B.C. Transit is continuing to play catch-up with bus maintenance following three-month long job action by the Canadian Auto Workers Local 333, but as it attempts to get back to business as usual, ridership numbers are dropping.
“(Monday we had) 36 cancelled runs,” said B.C. Transit corporate spokesperson Meribeth Burton. “We have about 3,200 trips a day Monday to Friday, so one per cent cancelled isn’t great but it’s better than we have been providing.”
B.C. Transit has been cancelling runs on some of its higher frequency routes in an attempt to provide maintenance to the 45 to 50 buses Burton said are parked at this time.
“I think we were just in survival mode for the three months of the job action,” she said. “(The buses we have parked) require eight or more hours of repair on them.”
The Canadian Auto Workers have asked B.C. Transit to keep the work in-house and they are posting between 60 and 70 hours of overtime in each garage every day to get the system running normally as quickly as possible.
“If it wasn’t for the job action our workers would have done the work already,” said Canadian Auto Workers Union Local 333 president Ben Williams. “At B.C. Transit we obviously perform all of the maintenance on the vehicles for Greater Victoria and that’s how we want it to stay.”
According to Williams there has been talk from B.C. Transit of contracting out the work but union members are working long hours to keep the work in house.
“It’s their work and nobody wants to see their work taken elsewhere,” Williams said.
Contributing to the long work hours and backlog of maintenance is an overall shortage in skilled trades people in the industry.
“There is a huge shortage in skilled trades especially with the mechanics side of things,” said Williams. “It’s extremely difficult to attract these people and the wages B.C. Transit is paying aren’t cutting it, making it even harder to obtain and retain staff.”
But as Transit moves forward with maintenance, riders are waiting for buses that have been cancelled or arrive already full.
“I’m one of those riders,” Burton said. “I can completely empathize. On Friday, I was waiting to go to work with my four-year-old and we were out in the cold waiting for 10 minutes, with more people than we’ve ever seen at that stop, because a trip was cancelled.”
And Burton isn’t the only transit user who has seen the change in service. Christine Comrie, who often uses transit daily, said she has noticed the cancellations since the strike ended.
“I find it frustrating not to have a bus come when you’re at the stop waiting for over 20 minutes, especially when you have to make it to work on time,” Comrie said.
In an attempt to keep from inconveniencing rural riders, Transit is cancelling runs on routes with frequent service. Riders who often see a bus come every 10 minutes on major routes, may be waiting 20 because of cancelled runs.
As runs have been cancelled, ridership numbers have dropped – something Burton said is cause for concern.
“Last year we had record ridership and I think we were as excited as we could be as a crown corporation. We’ve seen any kind of drop is unacceptable,” she said. “Anytime you give people the opportunity to consider alternative modes of transportation, it’s a slippery slope and one we don’t want to go down. That’s why we’re working as hard as we can to get service back up.”
Though some riders have the option of using transportation alternatives, people like Comrie rely on transit as one of their primary sources of transportation.
“For someone in my income bracket, I can’t afford a vehicle,” she said. “I have to have faith the transit authorities will provide the services we come to expect and depend on.”
Burton said the garages, logistics, the depot and operations are working together to get the system running as smoothly as possible, however it’s hard to say when it will be back to service as usual.“I think every day we watch the numbers again,” she said. “It’s easy to catch up on the weekends when we’re putting in fewer service hours. But it’s not just that we have a backlog, it’s every single day there are upwards of 300 buses in our fleet that continually need maintenance. It’s a floating target.”