People & Places

“Willing to walk out” — OC Transpo drivers talk shortages, recovery time — and a looming strike

We might consider bad weather the biggest cog in the wheel of OC Transpo these days, and we might hold out some hope that the city is talking tough with RTG. But another storm is brewing: at the end of March, OC Transpo’s contract with its drivers expires. Many operators in the local Amalgamated Transit Union believe going on strike may be the only answer.

“Run times are unrealistic and things need to be fixed,” says union president Clint Crabtree. “Nobody wants a work stoppage, but let’s have a fair contract. The system is underfunded.”

Here, we look at some of the issues on the table as the union sits down to negotiate a new contract with the city.

Unreasonable schedules and driver shortages
OC Transpo aims for buses to arrive on time 90 per cent of the time. But in the last decade, it has yet to break through the 70 percent mark. Plus, instead of the increased reliability promised by the Confederation Line, bus service has plummeted further. Between September and December 2019, buses arrived on schedule an average of 54 percent of the time on weekdays.

OC Transpo performance metrics, provided to Ottawa Magazine, show buses were on time, at best, 60 per cent of the time. Its website states that it aims for 90 per cent.

The union says management’s unrealistic run times make drivers feel like they’re being set up to fail. There are 1,678 people driving conventional buses and para-transpo vehicles and operating the LRT. Many persevered through the last transit strike in 2008 and some like Al* have already started saving for another walkout.
(*name has been changed to protect the anonymity of the driver)

“It feels like things are coming to a boiling point,” says Al, who connects with me over Twitter.

“We don’t see the city offering any form of help … the membership is fed up,” Al writes. He says that since the new bus schedule began in January he hasn’t been able to hit his arrival times unless he’s travelling late at night without any traffic. Things got worse when the weather got bad. Al would arrive for work, not knowing if he would drive his regular scheduled route or be shifted into replacement service for the dysfunctional LRT.

“We’re being asked to contribute as much as we can so the system can run. But at the same time we don’t have time for a washroom break. It’s mentally exhausting and physically exhausting.”

In December 2019, an internal screenshot of the cancellation screen show a different picture than what it shared with the public. OC Transpo attributed the incident to human error, but admitted it is short 100 drivers

Compounding problems is the issue of driver shortages, which forced the cancellation of 2.4 percent of its trips between September and December 2019. That’s about 210 bus trips cancelled every weekday. In late 2019, OC Transpo revealed a shortage of 100 operators; since then, 18 new operators have passed their training, and it will be June before they meet their hiring targets. Until then, management is asking drivers to take on more overtime. 

A veteran driver, Al says he is refusing extra shifts to keep himself from burning out.

“Willing to walk out”
Bobby* is a self-described data junkie in his 20s who loves driving a bus. Behind the wheel, Bobby has faced the wrath of angry commuters who scream at him for being late. These days, he’s been quietly assessing the mood in the OC Transpo garages.
(*name has been changed to protect the anonymity of the driver)

“I’ve been talking to other drivers and most drivers are willing to walk out over the scheduling — the lack of breaks, and just how bad it is,” he says. Bobby looks at the pile of operator schedules, sent to me confidentially, and explains that most shifts involve “interlining”, a system that requires an operator to drive more than one route, or portions of multiple routes, on any given shift.

He points to an example: for a shift that begins at 6:42 a.m., when the driver picks up the bus at the St. Laurent garage, then drives to Bayshore station, where he turns on the sign for Route 55 and starts picking up customers on the way to Tunney’s Pasture. When he gets to Tunney’s Pasture, the driver switches routes. His bus becomes an 82 as he loops around Greenbank and Baseline. After he drops off passengers at Tunney’s, the driver will go into “ghost mode” or change his exterior sign to “out of service”,  angering people who wonder why an empty bus is speeding by commuters during rush hour, on his way to Greenboro station, where it will be put back in service, as a Route 92 bus. Before the shift is over, the operator will drive a portion of Route 93 before going into “ghost” mode on the way downtown to Parliament Station and changing over to a Route 18. The six and half hour shift ends at 1 p.m. at St. Laurent Station.

By law, bus drivers can work 13 hours a day. After a few hours off in the afternoon, the driver can come back for an evening shift. 

“It works on paper, but not in real life”

In designing the bus schedule, OC Transpo uses a computer program called Hastus to calculate run times. The algorithm uses information gathered from sensors on each bus, such as traffic flow, weather patterns, how many passengers are picked up on the route, and even how many times a wheelchair ramp is deployed.

“The computer system has evolved and improved over the past 20 to 30 years,” says OC Transpo’s director of transit customer systems and planning, Pat Scrimgeour. “[The algorithm] is giving us solutions which are dramatically cheaper, I will say by millions of dollars, perhaps tens of millions of dollars cheaper than if things were done only by human knowledge.”

But the run times are usually set months before a schedule takes effect. And the drivers are human, not robots. Many of them aren’t completing the runs within the time frame the computer has set out, frustrating OC Transpo customers who want buses that come on time.

“It works on paper, but not in real life,” says Bobby.

Tough, thankless, risky work

So, how does Ottawa’s bus system compare to others?

Scudder Wagg, a Washington-based transit consultant with Jarrett Walker who has helped improve transit systems in more than 100 cities across the world, including redesigns in Philadelphia, Miami and Burlington, Ontario. When shown the OC Transpo driver shifts and route schedules, Wagg says he has never seen a transit system with such heavy interlining. He says OC Transpo is most likely saving money, but it’s also putting itself at risk of “cascading unreliability.”
“The more you interline across your whole network, the more likely it is that a delay in one place in one time will impact reliability across the entire bus network,” Wagg says. He’s also surprised at the bus cancellation rate of 2.4 percent. The municipalities he’s worked with try to keep cancellations under 1 percent. Wagg says high cancellation rates usually indicate a struggle to recruit and retain drivers.

OC Transpo performance metrics, provided to Ottawa Magazine, show cancellation rates of between 1.1 per cent and 3.7 per cent.

“These public sector position salaries haven’t risen relative to inflation and it’s a tough job. It can be thankless and it’s often risky,” said Wagg.

Another red flag is the five percent recovery time, says Wagg, noting agencies he’s worked with usually allocate at least 10 percent recovery time. 

Recovery is the time given at the end of a trip for a driver to catch up and get back on schedule before he/she begins another run. A five percent recovery time means that for a trip scheduled to take 60 minutes, a driver only gets three minutes of turnaround time before starting the next loop. On average, it takes two minutes for a full bus of passengers to disembark and another three and half minutes to board a full bus. The current recovery time was set in 2008 in arbitration, following a bus strike of over seven weeks.

Union president Clint Crabtree says increasing recovery time will be at the top of his list when it comes time to renegotiate contracts with the city.

From the outside looking in, Wagg says it appears OC Transpo is under tremendous budgetary pressure and is “wringing every minute out of every dollar.”

OC Transpo’s operating budget is set at $436.9 million dollars, but seven councillors voted against it, noting that they were not confident it was enough money for reliable service.

With their contract expiring at the end of March, 2,200 OC Transpo drivers and mechanics are hoping their new deal will involve realistic schedules. If not, many are prepared to throw another wrench in the city’s people-moving system with strike action.