There have been 26 assaults on HSR drivers this year, a situation being blamed partly on an overloaded transit system where service has shrunk by over 40 percent in the past two decades. Demands for immediate improvements were delivered to councillors last week by several delegations and their transit staff, but to no obvious effect.
In his presentation to the general issues committee, bus union president Budh Dhillon compared today’s HSR with the one he drove for in 1989 when “we used to have 1,264,335 hours of service as opposed to 710,000” reported for 2010 for a considerably larger geographic area. When he began driving a bus 31 years ago he recalled that even on a Sunday “you didn’t have to wait more than 10 minutes for the bus” during daytime hours.
“We have about 767 less hours of service on a daily basis on the road now, where we cover a lot more area than we used to in 1989,” noted Dhillon. “And also we’ve added responsibility on the drivers for seniors, special need riders, and it takes more time to provide that service.”
He pointed to the extra time required to handle passengers with walkers, wheelchairs, scooters and bicycles, and the situation on several HSR routes where full buses are unable to pick up waiting riders.
“We have to leave the people at the stops to wait for the next bus, and chances are the next bus might be full. That happens on a daily basis, especially on the major routes King, B-Line and going into the university, Upper James. That’s where you get the frustrated clients, frustrated passengers. They’ve been waiting for the bus in the cold and can’t get on.”
In 1989, the HSR had 272 buses on the road, compared to 217 today, and it carried six million more passengers than the 21 million this year. And the city population served by transit has climbed from 400,000 in 1989 to 475,000 today.
Dhillon’s call for more transit funding was echoed by John McIntyre, the vice-president of the McMaster Students Union who argued improved service must occur before any fare hikes. He noted that McMaster student passes contribute $2.5 million a year to the HSR, about 8 percent of the transit budget, and they have a referendum in February to decide on whether or not to continue the contract.
The drivers’ observations were supported by the Transit Users Group represented by Peter Hutton.
“You have a crisis; it’s getting worse,” he emphasized. “It’s not only on the west-end routes, it’s in the Mohawk routes, it’s in all sorts of different places, and you’re not going to get additional riders on the system until you address this.”
The message was also similar from Tom Cooper of the Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction and Maureen Leyland of the Common Coalition Campaign working to alleviate poverty. Both expressed strong support for the recommendations from HSR director Don Hull to immediately add $3 million to the transit operating budget by using monies not currently needed for bus purchases.
Although that proposal won’t raise taxes, councillors voted to again defer a decision until they debate the city’s 2011 budget that is scheduled to be ratified in April. Shifting the $3 million to expand service on eight HSR routes has been discussed since November 2009 and was also put off by councillors last summer.
The deferral last week was proposed by Tom Jackson who called Hull’s recommendation “noble” and “probably needed to some degree” but argued that no decision should be made until councillors “see how it all measures up in light of other departmental pressures and in light of the overall capital and operating budgets that we’re going to see over the next few months.”
The transit presentation made by St Thomas More teachers and one of their students was reported on in the Hamilton Spectator on Saturday. A transcript of their presentation, as well as questions and comments by councillors in response, has been prepared by CATCH volunteers and is posted here.