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This article was published 13/9/2015 (1843 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
The head of the union representing Winnipeg Transit employees is worried about more than a bus shortage this week -- he’s concerned about drivers’ safety if passengers continue to get the short shrift.
John Callahan, the president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1505, said incidents involving riders going rogue are on the rise for this time of year.
He’s worried poor transit service may increase the likelihood of violence against drivers or passengers and he plans to ask the city to add plainclothes police officers to buses.
"As service gets cut, people get frustrated and our concern is violence on the bus, assaults against our operators and everything that goes with it," Callahan said. "The drivers are doing the best they can with what they have and there’s nothing they can do about it."
One female transit driver, who asked not to be named for privacy reasons, talked about being spit on while at the wheel and debating quitting her job.
"It had to deal with just a question that was asked about a fare. I said this is what the fare was and they proceeded to turn around and spit on me," she said.
The woman said she was shocked by the whole ordeal. None of her other passengers spoke up or acted in her defence.
"I didn’t say anything because he had gotten off the bus and took off," she said.
"I would rather take a punch to the face than be spit on. It’s the most disgusting thing in the world. It’s bodily fluid -- you don’t know what that person carries. You can recover from a punch, you can recover from a slap, but getting spit on? It’s the most disgusting thing ever."
Data provided to the Free Press by the city show the number of assaults on Winnipeg Transit drivers is on the decline since 2011, but the descriptions of assaults remain very violent.
In the last four years, drivers have reported 225 assaults ranging from being verbally abused, slapped, punched, pepper-sprayed, spit on, splashed with soda and Slurpees and threatened with weapons, among other bad behaviour.
Callahan remembered one particularly awful incident that happened downtown last summer — a driver was punched in the face by an angry passenger who missed his stop. The driver’s nose was broken.
"If he’d knocked him out, we would have had a bus careening down Portage Avenue with 30 riders in it," he said. "Luckily we haven’t had that worst case scenario like that yet, but we don’t want it to happen."
There hasn’t been any reported incidents of assault since the bus fleet decreased last week, Callahan said.
Winnipeg Transit currently has 595 buses in its fleet, with 104 of them in the shop as of Sunday, according to Winnipeg Transit director Dave Wardrop.
Wardrop said driver and passenger safety is an important priority. He noted all buses are equipped with video cameras and Winnipeg Police Service officers and cadets will ride public transit periodically.
But Callahan said he wants to see officers in plain clothes riding buses on a regular schedule, for the drivers’ and passengers’ protection.
"It’s something that I think most people would get behind because it’s for the good of all," Callahan said.
The female driver agreed she would feel more safe on the job if she had some police backup.
"Having that sense of security would be nice and (getting help) enforcing fares," she said.
The woman said riders evade fares on her routes daily, but she’d rather let them go than get hurt.
"I’m sure we hit the underpay button I don’t know how many times… it’s going to be worn out. But I’m the type of person that I’d rather come home safe at night then end up being in the hospital."
Callahan will suggest adding plain clothes officers to bus routes at a Wednesday meeting between the ATU and city officials.
Wardrop said he’s open to the discussion about having more cadets or officers ride the bus, a plan that’s been in the woodwork for years.
"I think we’re open to conversation right now with ATU and with WPS to come up with the best processes that we can," he said. "We’ve got programs in place with WPS and we’re looking to expand on those."
Wardrop also said a revised fall schedule Winnipeg Transit put out Friday should curb bus delays this week.
"We did some minor tweaking on some of the peak-hour routes, the morning rush and the afternoon rush routes. We did some tweaking to the schedule to keep our capacity more in line with the demand. I’m more confident now… in the situation," he said.
Two Winnipeg Transit mechanics quit their jobs last week -- with notice -- which somewhat contributed to the bus shortage, Wardrop said.
During contract negotiations between the ATU and the city in May and June, transit employees stopped working overtime hours, which caused a significant delay in general bus maintenance.