HSR riders hold 'emergency' meeting after missed routes and massive driver overtime

Sophie Geffros recalls waiting on a freezing January night, in a wheelchair, for more than an hour for a bus. Environment Hamilton says the HSR is "approaching and crisis" and wants to hear from riders like Geffros.

'I've been stuck on the Mountain. I've been stuck downtown. I've been stuck in the west end.'

Environment Hamilton is having an "emergency riders' meeting" this month after news that the city cancelled 589 buses on 28 routes in October because of driver absenteeism. The transit union, meanwhile, says some drivers are working 68-hour weeks. (John Rieti/CBC)

You don't have to tell Sophie Geffros there are problems with HSR. The McMaster University grad student already knows.

Geffros, who uses a wheelchair, lives in Ainslie Wood. Geffros takes HSR three or four times a day sometimes — to the Mountain to see family, to volunteer downtown, to work or attend class.

And Geffros hopes to use it to attend Environment Hamilton's emergency riders meeting Nov. 14 after reports this week of hundreds of missed routes and massive driver overtime.

Geffros especially recalls waiting until 11:30 p.m. on a snowy sidewalk one January night. In the dark. In the freezing cold. For more than an hour.

The #51 wasn't running, Geffros said, and two passing #5 buses were too full to accommodate the wheelchair. Since then, late-night HSR trips are out.

"I've been stuck on the Mountain. I've been stuck downtown. I've been stuck in the west end." Once, Geffros was even stuck trying to get to city hall to give a pro-transit speech to council.

This week, the city revealed it has cancelled 589 buses on 28 routes in October because of driver absences. Environment Hamilton said, in announcing the meeting, that it believes the HSR is approaching "a crisis." It wants to hear user complaints but also ideas for fixes and solutions.

Sophie Geffros waited more than an hour in the dark on a cold January night because two buses kept going. "That’s not an uncommon situation." (Sophie Geffros)

The Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 107, meanwhile, said some drivers are working 68 hours a week. It also called for the city to fire its transit director, Debbie Dalle Vedove.

On Oct. 22 to 28, the city says, driver absences were around 19 per cent. That means nearly one-fifth of the drivers needed for the routes didn't show up.

Advocates say it's city neglect

Transit advocates say city council neglect has ultimately caused this problem.

"The way I see it, if council's not prioritizing transit as an essential service, that trickles down," said Ian Borsuk, Environment Hamilton's climate campaign co-ordinator.

"If you look back on the last decade and account for inflation, we are spending less on HSR."

Ridership levels are decreasing, city numbers show.

But Borsuk said that's "a chicken and egg" scenario. The less the city invests in transit, the less reliable it is. If people can't count on the bus to get them to work on time, he said, they won't take it.

Aidan Johnson, Ward 1 councillor, said council supports transit.

City has invested, but could do more

Since 2013, city numbers show, the conventional transit levy has increased 17.5 per cent, or $9,119,670. Here are the year-over-year numbers:

  • 2013: $52,108,540.
  • 2014: $54,390,440.
  • 2015: $57,398,570.
  • 2016: $59,993,520.
  • 2017: $61,228,210.

Johnson, a regular transit user, understands the frustration though. 

"I ride a few different buses," Johnson said. "Sometimes, the bus doesn't come."

Johnson is open to spending more on transit if it comes with "a good, clear plan."

He'll bring a motion forward later this month on how to optimize bus routes for Hamilton's light rail transit (LRT) system, scheduled to launch in 2024. He hopes that effort will improve all of HSR.

Dalle Vedove's predecessor, David Dixon, sounded an alarm in 2015. The city hasn't committed enough money to transit to keep up with demand, said Dixon.

The situation is "untenable," Dixon told them, and drivers "cannot deliver the service they are being asked to deliver."

'I don't think drivers should be working 68 hours a week'

Dixon recommended a 10-year transit strategy to get the system up to speed. This year, citing tight budget constraints, council put off funding the strategy for a year.

Moves like that frustrate Geffros, who has been late for work, classes, and giving student tutorials. It's bad enough, Geffros said, that to tell a supervisor you're going to be late, you only have to text "I'm on HSR."

"We need to commit to fully funding HSR," said Geffros. "I don't think drivers should be working 68 hours a week. I think we should be hiring more drivers."

Borsuk said Environment Hamilton wants everyone impacted to attend the Nov. 14 meeting. The organization will compile the feedback into a report, and give the report to council.

The meeting will be from 6 to 8 p.m. at city hall council chambers. 

About the Author

Samantha Craggs


Samantha Craggs is a CBC News reporter based in Hamilton, Ont. She has a particular interest in politics and social justice stories, and tweets live from Hamilton city hall. Follow her on Twitter at @SamCraggsCBC, or email her at samantha.craggs@cbc.ca