OC Transpo facing shortage of backup bus drivers, union warns

The union representing OC Transpo drivers is warning it will be a challenge to find enough of them to operate the 20 buses being brought in to help during LRT shutdowns.

The city still needs to hire as many as 100 new drivers to meet Ottawa's transit demands, said Clint Crabtree, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union local 279.

Starting next week, the 20 new Nova buses will be parked on standby outside the Conventry Road baseball stadium during peak hours. The replacements will be put into service when the LRT experiences serious delays. 

"We're still on track to have those 20 buses start next week at the beginning of December," said Troy Charter, the city's director of transit operations.

"We've been actively working with the union on ensuring that we can we will staff those buses and have them available."

These 20 replacement buses are in addition to the 40 permanent buses put back on the road in mid-November.

While the buses will be available to bail out passengers stranded by the LRT, it could be a challenge putting drivers behind the wheel. 

Attempt to lure back retirees falls flat

Crabtree said recent attempts to lure retired drivers back into action have failed.

"Not a single retiree has come back that I know of," he told CBC. "No one wants to lose their seniority."

Senior drivers get to choose their shifts and routes first. The union's contract with the city stipulates that retirees must be treated like new recruits.

Crabtree said that means the majority of the supplemental buses will be driven by current employees willing to work overtime. 

Bus drivers who CBC spoke with said that OC Transpo dispatchers plead daily for drivers to take on additional shifts and that many routes already go uncovered each day. Federall law also limits commercial vehicle operators to driving a maximum of 13 hours in a 24-hour period.

Angus Wright was hired as a bus driver in 2007 and operates an online chat group for about 200 OC Transpo employees. He said some drivers are reluctant to take on more hours despite the allure of overtime pay, because mounting frustrations with public transit have made the job more stressful.

"There's burnout," said Wright. "[Drivers] are over-pressured and so afraid of passengers who fire off … it's pressure cooker situations." 

To deal with the staff shortages, the city recently held a mass recruitment event for bus drivers last week, which saw more than 200 people apply.

Charter said that successful applicants will be put through a six-week training course starting in December. If they pass, they could be driving a bus by the end of January. 

Charter said applicants only need Class G or regular vehicle licences. Successful recruits will be certified as OC Transpo drivers only if they pass the Ministry of Transportation test for a Class C commercial vehicle licence, which is part of the city's training program.. 

Bus drivers tell the CBC that each training class usually consists of about 20 recruits. After weeks of classroom and driver training, not all of them will pass. That means hiring enough drivers to make up for the shortage could take months.