Winnipeg Transit has launched a six-month pilot project to test protective shields for bus drivers.

"The shields pilot project is the next step in our commitment to improving safety on our buses for both passengers and operators," Coun Marty Morantz said at a news conference Friday.

The city is testing two models of safety barriers, one from Winnipeg's New Flyer Industries and one from Wisconsin-based Arow Global. Each shield costs about $5,000 to purchase and install.

They will be tested on six buses in total — each model will be in three buses — to see how well they work, how easy they are to maintain and which one the drivers prefer. 

Council first approved the project in April as part of a larger package of safety upgrades that includes more video surveillance on buses and the hiring of security officers in 2018.

The city's preliminary budget, released earlier this week, includes $1.2 million in spending to support those upgrades, including:

  • Four new point duty inspectors set up at strategic locations along routes.
  • One instructor and three dedicated relief operators to provide additional training for drivers on how to prevent and diffuse conflict.
  • Five full-time positions to increase awareness and enforcement of the transit bylaws.

"I'm pleased to see that transit safety is a major priority in our proposed 2018 budget and look forward to seeing these priorities realized in the near future," said Morantz, chair of the city's standing policy committee on infrastructure renewal and public works.

Calls for better protection for drivers have been happening for years. The issue came to a head in February 2017 when driver Irvine Fraser, 58, was stabbed to death.

Police said he was stabbed after he asked the lone rider on his bus to leave after pulling up to his last stop at the University of Manitoba.

Once the pilot project is complete, Winnipeg Transit will prepare a report and recommend next steps for council's consideration.

Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1505 president Aleem Chaudhary did not attend Friday's press conference, although he was scheduled to be part of it. He cancelled 30 minutes before it began, a city official said.

Chaudhary said there was no reason to hold the conference. He said the city could have just installed the test shield and let media speak to a driver, rather than having the mayor pose for a picture.

The Amalgamated Transit Union and its drivers mulled the idea of whether to install shields a few years ago.

There wasn't enough support, though, and the idea was eventually shot down by the union.

It now supports the shields. But Chaudhary said it should not have taken nine months following Fraser's death to install one.