Spinning our wheels on arbitration
Over a number of years, we have witnessed a massive decline in public bus services. Why is the service in such a poor state and what can be done to make things better in terms of efficiency for the riders, the drivers and the mechanics? Why are so many buses being cancelled?
The answer, while relatively simple, has proven difficult to actually implement. And that is a new bus schedule.
The existing bus schedule has been in operation since 2001. Seventeen years!
During that time, there has been no rider survey to confirm actual use on any route and no comprehensive new bus schedule introduced. We know that there has been a massive population decline, but there has been an increase in overall running costs for the bus service. Why is this?
When I was minister with responsibility for transport, I asked this and other questions. And the responses were quite telling. To run the full service under the present 17-year-old schedule, the bus service needs to have approximately 90 buses running at full strength throughout the day. This means 110 to 120 buses are needed in the fleet so that an effective rotation occurs.
This allows for maintenance, and to allow for “proper” placement of buses for drivers to meet and collect a bus when it is their shift. This normally occurs at the east, west or central depots depending on the time of day a bus route is cross-referenced with a bus driver’s schedule. You can imagine this is not always efficient or convenient.
At the moment, the fleet may number approximately 120 but when you subtract buses that are not roadworthy, and those cannibalised for parts, the fleet is really close to the number required to be on the road — 90.
The inevitable result is bus routes get cancelled since they are taken out of service for matters that range from flat tyres, cracked windscreens and seats puked on by passengers, to more serious matters such as engines overheating and even bus fires.
In April 2017, after the bus fire on Middle Road, Warwick, I made the following comment “ ... that in an environment of budget constraints, there are in fact too few buses for the existing schedule, and too many in need of repair, which continues to cause far too many cancellations of individual bus runs. This has meant substantial pressure on the bus mechanics to service the fleet and get more buses on the road”.
In other words, as a result of a bus schedule that is unsustainable, bus routes will continue to be cancelled. The expected arrival of 12 new buses over the next year or so will not alleviate the underlying issue in the long term, but will help. However, this is a very expensive solution.
Unbeknown to most, the bus scheduling works by agreement between the Bus Operators & Allied Workers Division of the Bermuda Industrial Union and the Department of Public Transportation.
If the division does not agree with a proposed bus schedule, the matter must go to arbitration. In other words, if the drivers and mechanics do not agree with a schedule — no matter how beneficial, efficient and safe the schedule for the users, assuming such a schedule existed — then it cannot be imposed by the Department of Public Transport management without an arbitration award.
A typical “tail wagging the dog” scenario.
In the last round of discussions, which occurred from 2014 to 2016, a new bus schedule was agreed between the Department of Public Transportation management and the BIU leadership.
However, this was always subject to a vote by the bus operators and the division. The schedule was rejected at a vote, although how that vote was undertaken is unknown. That proposed, agreed and then rejected schedule would have required about 66 roadworthy buses each day, and therefore an overall bus fleet in the region of 90 to allow for a rotational maintenance schedule — in other words, the number of buses we have now. And why was the proposed bus schedule rejected? It is quite simple, really. The schedule would have resulted in a massive reduction in driver overtime.
Why do you ask is overtime required when you have a schedule? Surely, the schedule is created in such a way so as to ensure overtime is not required?
Well, this is where the fun begins: the existing schedule that the public sees has a second layer of “grey” routes. These are routes that are included in the existing schedules that were not formally agreed. Any route that is added to the agreed schedule attracts overtime, even if the driver who is working that route is regularly scheduled in a 35-hour work week.
The term “double dip” comes to mind. There are quite a number of these “grey” routes, which include a number of school runs and other routes that the public take for granted. While a certain route may be a regularly scheduled route for the public, it may not be a regularly scheduled route for the drivers.
In April 2017, I also explained that the Government was looking for agreement on the schedule and that arbitration may be the only way to end the impasse.
So you ask, why was the schedule not put to arbitration? You may recall that the Government had already faced a number of high-profile protests. Notwithstanding the BIU leadership’s apparent willingness to enter arbitration, the Government believed there was a clear and present danger of yet another island-wide bus shutdown if the result did not go a certain way.
With the America’s Cup looming and a bus service shutting down repeatedly on a whim, a decision was made to leave arbitration until after the America’s Cup. Eight months have since passed and buses continue to be cancelled at an alarming rate and the Government has been suspiciously quiet.
A new bus schedule is required and the present government has the parliamentary numbers and an entire ministry supposedly dedicated to efficiency. It is time to put the bus schedule to arbitration. That, or the Government should exert its “labour influence” to put something in place that works. But that would mean having to put a stop to the tail wagging the dog.
Does the Government have what it takes to make that happen? I hope so.
• Michael Fahy is a former Minister of Home Affairs, Minister of Tourism, Transport and Municipalities, and Junior Minister of Finance under the One Bermuda Alliance government
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