Over the past month, regular Kingston Transit users have found themselves in confusing situations, as the local bus transportation provider has been suspending or reducing services on some routes due to “operational requirements,” sometimes with very little advance notice.
The situation, which is caused by a shortage of drivers for the City of Kingston-owned and operated public transportation service, has left Kingston Transit unable to fill all routes. A quick look through Kingston Transit’s social media accounts, where the company announces reduced and suspended services, reveals that incidents of route alterations due to a lack of personnel began in early June of this year.
Undoubtedly, these incidents pose problems for Kingston Transit in terms of scheduling, attempting to fill vacancies, and maintaining customer service. But for those who depend on Kingston Transit for everything from getting to work and weekly grocery shopping, to connecting with family and friends and attending medical appointments, route changes and cancellations can be more than an inconvenience – particularly because they have been happening more frequently.
“Guess I’ll be leaving for work 2 hours early to compensate for the time I’ll [lose] with all the chaos going on,” River Hartsell wrote, responding to a Kingston Transit social media post indicating that, on Saturday, Jun. 25, 2022, services on three routes would be affected by “operational requirements.”
“Do we get a discount? Twice this week I’ve had to cab it!” echoed Annie Billette Ferguson on the same post.
While Jeremy DaCosta, Director of Transit Services for the City of Kingston, indicated that the COVID-19 pandemic had exacerbated this issue, he said that the problem actually began earlier – and that it was and is due to demand for service.
“The rate of Kingston Transit’s service (and ridership) growth from 2013 to 2020 has resulted in staffing challenges for several years as more service was added to meet ridership demand,” DaCosta began, in addressing the current issue of service disruptions.
“The reason for more significant staffing challenges recently is related to: i) the impacts of employees not being available due to COVID-19 screening; iii) a period of time from March 2020 to June 2021 when hiring was suspended due to the impacts of COVID, even though bus operators continued to leave Kingston Transit due to retirements or transferring to other City departments; and iii) providing our staff with their well-deserved vacation time,” he continued.
Since the beginning of June 2022, Kingston Transit has suspended and/or altered services at least four times, affecting multiple routes and stops each time. DaCosta said that he and his team understand the impact these changes have on their customers, particularly when the changes are announced less than an hour before the affected trips were to take place.
“We completely understand the impact that cancelling any trip has on our passengers,” he said. “We’re bus riders too! It is not always possible to know well in advance that a bus operator will be unavailable for a shift. Before cancelling a trip on a route, we make every effort to fill that shift by adjusting resources. We may not issue a cancellation notice until closer to the trip time if there is a possibility that the shift will be filled.”
DaCosta explained Kingston Transit’s approach to cancellations is as follows:
- Reduce service frequency on routes. For example, “cancelling a Route 502 – Express bus during the morning commute that results in an additional five-minute wait for the next scheduled bus.”
- Reduce service on routes where other routes provide overlapping service. For example, “reducing service on Route 4 between Downtown and the Cataraqui Centre because other options exist such as the Route 501/502.”
In an attempt to address the shortage of bus drivers, Kingston Transit is “actively hiring and recruiting new bus operators on an ongoing basis.”
“We have reallocated internal resources to increase our complement of trainers so more bus operators can be trained more quickly. The process is going well: we have seven bus operators currently in training and more about to begin,” DaCosta shared.
When asked if Kingston Transit was looking to other jurisdictions to find drivers, he continued, “We have promoted the bus operator opportunities, including virtual job fairs,… outside of the Kingston area in an effort to attract experienced bus operators from other transit agencies elsewhere in Ontario or Canada. We have successfully recruited bus operators from other transit agencies in the last three months using this approach.”
And although Kingston Transit laid off all part-time workers “due to COVID-19” back in March of 2020, DaCosta said those layoffs did not play a role in the current driver shortages, and he pointed again to the suspension of hiring drivers due to the impacts of the pandemic.
“Given the uncertainty during that time we did not hire bus operators while other bus operators were on Infectious Disease Emergency Leave (layoff),” he said.
The shortage of drivers continues to impact services, with the last alteration of Kingston Transit services occurring first thing in the morning on Saturday, Jul. 2, 2022. However, DaCosta suggested that these disruptions will likely become fewer and further between.
“The impact on service varies on a daily basis,” he said. “We anticipate that the number of cancellations will continue to decrease as additional bus operators are hired and trained.”
For more information on Kingston Transit service, including how to get an app that allows users to access “real-time updates,” visit the City of Kingston’s Kingston Transit page.