How Metrolinx is getting people to relax on the rails

The latest in the transit operator's safety campaign is helping UP Express handle the two-pronged downturn in transit and air travel.

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This summer, Pearson International Airport cut a quarter of its staff thanks to COVID travel declines, and on Monday, intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic Leblanc conceded that the government may even consider buying stakes in Air Canada or WestJet, should this downturn continue. 

That has created a bit of a double-whammy for Metrolinx, the crown agency that not only manages inter-region public transport in Ontario, but also the UP Express, a direct rail line that runs from Toronto’s downtown to Pearson Airport. With the few people still willing (or required) to travel by air also feeling uncertain about public transportation, Metrolinx is taking strong measures to make riders comfortable on its trains, following what it calls “a drastic decline in ridership since the start of the pandemic.”

The cornerstone of a new Metrolinx campaign focuses squarely on the UP Express in a series of online videos showing its “Unknown Heroes,” safety objects like face masks, hand sanitizer dispensers and “noble cleaning sprays,” with a sonorous voiceover.

When the pandemic struck, a critical component of Metrolinx’s recovery strategy was a platform dubbed – appropriately enough for a rail service – “Safety Never Stops.” The push has included spots featuring actor and comedian Darryl Hinds explaining exactly what (and where) GO Transit is implementing in terms of safety measures, as well as a series featuring the GO Bear mascot that is more directed at riders, informing them on how to keep fellow riders and Metrolinx staff safe.

“Safety Never Stops” is also the tagline in the new videos for UP Express, rendered in an animated infinity symbol that represents an unending commitment to safety, says Mark Childs, chief marketing and communications officer at Metrolinx, adding that it also visually represents the train travelling back and forth from Union Station to Pearson airport.

Childs tells strategy that the platform will continue for some time, including post-pandemic. Despite the downturn in optional and leisure travel, people have not stopped flying entirely throughout the pandemic, as some people require air travel for work or to reconnect with families. As an equally essential service, Metrolinx is letting customers know it is ready for them, whenever they take that next flight.

It’s conveying this messaging with what Childs calls a “subtle wink and a smile” to break through an environment that is flooded with health and safety messaging. The brand has previously used a more lighthearted approach to reach out to stakeholders, be it with its GO Transit “etiquette fails” campaign or one that characterized ongoing construction projects across the province as an “awkward phase.”

While the target is local commuters, there is also an element of awareness-building, as some Torontonians remain unaware of the five-year-old UP Express.

The digital-focused campaign allows Metrolinx to react to rapidly changing conditions, Childs says. And even though OOH advertising is not part of the strategy for the “Unknown Heroes” online-focused media buy, it is being complemented with messaging in-station and at the airport, as well as in travel magazines.

BBDO Toronto has been leading creative work for both GO Transit and UP Express, with Noise Digital handling media.