Metro short hundreds of drivers needed for bus, rail operations

Changes in Metro's hiring policies came after some embarrassing incidents involving bus drivers.
Changes in Metro's hiring policies came after some embarrassing incidents involving bus drivers. (By Jacquelyn Martin -- Associated Press)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 15, 2010; 10:31 PM

Metro has a critical shortage of hundreds of bus drivers needed not only to operate buses but also to fill vacancies in the ranks of train operators and rail station managers, and it will take at least two years to close the gap, senior Metro officials said.

As Metro scrambles to keep transit services running, the agency is spending 50 percent more than its goal in overtime for bus drivers, the officials said.

"We do have this very significant need to fill the bus operator ranks," said Gary Baldwin, Metro's director of human resources.

Metro needs to increase the pool of bus operators to fill more than 210 vacancies - 91 for bus operators, 62 for train operators and 61 for station managers, said Jack Requa, Metro's assistant general manager of bus services.

Bus operators are used to fill vacancies in the ranks of rail operators and station managers, said Requa, making the recruiting burden heavier. He said about a third of each class of new bus operators goes to make up for attrition and to "just keep us whole."

Metro has about 2,440 positions for bus operators, 560 for train operators and 500 for station managers.

The shortfall of drivers is one of several problems facing Metro's bus service, the sixth-largest in the United States, with about 1,500 buses and an average weekday ridership of more than 400,000.

Bus ridership has declined as a result of the economic downturn and this year's fare increases, according to the transit agency. Weekday ridership dropped more than 7 percent in the first four months of the fiscal year that began in July.

On-time performance by buses - defined as arriving no more than two minutes early or 7 minutes late - is running at less than 75 percent, compared with Metro's target of 80 percent.

Metro officials say the bus driver shortage resulted in part from a hiring freeze implemented in December 2008, when the transit agency had "no appreciable bus operator vacancies," according to an internal memo on the topic last month.

A few months later, in spring 2009, bus and rail officials realized that they needed to start hiring bus operator trainees again, but it was not until September 2009 that Metro resumed recruiting the required number of trainees each month, in part because an internal review was required to restart recruitment.

Meanwhile, Metro was losing about 10 bus operators a month through retirement, termination or other forms of attrition. As a result, the number of bus operator vacancies rose from fewer than 70 to between 100 and 130, according to Metro data.

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