After announcing on Aug. 29 that services would be downgrading to account for a backlog of required maintenance and insufficient mechanics staffing, Saskatoon Transit revealed on Sept. 2 that they are hoping to re-establish all routes within three weeks and possibly as soon as the end of next week.
“We are doing everything we can to get to that 99 bus level by the end of next week,” said general manager of utility services Jeff Jorgenson during a Sept. 2 press conference, indicating the number of busses that would be required to meet demand. “We are pulling out all the stops. I’m not going to make any guarantee that we are going to be there by the end of next week.
“That’s our goal. We think that that is reasonably realistic.”
The change came into effect on Sept. 2, just as high school classes were beginning and a day before university classes resumed. Knowing that a lack of operational busses would leave operators unable to accommodate for the increased use of public transit, the decision was made to formally announce the suspension of several routes.
Affected routes include all downtown and university direct services, specials used during peak travel times for popular routes and all high school specials with the exception of College Park to St. Joseph. Those who relied on the use of direct busses may face commuting times of up to 45 minutes.
The planned implementation of new routes, including express routes for Parkridge, Willowgrove and Kenderdine, will also be delayed given the circumstances.
Shuttle bus routes have been running since Sept. 2 to help relieve the stress on commuters, including one from Centre Mall to Holy Cross and Walter Murray high schools as well as another from the Confederation terminal to Bethlehem & Tommy Douglas Collegiate.
Caused by a low number of roadworthy busses, the disruptions were heightened by the back-to-school period being a time of peak usage for transit. While 92 busses would be optimal to account for current usage, only 79 of the city’s estimated 150 transit vehicles were currently on the road as of press time. In winter months, up to 105 busses would be required to handle increased commuter levels.
While the city knew the backlog was imminent, since such periods are not uncommon during the summer and winter months as transit prepares for times of peak usage, Jorgenson said that in prior years city workers were always able to catch up in time.
“This year we knew there were problems, but it only became evident last week that we knew we weren’t going to make service for this week,” Jorgenson said.
Part of the reasoning for a lack of operational busses is due to four vacancies in mechanics staff. With Saskatoon Transit’s current 15 journeyperson and eight apprentice mechanics unable to keep up with demand, steps have already been taken to increase staffing. Two new hires already have offers extended to them and are expected to begin work shortly, with plans to fill the two remaining positions as soon as possible.
Director of Saskatoon Transit Bob Howe indicated in the Aug. 29 press release that a low rate of pay for Saskatoon Transit mechanics may be in part to blame for the development.
“It has been extremely difficult to attract mechanics to Saskatoon Transit. We have been advertising for vacant journeyman mechanics; however, in a highly competitive market it is difficult to recruit when still advertising 2012 wage rates,” Howe said.
Jorgenson clarified that 2012 wages are currently posted because the city and the Amalgamated Transit Union have yet to come to an agreement on a new contract. The ATU, which has been without a contract since 2012, is the only local union which the city has been unable to agree with on terms.
Until a sufficient number of mechanics have been hired, a number of busses have been sent into the private sector for repairs.
There are currently 20 busses scheduled to arrive in Saskatoon, having been were purchased from Calgary. Since all are currently safetied in Alberta, the expectation is that they will be able to join the rest of the fleet nearly immediately to help cope with shortages. While eight are not expected to arrive for several weeks, the remaining 12 vehicles are currently en-route.
With the added busses on their way, Jorgenson was confident that their insertion into scheduled rotation would help to greatly reduce disruptive effects on commuters in the coming weeks.
“I think that every day we’re going to be in a stronger position. The 20 busses that are on the way are just going to help us with our fleet,” Jorgenson said. “We own a lot more busses than we need for full service. We have a high spare ratio, so we have quite a few busses that we don’t need for service, but that gives us the ability to be working on busses at the same time as we have busses on the road.”
Though the busses arriving from Calgary will certainly help transit take steps to resolve the situation, there are further issues in the mean age of Saskatoon’s fleet. While the Canadian Urban Transit Association reflect an industry standard age of 7.8 years, the city’s transit vehicles are on average 14.5 years old.
Saying there is “no question that [the city does] run an older fleet,” Jorgenson stressed that city transit has worked efficiently under such circumstances for years and that the cause of these current conditions is rather due to the fact that scheduled repairs and fewer employees occurred in tandem.
“What we have been successful at in transit for a long time is running an older fleet — having more spares than a typical transit property, refurbishing them — mechanically or body work — and having a great mechanic group that gets those busses on the road,” Jorgenson said. “That all comes together, we have a good transit service and we’re able to make service. You start adding in variables, and that’s when we start to struggle.”
The newly purchased busses due to arrive from Calgary were built between 1993 and 1995, and would increase the fleet’s overall average age.
While Jorgenson acknowledged that the numbers appear worrisome, he said that the inbound busses were refurbished and are of working quality.
“If you look just at the average age, it’s not going to help our statistics… It’s not the statistic we’re worried about at this time,” Jorgenson said. “What we’re worried about is getting good busses on the road so that we can make full service.”
Jorgenson further acknowledged that while a younger fleet would be helpful, in past years it has been unnecessary for Saskatoon.
“Of course every transit property across Canada and North America would like to have newer buses than they do. Of course we would too, but so far the strategy has worked effectively for us,” Jorgenson said.
“This is the first time where we’ve really had a situation where we haven’t been able to provide service at this kind of magnitude.”
Despite the downgrade in services, Jorgenson announced that only two busses were reported as having had to turn down passengers based on limits of capacity on Sept. 2.
Until necessary maintenance has been completed, Howe encouraged passengers in the original press release to “consider adjusting their trip times, if possible, [and] to avoid peak morning and afternoon trip times.”