Saskatoon Transit considers adding permanent safety barriers for drivers

At a meeting next week, Saskatoon city council will be debating the advantages of retrofitting buses with permanent safety barriers to protect drivers.

City council report estimates cost to convert all buses would run $980K-$2.8M

Saskatoon city council will be discussing whether to install permanent safety barriers for drivers at a meeting next week. (Dan Kerslake/CBC)

At a meeting next week, Saskatoon city council will be debating the advantages of retrofitting buses with permanent safety barriers to protect drivers.

The issue of driver safety was brought up at a previous committee meeting in August, as councillors were concerned about potential attacks from riders.

While bus drivers are currently behind a thin, vinyl plastic barrier to protect them from COVID-19, permanent barriers would act as a hard wall between drivers and passengers.

"There are advantages and disadvantages, but it does protect the operators and it does show a public perception that transit is serious about safety," said transit manager Jim McDonald.

McDonald said more and more transit services across the country —  like Ottawa, Edmonton and Hamilton, Ont. — have begun to install permanent safety barriers in their buses.

We're seeing stuff that we've never seen on the buses before.- ATU President Darcy Pederson

However, the report said installing permanent barriers would be costly. Depending on the model selected, the cost to retrofit Saskatoon Transit's fleet of 140 buses could range anywhere from $980,000 to $2.9 million.

The report noted that a cheaper, plexiglass barrier would not be acceptable as it would not meet national standards and SGI would not allow it.

On older-model buses, the drivers' cabs would also likely need to be air conditioned, due to reduced airflow. The city estimates it would cost another $1.1 million to add this feature to the fleet's buses.

Safety issues

The Amalgamated Transit Union Local 615 said drivers need protection now more than ever.

"We're seeing fights on the buses," said union president Darcy Pederson.

"We're seeing stuff that we've never seen on the buses before. So, yeah, [drivers] are quite nervous and on edge and and worried about potential assaults."

The report said that there have been 28 assaults against drivers reported since 2017. Some involved spitting, shoving or throwing items. The majority were linked to fare enforcement or rule enforcement.

Transit manager McDonald said drivers training on de-escalation has helped diffuse tense situations in the past.

"They're given a situation that we've actually had on our buses and they're asked to to walk through with the various different ways that the outcome could have been different in a positive way," he said.

If council is interested in installing the barriers, the report recommends retrofitting about 24 buses under a pilot project starting next year. It recommends using $500,000 from the federal gas tax contingency fund to do so.

Once that happens, operators and mechanics would be able to report back on how the program is working.

Union president Pederson is asking to skip the trial and go straight to full implementation.

"We should be retrofitting our fleet and moving forward with new bus purchases that come with the barriers installed from the manufacturer, which would decrease the cost," he said.

"It's about time we get we get on board with up to date safety equipment."

The issue will be discussed at the next Saskatoon city council meeting on Monday.


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