Does Via Rail have a Class Problem?

Today while riding the Canadian a homeless person was removed from the train by RCMP officers. To my knowledge, the person in question had not raised his voice with anyone, and his only crime had been to complain that his food had gone missing from the customer use onboard fridge. It is not possible for me to believe that he would have been treated in a similar way had he been in first class, or even had he been an economy class passenger who was not overtly poor – asking (always politely) people for food and smokes and donations towards getting his cell phone working again so he could find truck driving work in Vancouver. He never treated any passengers with disrespect, and he only became confrontational and anxious after Via staff took his ticket away and he began to worry he would be removed from the train.

RCMP officers boarded the train in a small town in Saskatchewan and I was present for some of the discussion between the passenger in question and Via staff. There was a clear power differential, especially when the passengers including myself who were calmly and politely defending and vouching for the passenger’s claims were asked to leave the room. Despite this, however, the final opinion of the police officers, judged from personally speaking with one of them and from other passengers’ conversations with the police, was that the passenger in question was not a problem but in the end he had to be removed because Via staff were demanding he be removed. Oddly enough, the police were in the weak situation, because anything they did to try to keep the passenger on the train was only going to antagonize the staff further. For someone with my politics, it’s weird to feel that I’m siding with police against labour, but in this circumstance that’s exactly how I feel – whereas the staff were antagonistic and escalating towards the homeless person, the police were empathetic and seemed to understand that it was Via’s staff who had escalated the situation and made it an impossible one to resolve with the person in question remaining on the train.

In the end, it seems it is the police who are paying the man’s bus fare to Vancouver, and they ensured the passengers who had shown concern for the man’s well being and situation that they would take good care of him. Generally when the police say “well take good care of someone”, they mean the exact opposite, but I truly hope in this situation it was sincere. We got the man’s email address so I will be able to follow up with him and find out what happened and whether he made it safely to Vancouver.

The real problem in this situation I believe is a confrontational attitude from the staff who got on in Winnipeg and will be with us the rest of the way to Vancouver. Many passengers have experienced defensive and antagonistic behaviour by the staff – there have already been other incidents where they have threatened to remove people from the train. Mixing a confrontational staff with a late train and anxious passengers is a nasty cocktail. If I can say something positive has emerged from the situation, it is a strong feeling of solidarity amongst the many passengers who stuck up for the man who was singled out and removed. The jokes awkwardly reveal this – a staff member just walked by and commented how quiet this passenger car is; a passenger retorted: “It’s because none of us want to be kicked off”.

I’ve written a complaint which I will be sending to Via Rail’s customer relations department. If anything significant happens in the follow up, I will try to blog about it as well.

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4 thoughts on “Does Via Rail have a Class Problem?

  1. Good for you, those staff need to get reprimanded big time. If you don’t get satisfaction from Viarail, go to the tv news. they won’t like that.
    So the train is running late?

  2. I will post below the email conversation with Via Customer relations regarding the incident. This is the email I sent Via Customer Relations.

    From: tristan.laing@gmail.com
    Sent: 12/14/2012
    To: customer_relations@viarail.ca
    Subject: Twitter ^NK

    Dear Via Customer Relations,

    I am writing to complain about the actions and behaviour of staff on
    Via Rail’s Canadian (Westbound) in Saskatchewan on Friday, December
    14th. Steve was removed from the train for causing a disturbance,
    however, it was my view and the view of a plurality of other economy
    class passengers that the disturbance was primarily caused not by
    Steve but by the train staff’s treatment of Steve. Steve is a poor
    person; his ticket was partially paid by a friend and he has depended
    on the kindness of others for food and cigarettes while riding to
    Vancouver. The incident as I understand it began when a bag of
    sandwiches which Steve had been given by a shopkeeper in the Forks
    district of Winnipeg went missing from the customer use fridge in the
    front end of the Skyline activity car. It seems that when Steve asked
    one of Via’s train staff about the problem the staff member became
    defensive and confrontational. Later Steve’s ticket was taken, which
    understandably made Steve confused and worried he would be removed
    from the train. When Steve asked about were his ticket had gone he was
    told various things, including that it was “gone”. After Steven spoke
    with the train staff person again, in French, it seems the police were
    called and at the next stop he was escorted off the train by the
    police.

    My major concern about this incident is that the train staff made no
    attempt to diffuse the situation, to treat Steve with the dignity that
    a passenger who was not overtly poor would surely be treated.
    Unfortunately it seems the situation was such that the staff member in
    question knew only how to deal with any customer complaint by
    escalating the situation, blaming the customer, refusing to answer the
    question, or in the end by calling the police. Due to the power
    imbalance between a poor person who does not necessarily have anyone
    to stick up for him and the train staff who will surely be defended by
    other Via staff, escalating the situation by calling the police made
    his removal from the train a foregone conclusion. The root problem was
    the staff member in question did not show any interest in acting in a
    humble way, in admitting that perhaps a mistake had been made when
    Steve’s food had been thrown out. The response I was given when I
    asked staff about this situation was “We have given him lots of food”.
    Well, that may be the case, but it simply isn’t an answer to why
    Steve’s food was thrown out, nor does it acknowledge how normal it is
    for a poor person to be especially upset when their food has gone
    missing.

    When the police arrived the train staff member who had taken Steve’s
    ticket asserted that Steve had threatened him. I do not know if this
    was true or not true, because the alleged conversation happened while
    I was sleeping. However, I can say that in the subsequent conversation
    which happened in French I was in earshot, and my French is very good,
    and in that conversation no threats or swearing occurred but rather
    what occurred was the train staff member constantly interrupting and
    refusing to listen to very simple and reasonable questions being asked
    by Steve about what the situation was and whether he was going to be
    removed from the train.

