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Talking transit: new report details root cause of service interruptions that plagued transit delivery

Timothy Schafer Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
By Timothy Schafer Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
December 24th, 2022

Labour shortages have plagued West Kootenay Transit’s ability to deliver completely on all of its route commitments in the last two years, according to an RDCK staff report on the matter.

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 Dec. 8 to the regional district board meeting.

The report, authored by RDCK research analyst Tom Dool, noted the two years in question were distinct, with 2021 affected mostly by pandemic-related safety measures, and a 50 per cent reduction in ridership.

“In this regard missed trips did not translate directly to reduced service because the ridership was not utilizing the service to the degree they are 2022,” Dool explained in his report.

However, 2022 tells a different story with an increase in ridership, but also 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.

Addressing the shortage

The missed trip issue was raised by regional district staff with BC Transit and operations contractor NextGen Transit, but found it was 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 is considered part-time, which effectively limits how many people would want to apply for the position, Dool explained.

As well, this increases the frequency of non-service trips — with buses and drivers travelling considerable distance to be put into service — that use 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 wrote. “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.

Breaking barriers

To encourage and fast track new recruits into the driving positions some barriers have been reduced to ensure people can begin making a full wage as quickly as possible.

NextGen and BC Transit have brought trainers into the region to allow local candidates to remain local while training, as opposed to having to travel to the Lower Mainland or the Okanagan, Dool said in the report.

NextGen Transit is currently training two more drivers, with a start date in January, that will help solidify the delivery of trips.

“They are currently seeking to achieve a full staffing compliment by recruiting two additional drivers once the current trainees have completed their training,” said Dool.

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