Many years ago, on one of my first ever business trips, I boarded a non-stop Air Canada flight to Los Angeles. About 90 minutes later, the pilot announced that we would be making an unscheduled landing in Cincinnati and would need to get a connecting flight to LA from there. As we were herded out of the plane, smiling flight attendants assured us that Air Canada reps were waiting in the airport to usher us to our new planes. Some of the more seasoned travelers rolled their eyes but as I was still unjaded, I marched down the jetway and was completely surprised when in fact, there were no Air Canada reps waiting for us. We wandered around till we found the Air Canada service counter only to find that the befuddled staff had no idea who we were or why we were expecting to be put on planes to LA free of charge. This was just the first of many air travel disruptions that have left me feeling in the dark, out of the loop and completely alone. The most recent was a four-hour delay on the tarmac in Paris with half a cup of water and only the briefest, most vague information on what was going on. But this is not a post about air travel, and it’s not even a post about Air Canada. I have been treated like garbage, ignored, lied to and left alone by many large airlines.
This is about a customer service experience I had with train travel. I go to Montreal on business a few times a year and always travel by train. With VIA Rail’s first class service, I don’t have to arrive at the station until 15 minutes before my train leaves, the staff are pleasant and helpful, there are no security check lines and, I usually have a glass of wine in my hand before the train clears the Greater Toronto Area. With free Wi-Fi and lots of room to spread out and work, it makes for a relaxing and productive five hours and even though it’s a five hour journey, I always arrive refreshed.
I’ve done this many times and have never had a problem but my luck ran out last week when my east-bound train ran aground west of Kingston. Less than ten minutes later, the driver came on the loudspeaker to tell us that there was a problem with the engine and the engineer had gone to try to fix it. I was slightly alarmed but figured it would be resolved soon and went back to my paperwork. As the engineer tinkered away, the driver communicated with us at least every ten minutes for a half hour until he finally announced, apologizing profusely, that they were unable to restart the engine. At that point, he said he was communicating with central control about how to get us safely to Montreal and promised he’d be back with details later. True to his word, he came back on the loudspeaker five minutes later to tell us that we would be transferred onto another eastbound train that was about 20 minutes behind us but, since it was ending its run in Brockville, we would have to continue on to Montreal by bus. This prompted moans and groans and mumbled profanity from the passengers and at least one panic attack by a woman who was horrified at thought of a prolonged bus ride. Shortly after, the staff came around to chat with us in person, answer questions, and provide details on when we would actually arrive in Montreal.
20 minutes later, we were on board a second train hurtling towards Brockville. For logistical reasons, we were downgraded to economy class but staff from the first train came with us and brought drinks and snacks to hand out to everyone. When we pulled into Brockville, the buses were already waiting and warmed up and while they were a far cry from the first class cabin of the train, they were comfortable, if cramped. The VIA staff who had been with us since Toronto were also forced to ride on the bus with us and again, they brought bottles of water, snacks, soft drinks and pillows. They continued to answer our questions and before we got off, they provided complete details about how we could be refunded for our lost time and convenience. We finally arrived at the Montreal train station at 1 a.m., three and a half hours later than our scheduled arrival time of 9:40 p.m.
So, is it a problem when a transportation company can’t fulfill its promise? Yes! Was it a huge inconvenience that the first train broke down? Absolutely! I had planned to do five hours of work on my train trip and I only got in 90 minutes. I didn’t get to bed until 2 a.m. and was exhausted and disoriented the next day. But, that said, overall I was impressed with how VIA handled the situation and how different it was from similar experiences with airline travel. From the start, the staff were honest about the problem and the possible consequences. They communicated regularly throughout the ordeal and handled angry customers in a way that diffused potential outbursts. All of the staff members we encountered apologized several times for our troubles and they provided complete details on how we would be reimbursed within hours of the service breakdown. And while they were on the bus with us for purely logistical reasons (it was their only way of getting home), somehow it softened the situation and made it difficult to continue to complain.
It’s been said many times but people are generally willing to forgive any screw-up as long as you take responsibility, apologize appropriately and work to make amends. In cases like this, the story becomes more about how a crisis is handled, rather than how the actual crisis happened. I have always been a fan of VIA but despite being inconvenienced, I actually have more respect for the company now than I had before. After all, it’s easy for people to be kind and happy when things are going well. It’s how people behave during a crisis that reveals their true character.