A shortage in bus drivers has caused months of trip cancellations for the North County Transit District.
It’s a problem happening nationwide, but NCTD said it wants to be more transparent about the cancellations as it works to build a more reliable system.
Danielle Castillo is a mom of five who uses the bus system to go to rehab and to visit her children. She travels between Oceanside, Encinitas, San Marcos and Escondido — a commute that can last up to two hours on the bus. She said she has had three trips canceled in the past two months.
“There’s been times when I’ll miss the last bus or they don’t have any bus drivers, so I’ve had to learn the ropes of learning the bike trails,” Castillo said. “That can be a very dangerous place at night — believe it or not, even in the daytime — because there’s been things that happened down there, and it’s, like, really scary.”
Castillo is not alone. Scroll down NCTD’s Twitter and there are back-to-back alerts of canceled routes.
Transit system board chairman Tony Kranz said the NCTD is working to recruit new drivers.
“Depending on our service, to get them to the appointed place at the appointed time is already a challenge, so when we’re canceling routes, impacting their lives in that way is really not something that I consider to be acceptable,” Kranz said.
Kranz notes that driving buses is not an easy job and that the pay should be more competitive, and that the NCTD is having trouble finding qualified drivers.
“I recognize that we need to do more to attract those people who are going to be interested in making a career out of it,” Kranz said.
The department currently has 262 bus drivers and needs 30 more to be fully staffed.
The NCTD makes 35,000 trips every month. The company only cancels a single bus, not an entire route, in order to impact the least amount of people at a time, according to NCTD spokeswoman Colleen Windsor.
The company estimates it completed 99.8% of trips in July. At the time, it wasn't able to provide additional monthly calculations.
To entice and retain drivers, NCTD has added signing bonuses of up to $5,000 signing bonuses and a recent $2 per hour pay hike. Most applicants, however, aren’t making it through background checks and training, NCTD officials said.
When drivers call in and cancel shifts, it forces others to voluntarily work overtime, causing the shortage, canceled routes and driver burnout.
Drivers like Stan Guzak — who said he’s been with the department since 1997 — said those who stay on the job do it because they genuinely love it.
“This is the best job," Guzak said. "Just compensate it and people will come and stay.”
As the NCTD strives to provide more reliable service, the question now is: How long will the cancelations last?
“It’s going to take some fairly bold action to address this problem," Kranz said. "I think an increase in pay is probably likely to be necessary in order to attract more drivers.”
Kranz adds that a more drastic approach would be to call on the National Guard to drive buses, an action taken in Massachusetts to address a school-bus driver shortage.
The NCTD is also training new drivers differently. In the past, they typically trained on all routes at first, but now, they’re learning single routes to get drivers on the road sooner.
The transit system is also considering a pilot program to partner with ride share companies and provide rides to customers who are stranded because of a canceled trip.