RTD considers reducing service in response to operator shortages

On Tuesday, Oct. 22, RTD staff will present a proposal to its Board of Directors to temporarily reduce service in order to provide the public with a level of service the agency is confident it can deliver. This proposal is being made in response to an ongoing labor shortage and issues with recruiting and retaining bus and light rail operators.  

Some details of the proposal – including specific areas where service could be affected – have not yet been determined. After next week’s discussion, a formal plan will be presented to the Board at RTD’s Nov. 12 operations committee meeting.

With historically low unemployment and a labor market that is tight everywhere, many industries have been deeply affected by workforce shortages. RTD’s labor issues are similar to what transit agencies across the country are experiencing.

Over the past three years, RTD has opened five new rail lines and one bus rapid transit line. In the past six years, the agency has added 20 percent more service, equating to approximately 600,000 hours. To deliver RTD’s current and planned service, bus and rail operators have been mandated for the past four years to work six-day work weeks, meaning they must work overtime without an option to refuse.

Mandated work affects employees’ personal lives and their ability to deliver their best work. It is the single biggest factor affecting retention of new RTD employees, experienced most frequently by employees with the least seniority but often extending to the agency’s most senior bus and rail operators.

The proposal would not completely alleviate the need to mandate employees, but it would reduce the need for the same employees to work six days every week. While RTD is providing a high overall level of service, the agency is dropping service even with mandates in place.

The plan should significantly reduce dropped service – that which is scheduled but not delivered – and provide more reliable service on scheduled RTD routes. That fact has been well-received by RTD’s leaders, who have seen firsthand the vicious circle of a workforce shortage leading to more mandating, which leads good people to leave the agency. They recognize that RTD’s people are its most valuable asset and understand that current work patterns are unsustainable. 

“A key challenge as we move forward is that we need to be innovative about how we balance our service with workforce availability, so we can provide jobs that are enticing to future employees,” said Michael Ford, RTD’s chief operations officer.

RTD staff has been meeting regularly with union representatives to work on issues related to retaining employees and providing a better work environment. The current collective bargaining agreement – the legal contract addressing wages, hours, and terms and conditions of employment for represented RTD employees – includes increased pay for new and existing operators, as well as improvements to work-life issues voiced by employees and the union.

As staffing issues have grown more acute, RTD has been speaking with peer transit agencies to understand their recruiting best practices and to see whether they can be added to RTD’s efforts.

“Service cuts already are being made in response to operator shortages, and RTD is informing passengers at the last minute,” said Dave Jensen, assistant general manager of rail operations. While the workforce continues to diminish, the workload hasn’t. On light rail it has increased since May, when the Southeast Rail Extension opened and required the work of 20 more operators. That fact has brought the division to a point of not being able to cover every trip it operates.

“Cutting service isn’t something we want to do,” Jensen said. “The safety of our system, the best possible customer experience and the well-being of our employees are at the forefront of our decision-making. Based on current conditions, reducing service will enhance our ability to do this.”

He added, “This is a temporary measure that will allow us to get to a healthier place from an operations perspective and begin to build our service back up.”

Fred Worthen, assistant general manager of bus operations, noted that the staffing shortage deeply affects the lives of RTD’s employees and riders. Operators don’t have the work-life balance they desire, and the issue affects aspects of RTD’s daily operations, such as employee turnover and absenteeism. Customers expect RTD services to show up as scheduled and are naturally frustrated when they do not.

“When our vehicles don't arrive due to operator shortages, it disrupts our passengers’ lives,” Worthen said. “They may be late to work or an appointment, or they may be stranded with no alternative mode of transportation. I would prefer to align our services so that we provide balance for our employees and reliability to our customers.”

The proposal is available at this link, on pages 197-205. RTD’s Board of Directors will review it at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday at the agency’s headquarters, at 1660 Blake St. in Denver.