Ottawa

Concern grows for transit staff bearing brunt of passenger frustration

The union representing OC Transpo staff says it's becoming increasingly concerned about the physical safety and mental well-being of its members as passenger frustration over the problem-plagued LRT system threatens to boil over.

Transit commission chair 'very troubled' by reports of verbal, physical abuse

A red-vester stands by as passengers board a train at Tunney's Pasture station. (Jérémie Bergeron/Radio-Canada)

The union representing OC Transpo staff says it's becoming increasingly concerned about the physical safety and mental well-being of its members as passenger frustration over the problem-plagued LRT system threatens to boil over.

ATU Local 279 president Clint Crabtree said he's sympathetic, but customers need to understand the frequent delays aren't the fault of OC Transpo staff.

"We are with you, we do want a reliable service for you, [but] it's not the operator who doesn't want you to get to where you're going on time," Crabtree said.

Passengers have had to deal with frequent breakdowns and inadequate bus service since the full launch of the $2.1-billion Confederation Line last month, while city officials have scrambled — so far unsuccessfully — to solve the mess.

There have been numerous reports of passengers venting their frustration on the first OC Transpo employee they can find. The aggression has been both verbal and physical, Crabtree said, and in at least half a dozen cases has been so hostile employees have had to take time off work.

Clint Crabtree, president of the union representing OC Transpo staff, says assaults against bus operators are increasing as frustration with the transit system peaks.  1:03

Chair 'very troubled'

"I'm very troubled by it," said Coun. Allan Hubley, chair of the city's transit commission.

Hubley said he's also heard reports of "red-vesters" — OC Transpo's customer service representatives stationed at the LRT stops — and their supervisors being screamed at and even spat on by angry passengers.   

"They're not doing anything to cause anybody any grief, so why some people would choose to abuse them is not something that I can understand or accept," Hubley said.

According to the city's latest data, there were 111 assault against OC Transpo staff — mostly bus drivers — between July 1, 2018, and June 30, 2019. That was down from 119 over the previous 12 months, but it doesn't capture assaults since the LRT launch, nor does it capture verbal abuse such as yelling and swearing directed toward OC Transpo staff.

Pierre Goddard said he's seen passengers lash out at bus drivers. (CBC)

Crabtree said there's been a noticeable uptick in the number of reported incidents including assaults since the launch. 

The hostility has also moved online.

One LRT operator who has been especially active on social media became so concerned he abandoned his popular account last week.

"Been getting some pretty hateful emails," Ken Woods tweeted. "One had a Google Earth photo of the driveway in front of my home, pointing out to me that I own a car. It's been great Ottawa. Taking a break from social media for a bit."

'They don't deserve to be abused'

OC Transpo passengers waiting at a bus stop on Queen Street Friday sided with staff.

"They don't deserve to be physically or verbally abused," said Pierre Goddard, who added he's seen passengers verbally accost bus drivers.

Kathleen Arnold agreed. "I don't think that should be happening," she said. "I don't think it's the bus driver's fault that there's issues."

'I don't think it's the bus driver's fault that there's issues,' said OC Transpo customer Kathleen Arnold. (CBC)

Zero tolerance

According to Jim Greer, the city's director of transit operations, OC Transpo has a strict zero tolerance policy when it comes to abuse of its staff.

"We can understand and appreciate customers' frustration when their bus or train does not arrive when expected. At the same time, people need to express that frustration appropriately," Greer wrote in an email to CBC.

Residents of Ottawa say taking frustration out on bus drivers is unacceptable despite mounting anger with the city's LRT system.  0:42

"Everyone has the right to feel safe and respected in their workplace. Violence or aggression towards OC Transpo staff is never acceptable."

Special constables travel from station to station to address any problems that arise, Greer said.

"We encourage any employees who experience harassment and abuse on OC Transpo property to report the incident to their supervisor."

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