It’s been another rough start to the week for many Denver light-rail commuters, who faced dozens of cancellations and delays along some of the Regional Transportation District’s most popular routes as a result of the agency’s ongoing staffing woes.
At least 67 trips on RTD’s light-rail lines were canceled on Monday, November 18, according to the agency’s Rider Alerts service, with another 29 cancellations expected today, November 19. The dropped trips, which can cause delays of up to a half-hour for riders, have become an almost daily occurrence as RTD struggles to staff its buses and trains amid an ongoing operator shortage — and considers taking the unprecedented step of temporarily cutting services to allow things to stabilize.
The operator shortage is particularly acute for light rail, where RTD is missing more than 30 percent of its full, authorized workforce, with just 151 operators out of the 216 needed, an agency spokesperson said Monday. By contrast, RTD’s bus operator shortage is less severe, with the agency short 93 drivers out of its full complement of 1,084, or about 9 percent.
Plenty of other U.S. transit systems are dealing with similar operator shortages, but RTD says it’s especially challenged in a metro area where the unemployment rate sits at 2.2 percent, one of the lowest levels in the country. Agency staff say they’ve stepped up their recruitment efforts over the past few years, from advertising job openings on its own vehicles to implementing signing bonuses and a streamlined application process. Under a new collective bargaining agreement with Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1001, which represents RTD operators, union employees received a nearly 10 percent bump in starting base pay in 2018, with the minimum hourly wage for new drivers set to rise to $20.58 next year.
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RTD says it’s seen an increase in applications lately, and its newest training class, which began last week, includes 36 light-rail trainees, as much as three times the size of a typical class. Light-rail training programs, which start roughly every six weeks, take eleven weeks to complete, compared to seven weeks for bus operator training.
Recruitment, however, is only one half of the staffing equation, and it's employee retention that RTD has really struggled with. Over a 33-month period ending September 2019, staff told the board in a memo last month, the agency hired 791 bus operators and 177 train operators — more than three-quarters of its total operator workforce — but had 710 bus operators and 201 train operators leave their positions.
One of the major causes of this exodus, RTD management believes, is the practice of "mandating," or forced overtime, which has required many operators to work six days a week for years at a time. Mandating is necessary because of the operator shortage, potentially creating a vicious cycle that RTD hopes to stabilize with its plan for temporary service cuts.
RTD is currently gathering public input on the possible service cuts, and will brief boardmembers on their proposal at a study session on Thursday, November 21. If the board decides to move forward with the plan, it's unlikely that a final decision would come before February at the earliest, with cuts potentially taking effect next spring.