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Drivers wanted: Calgary Transit short operators, mechanics and buses to meet pandemic recovery demand

Calgary Transit will need to hire more than 300 operators, at least 20 mechanical workers and get 125 buses up to snuff before returning to pre-pandemic service levels and ridership.

Earlier this week, the Community Development Committee heard that the significant hiring and recommissioning of buses would have to happen to reach transit ridership targets.

Ridership plunged during the Covid-19 pandemic, bottoming out at roughly 15 per cent of pre-pandemic peaks. During that time, routes were cut, service levels of remaining routes changed and workers were laid off.

With restrictions lifted and more commuters headed around the city and downtown, there’s a push to bump up transit service levels across Calgary.

Sharon Fleming, director of Calgary Transit, said that they would be on a hiring spree to meet those targets.

Fleming told LiveWire Calgary that along with layoffs, there were job changes, retirements and others not returning for safety reasons.

She said there are more than 2,200 operators in the Calgary Transit system. Some of it is natural attrition, too, she said.

“It might have been higher than normal, but typically we do see at least 100 operators turn over every year,” Fleming said.

Each driver must go through a roughly five-week training process. They must pass Calgary Transit driver training school – a provincially certified program. Drivers have to go through other safety and operational training. There’s also a customer service component, too. Add in respect in workplace and code of conduct training and there’s lengthy process.

“I think the thing here is just the sheer amount of operators. we need to schedule them in and roll. It’s like a rolling process over the summer,” Fleming said.

“You can’t train all 300 at the same time, nor can you hire 300 at the same time.”

Unused buses mothballed

While they struggle to ramp up hiring and training of drivers, there’s the issue of buses, too.

Fleming said 125 buses weren’t needed as service levels were cut. Most of those were older buses. Now, they need to conduct inspections, clean them, and make sure they’re road ready.

They can do that relatively quickly, she said. If they had the manpower.

Between 20 and 25 mechanics, foremen and building operators also need to be hired to bring the mechanical group up to capacity. That’s been a challenge as oil and gas prices are high and many mechanics have left to pursue oilfield work.

There’s one other big roadblock to ramping up bus inspections and servicing.

“We need to basically recommission the entire maintenance facility at Anderson that’s been kind of mothballed through COVID,” said Fleming.

“So, we’ll have to inspect that facility, the tools and equipment, the bus wash, just to get that whole maintenance facility back up in order to support the buses as they do get recommissioned.”

On LRT service, as ridership ramps up, they hope to begin adding four-car service. But Fleming said it’s a process. Four-car service requires a schedule overhaul; they need to change the schedule, the car storage and the train operation, Fleming said.

“One of the issues is our four-car service is held in our oldest fleet, and that fleet is nearing end of life,” Fleming said.

“So, we won’t have access to as many four-car trains as we would have two years ago.”

Fleming said they can still get the cars, but it’s a matter of reinvesting in the train infrastructure.

‘Astronomical’ attrition: Union leader

Mike Mahar, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union local 583, said he doesn’t believe the aforementioned layoffs are even included in the attrition numbers.

He said the amount of operator hiring hasn’t been seen since the expansion of service more than a decade ago.

“It was crazy back then. This, I think, is a little bit different. Quite frankly, I think they had an opportunity to avoid the shortage. (They could have) started dealing with it earlier,” Mahar said.

He also said the city refused to extend recalls past a year. They negotiated a rehire letter, but at that point, many drivers were frustrated and left.

As a result, Mahar said they’ve been filling in driver gaps with overtime.

“We’ve warned them time and time again that they’re going to get caught short and doing the work and with that method isn’t sustainable,” he said.

He also said a prior decision by city council to remove what he called a retirement – or vacation – match, pushed many experienced drivers away.

Mahar agreed that there’s some natural attrition. But, during a pandemic, when unemployment rates are still high and good jobs are hard to find, the attrition slows to a trickle.

“So, to have people leaving in these numbers is unprecedented,” he said.

One challenge Mahar sees is a lack of people in place to do the hiring.

“The inability to increase staff is because of being understaffed,” Mahar said.

Service ramp up expectations

Calgary’s latest mobility report shows that transit ridership is roughly at 54 per cent of pre-pandemic levels. The city said earlier this year they’d like to see it at between 60 and 75 per cent by the end of this year.

Right now, with the prospect of the NHL playoffs and the upcoming full edition of the Calgary Stampede, Fleming said they’d be working with the city’s event planning team to determine immediate service needs.

Meanwhile, both Mahar and Fleming said that routes will slowly ramp up over spring and summer with the big push coming in September.

“We have a new schedule of coming out in September, and that’s where we’ll see the greatest number of changes,” said Fleming.

Mahar said the lynchpin in making that happen is the people.

“They’re going to be in a crunch. I think that the only thing that’s going to restrict the amount of service that they put out in September is their level of staffing,” he said.

“That’s what’s going to control it more than the public demand for service.”