Last Tuesday an e-mail from Metro Transit popped into my box informing me that a morning trip on Route 62 from Larpenteur Avenue and Albemarle Street in Roseville to downtown St. Paul would not run. The alert mentioned that the next regularly scheduled bus would be along in 15 minutes.
Other bus riders have been getting similar e-mails with greater regularity lately, and some wonder what’s behind all the alerts.
“I subscribe to Metro Transit Rider Alerts on my phone,” Drive reader Sharin wrote in an e-mail. “I will receive a message that a bus will not be operating a run on a certain day. (Example: The No. 5 bus scheduled to leave at such and such a time will not be operating.) What gives?”
There are a couple reasons for the alerts, said spokesman Howie Padilla. First, Metro Transit is working to improve communication with riders. Second, while a few canceled trips are the result of bus breakdowns or weather, the major factor is that Metro Transit is grappling with a driver shortage.
Metro Transit has about 1,500 bus operators but says it needs from 30 to 40 more drivers to cover all the scheduled runs, said Linnae Nelson-Seys, who has the tough job of finding more drivers. She’s working on that by recruiting at public events, and she’s had some success.
But in the here and now, Metro Transit has to pull out all the stops to plug the holes. The agency turns to trainers with licenses to take the wheel when there is a need. It also asks drivers to fill in on their off days and shifts drivers from garages that have extras to garages where there are vacancies.
That works a lion’s share of the time, Padilla said, but in rare cases when there still isn’t anybody to sit in the driver’s seat, some trips have to be scrubbed.
In most cases, Metro Transit tries to minimize the inconvenience to riders by confining canceled trips to routes where buses run, say, every 10 to 15 minutes as opposed to routes that are serviced every 30 minutes or even less frequently, said agency spokesman Drew Kerr.
Rider alerts have been used to communicate long-term disruptions such as when road construction or special events force a route to move. But riders have long asked for more real-time information concerning service changes of only a short duration. And that is where the e-mails come in.
The decision to cancel a run often does not happen until the last minute because “we’re trying everything up to the last moment to make sure that service promised is delivered,” Kerr said.
In recent months, Metro Transit has beefed up its communications staff to monitor and respond to complaints and concerns posted on social media. With more manpower, the agency is now able to fire off e-mails immediately to notify riders when a scheduled trip will not run, what stops are affected, and when applicable, to list earlier and later trips riders can take.
Padilla said Metro Transit isn’t cutting more trips than usual, and that none of the cancellations are an effort to save money due to a budget shortfall. People are just noticing the e-mails because they are immediate, and riders are not used to seeing the increased number of alerts.
“We hope customers are receptive to this and that it is an improvement for them,” Kerr said. “Transit information is valuable and to the extent that it is in real time we want to do this.”
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