Bumpy start leads to smooth roads ahead

·6 min read

PERTH COUNTY – Ian Brady has been driving professionally for five years this September but has only been in the transit business since the holiday season. He drives, among other routes, for PC Connect, the county’s public transportation system.

It has been around for a couple years now; however, Perth County residents may still be surprised that they have a transit system at all. They began the service in a time where travelling around the county was discouraged altogether – unless essential. Now, they are steadily growing as restrictions ease and their profile grows.

On July 6, as transiters piled into Brady’s bus at Stratford’s bus hub, he asked if the music was too loud, and turned it down before anyone said anything.

“I like to make sure my customers are happy,” he smiled.

As transiters took their seats, he put the bus in drive and started the journey.

On July 4-9, to celebrate summer, PC Connect offered Free Week. Brady says that just in that week, he’s seen a huge increase in the service. Just a few trips before, he said he had a full bus. “Just today I drove a nice family. I bet I’ll drive them back later on.”

Brady says he sees a lot of regulars, but also quite a few new faces, which is a good sign for the service.

Brady previously drove school buses and when asked why he got into transit he answered: the drivers. He and the other drivers for Voyago, the company contracted to provide the service, drive other routes. Brady drives Route A a few times a week, but also drives routes for the hospital.

He says they are well trained and looked after so drivers have the versatility to step up and do other routes if they need to – they look after each other.

As noted in the PC Connect monthly updates at Perth County council, there have been issues with driver retention. This is a problem that has been plaguing the whole industry – not just PC Connect or Voyago. At last month’s update, Transit Project Coordinator Maggie Martin announced that Voyago was successful in hiring more drivers. The problems with retention should be mitigated in the future, based on these hires.

Drivers do both paper and digital notes from stop to stop. They don’t often hit deadspots Brady says, when asked how their programs handle being in the countryside where reception gets spotty. All buses are GPS equipped and if he is over 10 minutes late, he contacts his boss to let him know so customers aren’t left wondering where their bus is.

For the customer’s safety, buses are outfitted with cameras.

On Route A, the route going from Stratford to Listowel, drivers drive about four and a half hours straight, only stopping if they have time. The day starts on Monday just after 5 a.m. with an inspection of the vehicle.

The first stop is the Stratford Transit Terminal #8 at Stratford’s bus hub on Downie St. at 6 a.m. The run ends at the same spot at 10:28 a.m., but in a few hours the route starts up again and runs until the end of the day at 5:28 p.m.. On Route A, Brady says they average about 500 km a day, with the busiest stops being in Stratford, Listowel, and Milverton.

Brady divulged a tip for driving long hours where the roads can seem to go forever: check your mirrors. Every few moments, Brady unconsciously checks his mirrors to keep his mind active and concentrated on the road. He’s been successful enough to get a promotion. Upon completion of a course, he’ll be a trainer for bus drivers in the transit department.

When asked if he does anything to make the long drive enjoyable day after day, Brady replies “Nope. I concentrate on my driving and keeping my customers happy.”

“And he does a good job of it!” Janice Newsom added from the back.

Newsom is from Listowel. She’s taken the service a handful of times and would recommend it to anyone. She uses the service because it’s a nice way to see the surrounding countryside and get to know areas that you would normally drive straight through – as well as getting to where you need to go.

She noted that once she had to stay overnight since the routes end in the evening, but she understands that they need to draw the line somewhere.

She also noted that from conversations she’s had in the past with other riders and drivers, ridership has struggled.

Martin said that is partly true, though recently their numbers have been promising. The reason for the rough start can be chalked up to timing. Starting a transit system during a pandemic is not ideal.

“That’s certainly horrible timing to be developing and designing and launching a public transit service. We actually launched in November of 2020 and ridership has been steadily increasing ever since… I’d say the main restriction or difficulty that we had with launching during the pandemic was that we weren’t able to promote travel. Everyone was under a stay-at-home order. We couldn’t really promote the service as this great new resource to travel throughout the county or surrounding areas.

“We’ve seen a lot more uptake in ridership and people just wanting to get out, to explore the community and go to restaurants and go to local shops and things that aren’t necessarily essential, but more leisure.”

She says that to date, they’ve completed 7,000 rides.

They had funding secured until 2023 and then received an extra two years, to extend service to March 2025. Martin says it’s been a challenge to manage and plan for the future under the shadow of a limited contract, but it’s been looking up in recent months.

“We’ve been receiving a lot of great feedback on how impactful the service has been to a lot of our residents, from Perth County to surrounding areas. We’ll be able to keep it around for as long as possible.”

Should they have the opportunity she would like the service to expand into the southwest and, more importantly, increase frequency.

PC Connect has recently launched an app, Blaise Transit, which transiters can use to track buses, plan rides, and pay for trips. Through the app the county will be able to gather more data and learn more about who is taking their service.

On July 6, as Brady turned into Stratford’s bus hub, he laughed. “There’s the family,” he smiled. “Looks like I’ll be driving them back.”

Connor Luczka, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Listowel Banner

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