Winnipeg Transit will temporarily lay off 253 bus drivers and drastically cut service following a deep decline in ridership.

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Winnipeg Transit will temporarily lay off 253 bus drivers and drastically cut service following a deep decline in ridership.

As public-health recommendations urge Winnipeggers to stay home as much as possible to reduce the spread of COVID-19, Transit ridership has now fallen 72 per cent since this time last year.

Revenue fell 74 per cent during the same period, which the city says equates to a loss of about $6 million per month.

Winnipeg mayor Brian Bowman announces the City of Winnipeg’s employment plan during a COVID-19 press conference at City Hall in Winnipeg Wednesday.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Winnipeg mayor Brian Bowman announces the City of Winnipeg’s employment plan during a COVID-19 press conference at City Hall in Winnipeg Wednesday.

"We’ve reached the point where we can’t continue along the same course and, unfortunately, temporary layoffs are, in fact, required," Mayor Brian Bowman said Wednesday.

Bowman noted many buses have operated with few or no passengers in recent weeks.

The layoffs will take effect in May, temporarily putting 229 permanent bus operators and 24 non-permanent drivers out of work.

Transit employed about 1,000 drivers prior to the cut.

Bowman said the city avoided layoffs for as long as possible.

“We’ve reached the point where we can’t continue along the same course and, unfortunately, temporary layoffs are, in fact, required.” — Winnipeg mayor Brian Bowman

"We’ve had correspondence received from the (Manitoba) minister of municipal relations that we certainly interpreted as trying to drive cuts. We’ve taken a very pragmatic approach here and the service reductions are driving the temporary layoffs to date," he said. "I’m hoping we don’t have to do any further massive layoffs."

The city plans to invite drivers back to work once regular service resumes.

Transit will cut driver overtime hours immediately to save about $170,000 per month. On May 4, the bus service will shift to an enhanced Saturday schedule for all weekday routes, including the new Blue Line that supports rapid transit.

That will result in less-frequent service and require 221 fewer buses, even though some express buses and trips to industrial parks will be added.

Current Saturday and Sunday schedules won’t change.

Transit says it hopes to ensure health-care workers can still rely on daily buses by maintaining current weekday express routes that serve hospitals.

“We think it’s not only going to hurt now, this is going to have ripple effects for years to come." — ATU Local 1505 vice-president James Van Gerwen

The Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1505, which represents Winnipeg’s bus drivers, is urging city councillors to lobby against the cuts.

"We think it’s not only going to hurt now, this is going to have ripple effects for years to come. It’s going to take years for the service to come back to normal with the number of drivers we lose because we’re going to have problems getting them back," said James Van Gerwen, ATU Local 1505’s vice-president.

Van Gerwen said physical distancing could also prove more challenging with fewer buses on the road.

"During (morning) rush hour, I still get reports of buses having upwards of 30 people… which is clearly against the social-distancing (rules)," he said.

Mike Ruta, interim Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) for the City of Winnipeg.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Mike Ruta, interim Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) for the City of Winnipeg.

Winnipeg Transit director Greg Ewankiw stressed there will be close monitoring of the number of riders on each bus and could add vehicles, if needed, to ensure riders can follow the public-health directive to remain two metres apart.

The union also accuses Winnipeg Transit of making "no effort to explore volunteer layoffs, redeployment or bridged retirement" to avoid job losses.

Mike Ruta, the city’s interim chief administrative officer, said those options would have required too much research and negotiation to quickly reduce the impact on taxpayers.

A bus riders’ advocate said he’s concerned less-frequent bus service could lengthen commute times to the point that some riders permanently switch to cars.

"If you look at rush-hour times on many routes (compared) to Saturday service, it can be a quite drastic (reduction in frequency)," said Derek Koop, president of Functional Transit Winnipeg.

A complete list of the route changes will be posted on Winnipeg Transit’s website Thursday.

Joyanne.pursaga@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @joyanne_pursaga

Joyanne Pursaga

Joyanne Pursaga
Reporter

Born and raised in Winnipeg, Joyanne loves to tell the stories of this city, especially when politics is involved. Joyanne became the city hall reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press in early 2020.

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