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— by Julie Sneider, associate editor
"World class." By 2020, that's how Carl Desrosiers wants Société de transport de Montréal (STM) to be viewed by people who visit or live in Montreal.
And STM's chief executive officer believes the agency has the right strategy in place to make it one of the world's top-tier public transportation systems, as measured by the quality of customer experience, service reliability and cost management acumen.
"We still have work to do to, but we really believe we can get there," says Desrosiers, who was named CEO in 2012 after climbing the ranks at STM over a 30-year career. "We really want everyone around the world telling people that Montreal is different, that it is an incredible city, based on transit. Because in order to have a world-class city, you have to have a world-class transit system."
STM already has plenty going in its favor. The fourth-largest public transit organization in North America, it serves about 1.2 million passengers daily and records about 413 million trips annually. The system comprises an integrated bus network consisting of 250 lines, as well the underground rail system (known as "metro") serving 68 stations. STM handles about 80 percent of all public transportation in the Montreal area and accounts for about 70 percent of all public transit use in Quebec.
With a workforce of 9,500, STM is the 14th largest employer in Quebec; in 2013, the agency's budget totaled $1.3 billion (in Canadian dollars). The agency estimates the replacement value of its assets is worth more than $14.5 billion.
The metro also is home to a significant collection of art that began with the subway's construction in the early 1960s. The collection features dozens of murals, stained glass panels and sculptures installed throughout the 68 stations, making the metro "an essential component of Montreal's civic heritage," according to the STM website. And last year, the lifestyle magazine Complex identified Montreal's Champ-de-Mars Station, which features the stained-glass artwork of
Marcelle Ferron, as the ninth "most beautiful" metro station in the world.
The agency has been acknowledged for more than aesthetics, however. In 2010, the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) named STM the best large transit agency in North America. And in 2013, APTA recognized STM for excellence in bus safety and security efforts.
While agency leaders welcome such recognition, they'd like STM to get better reviews, especially from the people who ride STM's trains and buses. The agency's customer satisfaction currently is "quite high" — at 85 percent, Desrosiers says — but it has been even higher, clocking in at 89 percent in 2011 and 88 percent in 2012.
The slide in satisfaction occurred around the same time the agency experienced eight major breakdowns (four in 2012 and four in 2013) that affected the entire metro network and paralyzed four subway lines, an STM spokeswoman explained in an email. Most of the disruptions were related to implementation of metro's new control center, and could explain the decline in customer satisfaction, she added.
Whatever the cause, STM leaders know the decline in customer satisfaction is something they must address. One key component of their plan to make riders happier: new, larger trains.
"My subway system is at capacity; I need more cars," says Desrosiers.
STM will get them later this year. A new fleet of metro cars, dubbed "Azur," is being manufactured for STM by a consortium comprising Bombardier Transportation and Alstom Transport. Under a $1.2 billion contract STM awarded the consortium in 2010, the agency is purchasing 468 cars.
Over time, the fleet will replace the agency's MR-63 cars, which have been in operation since metro opened in 1966.
The first Azur car rolled off the assembly line at Bombardier's plant in La Pocatiere, Quebec, in November 2013. The consortium has been testing a prototype train at the plant, and in April shipped the first car to Montreal for qualification testing with STM.
The first Azur cars are scheduled to enter service in fall. All 468 metro cars are anticipated to be in service by fall 2018.
STM officials believe the nine-car train's sleek design, layout and technology will offer passengers a smoother, more comfortable and secure ride. Among the cars' features are wider doors, improved ergonomics, panoramic windows, innovative lighting, a pneumatic suspension system, and a ventilation system that adjusts temperature based on the number of people onboard. Each new train will be able to accommodate up to 8 percent more riders.
The cars also represent an example of "ecodesign," with assembly techniques and materials selected to meet sustainable development practices, STM officials say.
The new Azur fleet represents a major investment in STM's future: $2.5 billion over several years once all costs are factored in. The cars are a major component of STM's Strategic Plan 2020, which also calls for expanding service, improving the customer experience, and growing STM's ridership by 40 percent to 540 million passenger trips. In 2012, the agency set an all-time record of 412.6 million passenger trips, up 1.9 percent over 2011.
