 pickup truck driven by Riddell out of the Science World parking lot, two blocks from another parking lot where the news conference took place. You can hear the back-in-service SkyTrain in the background of the video. Allen’s bio claims he relies on the #84 bus and Millennium line.
The optics of the interim CEO riding as a passenger in a pick-up truck instead of a bus or on SkyTrain are one thing. The missed opportunity to improve beleaguered TransLink’s image is another matter. Allen could have walked up to the station platform, boarded a train, shaken hands with the public that pays his $35,000-a-month salary and distributed some free FareSaver tickets to monthly pass holders or others with proof of prepaid fares.
Cynics would have written that off as a cheesy photo opportunity. But others would have seen it as a genuine attempt to improve customer relations at a crucial time.
There are two things guaranteed in Vancouver: rain and more SkyTrain service outages. Next time, will Allen answer all questions from reporters? Will he go face the passengers and apologize to them personally?