A series of bizarrely aggressive incidents involving bus drivers has led Metro Transit to step up its customer relations and diversity training.
The wave of bad behaviour began Friday, February 27, when a courier illegally parked his van in a bus stop on Barrington, angering a Metro Transit driver. According to a Herald article citing an unnamed witness, the bus driver got in a verbal altercation with the courier and repeatedly rammed the bus into the van.
But the bus drivers' union claims the alleged incident may not have happened at all.
"There's never been a claim into Metro Transit," says Dan MacDonald, president of Local 508 of the Amalgamated Transit Union, which represents Metro Transit employees. "The police didn't lay any charges."
Regardless, the Herald article brought a cascade of comments from bus riders, each with a tale of bad driver behaviour, and reporter Chris Lambie embarked on a series of reports highlighting customer-driver conflicts, some related to race.
Then, last week, a woman wearing an Islamic veil that partially covered her face was initially denied entrance to a bus.
"I was behind her, next to get on the bus," explains Sarah Wilbur. "And the driver just started yelling at her, 'you can't get on the bus!' in her face. The driver was yelling at her and her husband, and they just wanted to get on the bus."
Wilbur, who happens to work for the YMCA's Centre for Immigrant Programs, defended the woman's right to board. The driver contacted Metro Transit and after about 20 minutes was instructed to allow the woman passage and carry on with his route.
"We've had a series of violent assaults," explains MacDonald. "With young people running around with bandanas and [balaclavas], it created quite a bit of problem. And we were given some literature saying that riders couldn't cover their faces.
"The operator in question thought he was following instructions, but obviously was in the wrong. He's very apologetic, knows what he did was wrong. I dare say an incident like that will never happen again. It will become part of our training, put right in the book."
Interviewed last Friday, MacDonald took exception at what he considers unfair attention given to bus drivers.
"These articles in the Herald---I don't know if [Lambie] has an axe to grind with us or not," says MacDonald. "You ask people to write in with all the horror stories you can find about bus drivers, of course everybody would have one at some point in time if you're a regular bus user."
But just a day later, a driver apparently freaked out when passing a demonstration against the seal hunt held along Spring Garden. According to CBC accounts, the driver stopped the bus, jumped out and attacked a stuffed seal that was used by demonstrators as a prop, repeatedly whacking it with a stick. Police intervened, rescuing the seal, and the driver got back on the bus and carried on with his route.
Reader comments on CBC's website are overwhelmingly in favour of the driver, but Metro Transit management is embarrassed.
"This behaviour is unacceptable," says Pat Soanes, manager at Metro Transit in a terse press statement issued Monday. "We deeply regret that some of our patrons have experienced embarrassment or distress."
MacDonald has not returned phone calls since the last incident. Lambie, for his part, says the allegation that he has an axe to grind with the drivers is ridiculous. "Yeah, I created the problem," jokes Lambie. "I was the guy with the baton hitting the seal, I was the guy yelling at the Muslim woman, I was the lady that wouldn't let the black kid on the bus, I was the one that bumped the bus..."
The problematic drivers may be an indication of growing pains for Metro Transit, which has increased service by 60 percent in just four years. About 140 drivers, or 30 percent of the workforce, have been on the road for less than two years and, arguably, haven't developed the customer service skills of more seasoned drivers. (Although, the driver in conflict with the Muslim woman is just two years away from retirement.)
Soanes says Metro Transit is developing "refresher" training courses on diversity and customer relations. "We clearly have more work to do."