Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Cold-hearted move on a bitterly cold day

Winnipeg Transit says driver didn't violate policy

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Georgina Garrett was haunted by what she witnessed on her way home from work late last month.

So disturbed, that a few hours later the 59-year-old West End resident emailed 311, as she would later write me.

Garrett explained it was rush hour on Feb. 27, and she was on the No. 11 bus from downtown and just a couple of blocks from her house when a passenger stepped aboard at Burnell Street and Portage Avenue.

She described him as "an older man of aboriginal appearance," poorly dressed for the bitterly cold -25 C day that's even dangerous for some.

Garrett was seated at the front, on the bench seat directly behind the operator. She heard him tell the man he was on the wrong bus. Going the wrong direction, as it turned out. The man wanted to go east to downtown; the bus was headed west toward Polo Park.

But the driver said he wasn't going anywhere until the man got off.

Garrett heard the man say he wanted to warm up, and as he approached the bench seat she got up and let him take her place. The bus remained stopped, she said, while the driver repeatedly told the obviously cold and confused passenger to get off. Garrett was a little confused herself. At first she thought he hadn't paid the fare.

"I got out a bus ticket and offered to pay the man's fare," she wrote, "but the bus driver refused it and said the man had a transfer but was too drunk and wouldn't know where to get off."

The bus driver kept the front doors open and told the passenger he would call his supervisor to remove him.

By this time, some of the passengers were telling the man to leave and Garrett, uncomfortable with what she was witnessing, had moved to the back doors. The bus still wasn't moving and she decided to get off and walk home.

Winnipeg Transit said the bus remained stopped for one minute, 52 seconds before the driver was instructed by the control centre to carry on to Polo Park. A supervisor would be waiting for them there. Along the short route, Transit later said, the man fell asleep and rolled onto the floor.

Of course, Garrett didn't know that then. She was still walking when she saw the No. 11 bus pass.

"I don't know if the man was forced to leave the bus," she said in her email to 311, "and if so, where. It was bitterly cold."

That's why Garrett wrote the city that night. That's why she was haunted.

"There was no reason for the bus driver to demand the man get off the bus and to threaten to have his supervisor remove him," Garrett wrote later in her email to the city. "The man never raised his voice and was not in any way disruptive to the bus driver or other passengers. He entered the bus with a valid transfer and sat down and stayed sitting down, without disturbing anyone, the entire time I was on the bus with him."

On Tuesday, more than a week later, Rick Feenstra, Winnipeg Transit's supervisor of customer services, answered her letter.

"Winnipeg Transit," he wrote, "does not condone operators kicking people off of the bus just because they are intoxicated."

No, that wouldn't make any sense on New Year's Eve, would it?

But Feenstra also said this:

"Our operators are faced with many challenging situations with difficult passengers and may be reluctant to allow someone who they have had trouble with in the past board the bus."

Feenstra reported the passenger had caused a disturbance in the past, although he was "quiet and non-confrontational" in this instance.

Then he answered Garrett's concern about the outcome at Polo Park.

"The passenger chose to alight on his own at the A&W and the supervisor was just making sure that he did not wander off in the cold somewhere. Once it was determined that this person was able to care for himself there was no reason for the supervisor to stick around."

On Wednesday, in a followup email, Feenstra added this:

"While we do not encourage people to ride around aimlessly on the bus with no set destination, we do realize the need to allow people to board the bus in order to get relief from the cold. Most of our operators recognize this need and have no problem allowing passengers to ride so long as they are not causing a disturbance. From the situation you have described, it sounds like this operator overreacted and predetermined that this passenger would be a problem even though he did not display any kind of behaviour to justify this. He should not have insisted that the male leave the bus. I hope this incident has not left you with an unfavourable impression of Winnipeg Transit Service. I can assure you that the safety of our passengers and our operators is our No. 1 priority."

But, as we all know, the wheels on the bus go round and round, and by Friday Transit had a new spin.

Director Dave Wardrop contended the bus driver wasn't kicking the confused man out into the dangerous cold, he was simply trying to help by pointing him across the street to the right bus rather than taking him way out of his way.

"I'm not sure I'm saying he did nothing wrong," Wardrop he told me, "I'm saying the operator was using his judgment. And he didn't violate policy."

No? Well, maybe not.

But I wonder what Brian Sinclair would have said about that?

gordon.sinclair@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 15, 2014 B2

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