Vancouver Commuter Papers Getting Hit Up Over Litter

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By: Mark Fitzgerald

The frenzied commuter newspaper war in Vancouver, British Columbia, is not only generating more trash in rapid transit stations — it has literally stopped trains in their tracks.

“We’re an automated system, and the trains are equipped with measures to detect intrusions into the guideway,” explained Ken Hardie, spokesman for the TransLink rapid transit agency. “In some stations that device is a laser beam, and when a discarded paper gets into the guideway, it sets off alarm and can stop a train. We had a flurry of those” when the three-way free paper competition began in March, he added.

Now TransLink is demanding publishers pay for the mess, and it’s ending what it calls a “sweetheart deal” the papers had for distribution at SkyTrain stations.

“We have 65 million boardings a year on our rapid transit system alone, and for 150 bucks a year a publisher could put out as many boxes as they wanted,” TransLink spokesman Ken Hardie said in a telephone interview Thursday evening. “We looked at that, and said, wow, that’s too much of a sweetheart deal.”

Next week, TransLink staffers will be meeting with executives at the three competing free papers to try to figure out some kind of sliding scale that would take into account the relative sizes of the papers, Hardie said.

Last week, the TransLink board of directors tabled a staff proposal to raise the fees to $125 a year fee for each newsrack, with a maximum of one box at each station. The staff also proposed a fee of $200 per year for one box in a “Superbox” multi-titled newsrack.

TransLink was unprepared for the litter and train stoppages that occurred in March when three companies launched the free papers within days of each other, Hardie said. “They just hit us without warning, and it set off a real free-for-all,” he said.

Metro International, the big Luxembourg-based free paper publisher, launched Metro in Vancouver in a partnership with the British Columbia publisher Black Press, which is partly owned by Torstar, publisher of the Toronto Star.

Quebecor Inc., the big Montreal-based publisher of the Sun tabloids, launched a Vancouver version of its glossy tabloid 24 Hours. Quebecor also publishes editions of 24 Hours in Toronto and Montreal.

The Asper family’s CanWest Global Communications Corp., Canada’s largest newspaper chain, was the final company to enter the competition, with Dose, a paper aimed at 18- to 34-year-olds that it also launched in Toronto, Ottawa, Edmonton, and Calgary.

A TransLink staff report said litter quadrupled at transit stations, and it warned that even with extra people hired to keep the tracks clear, the free paper litter had the potential for a “system-wide shutdown,” according to an article in the Vancouver Sun by Doris Sun.

The report said some stops have more than 20 newspaper boxes. Publishers also agreed, on a temporary basis, to keep hawkers about 10 feet away from congested areas such as ticket machines and train doors, the Sun reported.

TransLink’s Hardie said the stations are cleaner now that more personnel have been added to pick up the litter and keep papers off the track.

The agency does not want to ban the papers from its property, he added. “Riders … like the newspapers, obviously, because they are taking them, and reading them,” he said.

TransLink’s Hardie said the agency board will likely be ready to make a decision on the new fee structure at its July 20 meeting.

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