GO Transit cut dozens of bus trips Monday as Toronto’s regional transit agency grappled with a shortage of vaccinated staff, offering a preview of the impact that could come later this month as the larger local transit agency faces the same issue.
Both GO and the Toronto Transit Commission have issued deadlines by which staff must be vaccinated. The date chosen by Metrolinx – which oversees GO – was Monday. By the end of the day, the agency had put about 150 staff (roughly 3 per cent of its work force) who wouldn’t attest to being fully vaccinated on unpaid leave.
The resulting staff shortfall, while modest, had a knock-on effect that rippled through the Southern Ontario transportation network Monday. According to the agency, an estimated 6 per cent of its daily bus trips would be cancelled, amounting to approximately 85 affected routes.
“We looked at, here’s the number of staff we have, and here’s how many buses we can safely operate,” said Metrolinx spokeswoman Anne Marie Aikins, who added that the agency tried to trim trips on less-used routes and those where other options were available.
An unknown number of GO train trips faced cancellation as well, Ms. Aikins said.
The TTC, which has a much bigger staff and carries many more transit passengers than GO, has imposed its own vaccine mandate deadline of Nov. 21. The agency announced last week that only 88 per cent of staff had thus far shared their vaccine status. According to the TTC, a reduction in staff is expected to cause service cuts immediately after the deadline, though the impact may be lessened if more employees are vaccinated in the coming few weeks.
Shelagh Pizey-Allen, executive director of advocacy group TTCRiders, said the TTC needed to be more pro-active about bringing on staff to prevent such cuts. But she wondered if the cash-strapped agency could even do so at this point.
“How much of this is related to the funding crisis that the TTC is facing?” she said. “Is the TTC taking this wait-and-see approach because they’re facing financial constraints? And that’s easily fixed – it means other levels of government need to get involved immediately.”
The prospect of vaccine mandates leading to service cuts as civic employees refuse to be inoculated has been raised as a reason not to make it a requirement. But others have argued that front-facing employees have a responsibility to help keep the public safe. And in some cities, rhetoric about the impact on staffing of vaccine mandates has proved alarmist, with few people willing to walk away from their jobs.
Both GO Transit and the TTC have been hit hard by the pandemic, which slashed passenger volumes. Ridership has come back somewhat, but remains at only about half of the prepandemic normal, causing huge funding gaps and raising questions about the long-term viability of the agencies’ transit operations.
The two agencies have worked to win back former riders, in part by putting on as much service as possible to ensure transit remains a viable option. Although policies requiring employees to be vaccinated could undermine that approach by leading to cuts, Metrolinx’s Ms. Aikins said surveys of potential riders suggest they won’t come back regardless if worried about public health.
“We had been pushing them: ‘What do you need to feel safe?’ And one of the things they said is they wanted staff to be vaccinated – that would make them feel safer,” she said. “So whatever we can do to make them feel safe, that will encourage them to come back.”
Last week, the TTC warned in a news release that some routes “will see varying levels of temporary service changes” after the agency’s vaccine mandate kicks in later this month.
“We are moving quickly to hire operators and backfill job openings, and we will begin returning service to budgeted levels as soon as possible,” TTC chief executive Rick Leary said then in a statement.
“I believe we have come up with a plan that is flexible and responsive. And if our staff numbers are better than expected as we get closer to the end of the day on Nov. 20, we can start replacing service reductions.”