Lack of bus drivers still cause for concern in delivering regional transit: Logtenberg

Timothy Schafer Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
By Timothy Schafer Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
October 4th, 2023

The region’s transit system is facing challenges in a post-pandemic world and it needs to be addressed right away, says a member of the committee governing the service.

Rik Logtenberg spoke about the need for the West Kootenay Transit committee to keep pressing for solutions to one of the service’s major issues: staffing.

He said there are currently staffing issues on certain routes — such as the Salmo 72 route — and West Kootenay Transit System operator NextGen is not fully staffed up, but it isn’t just an isolated problem.

During a recent City of Nelson council meeting Logtenberg spoke about the committee’s acknowledgement of staffing — the lack of bus drivers — across the service as one which needs to be solved before more routes and increased service can be dealt with.

While there had been a drop-off in ridership because of the pandemic, the desire for transit was high — according to a recent Selkirk College rural transit study — at around 90 per cent, but the committee needed to solve the issue to capitalize on that desire, said Logtenberg.

He said the committee has already endorsed a letter to apply for grants from the Province to develop a program to pay for driver training, a sum that sits at around $3,000 for tuition.

“Right now that is a big up-front costs that drivers have to pay before they can even apply for a job, or consider applying,” Logtenberg said.

Beyond that housing is another barrier to recruiting drivers to the area.

But West Kootenay Transit is short drivers and needs to remedy that if it wishes to expand the system, he added. Route 99 — between Nelson and Selkirk College — is already oversubscribed, as is Route 98 (Columbia Connector) and Route 10 (North Shore), but no movement can be made until drivers can be found to handle the extra hours.

In February Logtenberg said the contract the Regional District of Central Kootenay (RDCK) — along with the City of Nelson — and BC Transit had with NextGen struggled with a lack of bus drivers on some routes, causing the cancellations on certain days.

Over the Christmas holiday season there were a number of cancelled transit routes with people “stranded on the side of the highway,” he explained at the time.

The incident was another in a series of cancellations that sparked a community group to form to begin advocating for a better transit service. The group had its first meeting with Logtenberg — also a City of Nelson councillor — in early January to talk about solutions.

A report on the ongoing cancellations of trips in the West Kootenay Transit System — and the summary of efforts by BC Transit, NextGen and the RDCK to reduce the impact of those missed trips — was delivered to a regional district board meeting in December of 2022.

The report, authored by RDCK research analyst Tom Dool, noted that — despite an increase in ridership in 2022 — there was a corresponding increased impact from service interruptions. It was found that labour shortages — compounded by “compensation and retention challenges” — were driving the bus when it came to service interruptions in 2022.

Although Nelson, Castlegar, North Shore and Salmo saw only three per cent of scheduled trips missed to-date, other routes were slightly higher — Blewett and Kaslo at five per cent, Perrier at four per cent — but the hardest hit was the northern Nakusp (18 per cent) and Nakusp health connection (58 per cent) routes.

Those northern routes were impacted by driver recruitment, Dool explained, with a four-month period when there wasn’t even a local driver available — drivers having to be brought in from other areas of the service.

A loss of one trip on a northern route that only runs three times per week would result in a 33 per cent reduction, he stated in his report, while one trip cancelled on an urban route that runs 10 times per day would deliver a two per cent reduction in service.

“Having said that, the urban route cancellation would likely effect a significantly higher number of riders,” Dool pointed out.

Logtenberg said transit was a delicate service that needed more forward thinking.

“Transit is one of those things … that there are tipping points within it, that if you are starting to miss routes people will start to become disillusioned with it; they stop choosing that as a transportation solution, which then means less ridership, which means less investment which kind of sends it into a death spiral,” he said.

Driver shortage

The trip cancellation issue was raised by regional district staff with BC Transit and operations contractor NextGen Transit last year, but it was found to be a microcosm of a larger problem.

With operating hours in some rural and remote areas not comprising a full-time job for a driver, transit employment in those areas was considered part-time, which effectively limited how many people would want to apply for the position, Dool explained at the time.

As well, this increased the frequency of non-service trips — with buses and drivers travelling considerable distance to be put into service — that used up operating hours.

“When Nakusp and area lost its only driver, drivers from other parts of the system were brought in on a rotating basis to provide coverage until a new driver could be found,” Dool said. “While service was reduced, a minimum of service was maintained by this arrangement as opposed to the persistent closure of the service, which had been the case previously.”

Despite a recruitment program, there are dearth of people seeking employment in the field, both locally and across the province. Provincial employment and labour statistics reveal that the rate of unemployment in the transportation and warehousing sectors in the Kootenay region is at a 10-year low of 1.9 per cent (3.6 per cent provincially).

“Effectively, anyone who is interested in working in the sector is already doing so,” said Dool.

Source: The Nelson Daily, December, 2022

Labour shortage, service cancellations

Recruitment of new bus drivers for the Kootenay Lake West System (KLWS) is bearing fruit, said Trevor Stach, CEO, NextGen Transit.

After NextGen Transit assumed operations of KLWS on Oct. 1 and then eight days later it instituted its vaccination policy, the company lost four full time drivers — close to one third of its workforce.

Stach said two new employees have started in Nelson and one more was expected to start full time.

But the hardest hit area has been Nakusp, he added, with the company posting daily service alerts to notify the public on when they will be missing service.

Although there was a period where no service was available due to staff shortage, NextGen is currently providing service at least two days per week and is expecting to have two new drivers in the near future, Stach noted in the minutes.

He estimated a loss of less than 10 per cent of total service since NextGen took over, which is five per cent more from when they took over.

Source: The Nelson Daily, June 2022

This post was syndicated from https://thenelsondaily.com
Categories: General