A frosted-over student drop-off and pick-up sign outside a Yellowknife school. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio
For the second time in just over a week, the cancellation of a Yellowknife bus route is causing havoc for parents and frustrating school districts.
Route 10 was cancelled indefinitely at the end of 2022. Route 12 (out of 15) joined it this week, with parents receiving a message that operator First Transit has “no available drivers nor additional space on other buses.”
“I am frustrated as a parent that we don’t appear to have a proper transit system for our children in place any more,” Yellowknife resident and parent Aaron Reid told Cabin Radio by email after route 12’s cancellation was announced.
“I have no issue with First Transit and understand the bind they’re in, and they’ve done a great job up until now getting our kids safely to and from school,” Reid wrote.
“I know there’s no magic solution for staff suddenly quitting, but I’m sure there are contingencies and measures that could and should be put in place to get past this in the future.”
Most vexing of all, Reid said, is that route 12 was designed to ease traffic on the overwhelmed route two buses, following a similar path through the city.
But now, he said, route two continues and route 12 is scrapped.
“I think everyone could agree that any situation where one half of a neighbourhood’s children can get on the bus but the other half are out in the cold is pretty ridiculous and not sustainable,” Reid wrote.
’34 days a year’ of lost work for parents
Are drivers “suddenly quitting” or is there something more happening?
Two parents suggested to Cabin Radio that they believed drivers had left as they were no longer happy in their work. (No recently departed drivers willing to discuss their decision could be reached by the time of publication.)
Nancy Marchiori is the Yellowknife location manager for First Transit.
Marchiori said the shortage is partly a nationwide problem. “I’ve talked to counterparts in Edmonton and they have the exact same problem,” she said, “and if you a ran a story about Calgary or any of the other cities that have school buses, you’ll see the exact same thing.”
But she said the job in Yellowknife was becoming “difficult and more frustrating with the demands being put on school bus drivers,” operating full-to-bursting buses while handling the concerns of understandably underwhelmed families.
Marchiori said she is covering as many of Yellowknife’s 15 routes as she can with 10 drivers. “Route one has been operational, but that’s just because I’ve been driving it,” she said this week.
Asked how the shortage can be solved, Marchiori was unsure of the answer, pointing to the current difficulty of hiring part-time drivers who must undergo “quite lengthy” training.
Efforts to increase wages are complicated by a minimum five-year contract with set financial terms between First Transit and Yellowknife’s schools, Marchiori said. She also noted that Yellowknife, unlike other cities, has no school catchment areas that can reduce student ridership – ensuring kids close enough to walk to a school attend that school.
Asked if the YK1 school district might be open either to renegotiating its transit contract to provide more money for hiring, or to investigating a longer-term move toward catchment areas as a solution, superintendent Jameel Aziz said by email the questions were “speculative in nature and could lead to concern and apprehension throughout our system.”
“All I can say is that we are looking at a variety of factors both short term and long term to help ease the situation,” Aziz wrote.
Mahesh Adhikary, the assistant superintendent of business at Yellowknife Catholic Schools, said YCS was “aware that this remains a big issue and we are working with First Transit to try to find a resolution.”
“At this time, we do not have any updates to share with you,” Adhikary wrote on Monday. “We will let you know as soon as we have any new information.”
Reid, paying hundreds of dollars a year for two children to ride the bus, is counting the daily cost of the disruption.
“Each day that it’s not running, one of us will need to spend approx 1.5 hours away from work per day shuttling our kids to/from school,” he wrote. “Do the math on that and it works out to 7.5 hours per week of lost work for one parent, or almost 34 full work days in the year.
“Never mind that some parents literally cannot get accommodation from their employer to be away at certain times, making it even more of a problem to find a workaround.”
Marchiori expressed frustration, too, at trying to solve that problem.
“We don’t have the infrastructure for it,” she said of the service she would like First Transit to provide. “Or the drivers.”