To keep RTD’s buses and trains moving every day, safety is paramount

RTD must keep a daunting array of rules in mind when managers try to keep the buses and trains running on time. Operators can’t drive for more than 10 hours a day. They get a $2-an-hour bonus when they’re required – or mandated – to work a sixth day for the week. Work weeks can’t total more than 70 hours. And, operators who are mandated must be notified 72 hours in advance.

But the main rule is simple: Design a transit operating system where passengers and employees are as safe as possible. While everything else is important, it’s all secondary to that premise. 

Questions about how best to follow the first rule – while keeping the system running – jumped to the top of the front page this week as RTD’s recruitment and retention challenges intensified. At the RTD Board of Directors meeting Tuesday, staff presented a proposal to resolve recent service disruptions that includes a temporary reduction to scheduled services. 

That unpleasant option spotlighted for the public the fact that turnover and vacancies in bus and light rail operators is now severe, forcing both canceled trips and a spiraling departure of employees tired of filling in gaps. 

While no decision was made, RTD managers said they are redoubling the agency’s efforts to recruit new operators and make work less stressful for those already on board, using any means they can find. The new efforts include using advanced planning software to reduce six-day mandating; reducing split shifts that break up operators’ days; reaching out to potential employees in new ethnic and language groups to expand the applicant pool; and listening more carefully to employee concerns about family life.

“Management at every level is working on improving our relationships with operators, to help ease that strain,” said Sarah Boettcher, manager of light rail operations for RTD. 

Some operators have expressed concerns that the demands are tiring out employees and aren’t sustainable. RTD managers say they agree. They add that the public should know both RTD and federal operating rules prioritize safe service by placing strict limits on hours worked.

Those limits make it tough for schedulers – but should reassure the public, RTD managers said. For light rail, Boettcher noted, “this involves making sure they have no more than 12 hours of on-duty time in one day, with up to 10 of those hours being operational time in the seat. This also requires a minimum of 8 hours off between shifts, and must be no more than 70 total hours in 8 consecutive days.” 

With most RTD operators now having to work six-day weeks, managers and recruiters need to understand that the current generation of job applicants is different, said general superintendent of transportation Chris Deines. Younger employees see their family time as untouchable, and are not as open to the early and late shift demands of a “24-7-365” transit operation.

At the same time, there are still employees who want as much overtime as they can get, and would work more if federal transit rules didn’t cap their weekly hours, Deines noted. 

For anyone inside RTD who feels that time stresses might be affecting safety, Deines has a clear message: “Safety is our top core value in the company. Anytime any employee or operator sees that something is unsafe or is asked to do something they feel is unsafe, they should come forward. Not only should they report it to their supervisor, they are obligated to do that.”  

The challenge of recruiting and retaining enough employees is a communitywide problem that calls for communitywide suggestions and solutions, Boettcher added. RTD has slimmed down application requirements to speed up the hiring process, and just had a job fair for pre-screened applicants that produced 40 high-potential candidates. 

That’s a great start, Boettcher said. In the meantime, she added, “we seek input from every level of our organization – we’re open to suggestions for solutions. I have an open-door policy, and so does my manager, and his manager. We’re willing to listen.”