So far, the strategic plan appears to be on track, says Desrosiers.
"We measure the success of the plan based on ridership, and we now have 20 million more trips than we expected to have at this point in the plan," he says. "What you have to do is attract customers. And now, every day, they are coming. So, our basic plan is to get more cars and also more reserve lanes on the bus side — because that also is an issue in Montreal."
Additionally, the agency is acquiring new, more energy-efficient buses. In 2012, STM's board approved the purchase of 203 diesel-electric hybrids, some of which will be used to replace older models and the remainder to expand service. As part of its commitment to environmental sustainability, STM has a goal to purchase solely all-electric buses starting in 2025.
Desrosiers believes an all-electric bus system is a must in order to attract millennial-generation riders.
"How can I tell my young customers, 'You better get out of your car and take the bus or subway if you want to save the planet,' when in 15 years they will tell me, 'Hey, I can't do that because my car is electric and your bus is diesel,' " he says.
Ridership is increasing in part because Montreal's population is rising: According to the Institut de la statistique du Québec, the Montreal region's population is projected to grow 20 percent to 4.3 million by 2031. But population growth alone won't automatically translate into more STM riders. Also key to STM's future growth equation is making sure those riders have a pleasant experience whenever they use the system.
To that end, STM is taking several steps, including expanding its customer communication through social media, mobile technology and real-time tracking. In 2012, the agency launched "iBus," which provides real-time bus arrival information via the Internet and mobile applications. And last year, the agency launched a customer loyalty program through an iPhone app called "STM Merci." Developed by STM and its technology partner SAP, the app provides transit riders access to personalized special offers and discounts for transportation, local events and businesses.
Moreover, the agency has relied on customer opinion and satisfaction surveys to develop a customer relations training program for STM ticket-booth agents and vehicle operators. STM uses customer focus groups to define and gauge their expectations for good service, facility and vehicle cleanliness, and the courtesy of STM employees who interact with riders. As part of a continuous quality improvement effort, every day STM sends "mystery shoppers" to use the system and report back on their perceptions of service quality on buses and trains. The results — positive and negative — are shared with employees.
Offering world-class service also requires a strong commitment to safety. At STM, safety is the responsibility of managers in every department, just as they are responsible for cost control, and service reliability and quality.
"We don't have a safety department or quality department because we think it's too important to delegate that responsibility to one staff department," says Desrosiers.
Since 1997, STM has participated in APTA's Rail Safety Audit Program, as well as one for bus safety. While the audit examines whether STM is meeting system safety standards, the agency uses the auditors' recommendations as part of its broader continuous improvement plan.
"We take it really seriously," Desrosiers says. "But we don't just do these things to improve safety, we do it to improve reliability. ... And basically, if you handle safety correctly, it means you are doing your job well. And if you do your job well, you will be safer, more reliable and have better customer service."
Desrosiers' biggest challenges are similar to those of other transit executives: how to manage an aging system, maintain a state of good repair, expand infrastructure, improve and add service, keep existing riders happy and attract new ones — all on an austerity budget that relies on passenger fares and financial support from government.
In the case of the new Azur car investment, 75 percent of the funding is coming from Quebec's Minster of Transport and the remaining 25 percent from the Urban Agglomeration of Montreal. STM was fortunate to obtain support from the provincial government for the new cars, Desrosiers says.
"We didn't have much choice; we were replacing [rolling] stock that is around 48 years old," he adds. "We had to do it."
As for securing financial support for future STM initiatives — such as plans for a new tramway system — Desrosiers knows he has to make the case to government and political leaders that transit is good for the economy and Montreal's overall effort to become a sustainable, world-class city.
One study cited in STM's strategic plan noted that the region's public transit authorities injected $1.8 billion into the Montreal area and generated an added value of $1.1 billion. The project to build the new Azur fleet alone involves more than 150 Canadian suppliers, according to STM.
Also, a recent survey of Quebec citizens found that 88 percent of them supported government investment in transit, Desrosiers says.
"If you put a million dollars into the area's transit industry, that [investment] stays in Canada and especially in Quebec," he says. "So we've tried to tell [political leaders] that it's wise to invest in transit. If they invest in transit, they will save some money for Quebec and the city will become more productive. And that's good for the economy."