    From this incident I feel that Via Rail has a serious problem of class
    prejudice. I do not believe that similar escalation would have taken
    place if a customer in first class were upset about stolen food,
    although the irony is a person in first class would in fact need that
    stolen food far less. Rather than take primarily into account the
    needs of passengers, what was taken into account was the needs of
    staff not to have their egos bruised, and eventually the need of train
    staff to be rid of a “problematic” customer, when in fact the problem
    was of their own making. Rather than being sensitive to the needs of a
    passenger who was down on their luck, Via staff chose to escalate the
    situation and effectively treated him in such a way, by confusing and
    antagonizing him, that bound to act in a way that would result in him
    being kicked off. Ironically enough, Steven remained calm and cool to
    the end, and when the police arrived my impression from talking with
    them was that they did not have a problem with Steve, but that it was
    impossible or them to side with him against Via’s staff because Via
    staff had decided he was to be removed from the train and anything
    they could do to stop this would merely further escalate the bad
    feelings between customers and staff.

    It is relevant to note that this whole confrontation happened in a
    context of many customers being upset with staff due to the train
    being more than six hours late and having been given relatively little
    information as to how Via would help accommodate passengers who were
    seriously inconvenienced by the lateness. We were given free coffee
    and cookies, but I think what would have been more helpful would be
    more information about why we were late. I recently found out that the
    reason had to do with a freight engine ahead losing power and not
    being able to pass it, but this was never announced over the speakers.
    I also have overheard many passengers with children complain that no
    real food has been made available for their hungry children other than
    some stale muffins.

    In the future I think it would be helpful if Via staff were required
    to receive training in non-violent communication, and were made more
    aware of the needs of different passengers such as poor passengers and
    passengers with children. This is mostly important because the best
    solution to any tension between customers and staff is mutual empathy,
    initiated by staff, rather than an authoritarian attitude which is
    only satisfied by submissive behaviour on the part of the customer. In
    the meantime, remembering the basic principle of “the customer is
    always right”. I don’t believe this is a perfect principle or one that
    applies in all situations, but I believe in this situation if the
    first reaction of staff had been based on this principle rather than
    an antagonistic attitude, the whole problem of escalation and removing
    Steve from the train could have been avoided.

    Sincerely,

    Tristan Laing

  3. This is the response I received:

    Good morning:

    Thank you for your email.

    VIA train personnel have strict orders to maintain satisfactory behavior on the part of all passengers, in order to ensure the safety, well-being, and comfort of all passengers on board the train.

    The Service Manager has the authority to remove passengers from the train if the individual or group is upsetting or disturbing other passengers. Although this is occasionally a measure to which we must resort, the decision to do so always receives careful consideration, and strict guidelines must be respected. When a passenger becomes unruly, our on-board employees are expected to notify this person that his/her conduct is unacceptable to fellow passengers and to stop the disturbing behavior. When this warning fails to produce a result, our attendants are asked to warn the customer that if the situation continues, he/she will be detrained at the next station.

    Your comments are appreciated and were passed on to the responsible managers for their internal follow-up with the involved staff. While the results of the follow-up with the involved employees will remain internal, I can assure you that every comment/concern received from our customers is taken seriously and closely reviewed.

    Please accept our sincere apologies for the inconvenience caused to you as a result of the delayed arrival of train 001 into Vancouver. Although on-time performance is a priority at VIA Rail, you will appreciate that operating difficulties beyond our control can occasionally cause delays despite our best efforts. On this occasion, the delay was mainly caused by freight traffic. We recognize that punctual performance is one of the most important service attributes expected from our customers. Accordingly, many resources are dedicated to on time performance efforts, which include daily follow-up with the railway owners.

    I was sorry to hear of the reported poor manner in which the delay was handled onboard. Our employees are trained to provide all pertinent information regarding delays on a consistent basis. Communication is a priority, as the dissemination of accurate and timely information is a vital link in the operation of any service organization. We are indeed very sensitive to this aspect of our service and are continually striving to improve in this area.

    As a token of our concern, VIA offers travel credits equivalent to 50% of the fare paid (prior to tax) when our Western transcontinental train is delayed by four hours or more. The travel credit offered is valid for twelve months following the delayed trip. To obtain the credit please retain and present the original ticket receipt or booking confirmation number (XYJ208) at the time of purchase of another VIA ticket at any VIA station.

    Again, thank you for writing and for bringing your concerns to our attention.

    Regards,

    Cindy Laplante
    Customer Relations, Officer

  4. This is the follow up email I sent in response:

    Cindy,

    I don’t consider this response a sufficient or serious response to the
    concerns I’ve raised. Steve was not “upsetting or disturbing other
    passengers”, nor was he unresponsive to warnings. He was treated in a
    discriminatory manor because he is overtly poor, and he was treated
    with a vengeful attitude by one specific via employee (I don’t know
    his name) who accused him of threats (when in fact, he had threatened
    Steve). Your analysis does not take into account the power
    differential in society between employed and unemployed persons, and
    is not sensitive to the instituted and systemic discrimination towards
    people who are overtly poor or who appear “homeless”.

    This response does nothing to convince me that Via rail does not have
    a “class problem”, that is a problem of normalizing discrimination
    based on class.

    Your response above all shows a total disregard for the well being of
    the paying passenger who you kicked off the train. I just heard back
    from him – he missed his bus connection in Calgary, so he now out on
    the street in Calgary, depending on the kindness of strangers. If you
    want to get in touch with him, and take some responsibility for the
    fact as Via you have failed in your responsibilities towards a paying
    customer – and a paying customer who is in significantly direr need of
    decent treatment than you or I, you can contact him by email at [email address removed].

    Merry Christmas,

    Tristan Laing

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