Mandatory overtime for light rail operators and bus drivers is taking a toll on the employees, as well as the Regional Transportation District (RTD) system as a whole — and service cutbacks could be on the horizon.
Due to a chronic driver/operator shortage, current RTD bus drivers and light rail operators are required to work six days a week, which averages to be an approximate 52-hour workweek for many of them, said Natalie Menten, RTD director for District M, which includes Golden, Wheat Ridge and Lakewood.
“We’ve tried many steps to bring in more drivers and keep them,” Menten said, “but we’re not getting ahead of it.”
Some employees like the overtime, but others, even with incentives provided, have a hard time working that much, Menten added.
And in general, “those with lower seniority (recent hires) are the ones forced to work overtime,” Menten said, “so we don’t retain them.”
Now, RTD is looking at potential service cutbacks to possibly relieve the driver shortage.
These cutbacks would affect the system metro-wide, including light rail and bus service. But as of now, it is unknown what will be cut, Menten said, adding that a draft of any potential cutbacks is currently in the works. Still, it’s quite possible that bus and rail service could be cut by 5% to 10%, and/or route service hours could be reduced.
There are three rail lines that will not be affected by any potential cutbacks. They are lines A, B and G. This is because Denver Transit Partners — RTD’s selected concessionaire for the Eagle P3 Project which includes the A, B and G rail lines — has a long-term agreement through 2056 to operate and maintain those rail lines.
A draft of potential cutbacks is expected to be presented to RTD’s board of directors at a study session meeting on Dec. 19. The meeting is open to the public but there will be no public comment period for this issue at the meeting.
However, RTD has been initiating public outreach efforts since October, Menten said, and during November, asked people to complete a survey relating to their RTD service preferences. A main portion of the survey was for RTD to receive feedback on two rider options: (1) keep the current service as advertised but have no guarantee the bus or train would arrive on time or at all; or (2) reduce the service but have a better chance that the bus or train will show up.
About 13,000 people took the survey, Menten said, and 60% of them favored option 2, noting that reliability was most important to them.
In a press release, RTD’s general manager and CEO Dave Genova stated the importance of rider and stakeholder input.
“My staff is confident that we are presenting the board with ample information as they consider making this impactful decision,” Genova said in the press release of the potential cutbacks.
Once the draft of potential cutbacks has been presented to the board this December, RTD will be seeking more public input through January. Based on the input from this upcoming public outreach period, the RTD board will make a decision, Menten said. The decision will likely happen in February, and any potential changes would be implemented in spring 2020.
“We’re at the point that riders are getting upset that they can’t depend on the service we advertise,” Menten said.
Dropping some of the bus services has been happening for about three years now, Menten said, and dropping some light rail services began in June this year.
One reason for the light rail drops, which is not on the forefront, is the extension of the Southeast Rail Line, Menten said. This line originally opened in 2006, but the extension of service into Lone Tree opened in May this year.
“Most don’t think 2.3 miles would affect it system-wide,” but it has, Menten said.
This is because the extension was partially funded by federal money, Menten said, and the federal government requires the line to provide more frequent service than what is actually needed. This means, for example, if an operator needs to take a restroom break, another employee must be on standby to operate the train. To solve this problem, RTD is waiting to hear back from the federal government on a request to reduce that service, Menten said.
Ridership is also low on some of the bus routes and rail lines, Menten said. For example, the W Line, which runs to and from the Jefferson County government complex in Golden and Union Station in downtown Denver, had 4.3 million boardings in 2018 — the latest ridership numbers available to date.
This may sound like a lot, Menten said, but it’s not even half of the original projection for that rail line. The 4.3 million breaks down to about 12,000 boardings per day during a seven-day week, Menten said. The original projection was nearly 20,000 boardings per day, for the five-day, Monday through Friday, workweek.
The bus driver and rail operator shortage, leading to possible service reductions, and the low ridership are all on top of the fact that RTD is now on the search for a new person to serve as its general manager and CEO. Genova, who had been employed by RTD since 1994, announced on Nov. 22 that he is preparing to retire, which will occur after the new year.
“We certainly have our hands full at RTD,” Menten said.
The RTD board study session on possible service cutbacks that is open to the public will be held at 5:30 p.m. on Dec. 19 at the RTD Board Office, 1660 Blake St. in Denver.
While no public comment is scheduled for the meeting, the public will have opportunities in the near future to provide input on any proposed service changes. In addition, members of the public are always welcome to reach out to their RTD director. To find your RTD director or district, visit https://www.rtd-denver.com/board-of-directors.
RTD will also put out information about any potential service cutbacks once it’s available. Visit https://www.rtd-denver.com/news-stop to learn more.
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