Column: Game day busses leave fans cold

Something screwy is going on with the 400 series of buses that take fans to Scotiabank Place for Senators games.

*Editor’s note: Citizen columnist Kelly Egan sounded off on the bus system to and from Senators games this week and I thought, given it was a topic of conversation here earlier this season, I’d post it for your reading pleasure. Feel free to leave your comments at the end.

Game day buses leave fans cold

By Kelly Egan, Ottawa Citizen

Something screwy is going on with the 400 series of buses that take fans to Scotiabank Place for Senators games.

Feel free to offer theories. A union boss did, and it is a scary one: the hoary issue of work schedules for drivers. It brought the city to its knees once — of the 53-day strike, we need no reminder — and is still casting a shadow as the two sides are set to restart labour negotiations.

How time flies: there are 22 days until Christmas and fewer than four months until the contract with the ATU and its drivers/mechanics expires, March 31, 2011. Deliver us, dear Lord, from the S-word.

First, a little story that may point to a deep-seated problem. Or not. The bus is murky business.

For years now, OC Transpo’s plan on game nights is to schedule 19 extra buses, divided between six routes in the Connection 400 series, 401 to 406.

Last Saturday, my son and brother had tickets to the Leafs game.

The young lad checks the online schedule and figures the 5:51 p.m. bus (the first of seven 403s scheduled for Westboro station) should leave ample time to reach the rink for a 7 p.m. start.

That night, the first 400 bus went by, totally full, and didn’t stop. Then another. Then another. In total, the lad reports, eight buses.

By 6:20 p.m., he was getting jittery, calling the house on his cellphone. There they stood, other fans beside them, and no bus even willing to slow down. He had already called OC and was told they’d “look into the possibility” of adding more buses. Hardly a lifeline.

Well, what to do?

Damn the stupid bus. We raced over in the car and drove the laggards to the arena, arriving just at the stroke of 7 p.m., in time for the opening faceoff.

The word from OC, meanwhile, is that the 400 system is working just fine. There was a huge crowd that night, in excess of 20,000, and there is a suggestion this may have contributed to overcrowding. A manager reports there are only isolated problems with the service and few, if any, complaints.

I find this hard to believe.

You’re waiting for the 5:51 p.m. bus and it never stops. Nor do six other scheduled 403s. Now you’re standing on the frozen sidewalk, 20 kilo-metres from the rink, 30 minutes to faceoff, and you have no idea if another bus is ever coming, a $200 ticket burning a hole in your pocket.

This is bus rage, writ large. It is a bad way to treat your customers. It is leaving them in the dark. It is also the wrong way to enlarge the transit portion of the travelling public.

Here’s the reaction of Mike Aldrich, vice-president of the ATU, which has more than 2,000 members: “Take your car.”

Complaints about the Scotiabank-bound buses are common, he says. “The 400 service that goes to Scotiabank is not a reliable service. Personally, I wouldn’t rely on it.”

The annoying part, adds Aldrich, is that OC doesn’t alert passengers that arriving at the rink at a predictable time is just not in the cards.

“You have no notice. They don’t come and tell you that the buses aren’t going to be there.”

Aldrich claims something else. He says OC is regularly shorting buses on game nights, failing to put the 19 on the road. For the Leafs game, he says there were only 16 buses on the road, including four that arrived late.

For the next home game, Monday night against Edmonton, he says 15 buses were used. OC disagrees, saying all 19 buses were running on both nights.

It does admit that not all buses arrived on time. Records indicate an “extra” bus left Hurdman station at 6:40 p.m. Saturday, arriving at Westboro at 7:02 p.m., still a good hike from Kanata.

“We do experience overloads sometimes,” says Bill Holmes, a program manager at OC, “and we have extra buses strategically placed in the system.” Operators routinely alert a dispatcher if their 400 bus is full, in theory deploying extra buses to get fans to the rink on time.

Aldrich, meanwhile, says the new hours-of-work rules, which restrict the amount of driving in a given 12.5-hour window, mean it is now a scramble to find enough drivers.

In the old system, he said drivers would do their day-shift, then pick up the 400-run as overtime, in part because they got to watch the game for free.

“The guys loved it, right?” Now that system is gone.

It is a tussle of words, about which the passenger probably cares little. But when scheduled buses whiz by, constantly full, leaving fans in a panicky mood, something just isn’t right.

This is the mass transit system delivering people to our largest indoor gathering place. Must it be so chaotic?

To contact Kelly Egan, please call 613-726-5896, or e-mail kegan@ottawacitizen.com.

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