Frustrations mount over VTA’s no-show buses, lack of communication
Eliza Racine, 23, waits for the VTA bus she takes every morning to work. Photo by Katie Lauer.

Handfuls of VTA riders have unknowingly waited for buses that were never going to arrive.

Dan Rouse waited for the 181:

The same happened to Enrique Camacho and the 323:

… and Eliza Racine along the 58:

Racine, who has solely relied on transit to get around since moving to Santa Clara last year, has found herself waiting at the bus stop on multiple occasions – to no avail. The bus never arrives. The 23-year-old was told she needed to report the incident to VTA, but she’s tired of complaining.

“I get it, I have to help them so they can provide the best customer service, but also I’m very tired and I have a bunch of other priorities,” Racine said. “Obviously I don’t want to take out my anger on customer service – they’re just doing their job – but why are the buses just not showing up when they’re saying they’re supposed to? Why is the website wrong?”

Tweeting back, @vtaservice often replies that a staff shortage is to blame.

“There is the underlying worry that routes get cut if they don’t hire enough drivers,” Racine added. “It’s an underlying issue that’s sort of nagging at the back of my head.”

According to VTA spokesperson Brandi Childress, there are currently 43 vacancies out of the 923 budgeted bus operator positions. To help fill the staffing shortage, she said driver training efforts have been increased. The nine-week course has 20 potential graduates currently nearing completion, while 28 trainees start later this month. Those 28 would be eligible to drive in December.

But Childress said the driver shortage is less about the vacancies themselves, and more about unexpected employee sick days, paid time off, resignations and retirements.

The only recourse right now for buses that don’t show up because a driver called in sick is requiring riders to call VTA’s customer service hotline to report it. But coordinating these reports with three different bus yards and one light rail yard makes communication difficult, VTA officials said.

“We’ve been more retroactively getting the information, and that’s where we don’t want to be,” Childress said. “We might not be able to fix the problem immediately with an operator, but how can we communicate that better? There’s definitely room for improvement. The ideal is to get the real time information pushed from the real time feed that comes from the buses, which attempt to show where and when buses are scheduled to arrive. I don’t think we’re quite there yet.”

VTA has 69 bus routes running on any given day, totaling more than 3,700 trips. Childress said that if a driver’s shift cannot be filled by anyone from their “extra board” of operators, that bus doesn’t run on its assigned trip. She could not provide a cancellation rate.

“Understanding the number of daily missed trips we are experiencing is a more precise metric to use than the number of routes being affected,” she said.

Unclear communication

Eugene Bradley, founder of Silicon Valley Transit Users, said he’s awaiting solutions from VTA to reduce unexpected route cancellations after he raised the complaint at a Board of Directors meeting earlier this month. He also sent a letter to address the issue.

The bigger frustration, he added, is the lack of communication when a cancellation happens.

“You have the technology right now to make such notifications public. This is something that Santa Cruz METRO uses right now to inform riders when a route and time will not run due to a staff shortage,” Bradley wrote. “These cancelled bus and light rail schedules due to your staff shortage diminish the credibility of your printed schedules. Worse, the cancellations diminish the credibility of your real-time bus and light rail arrival times.”

As Bradley mentioned, Santa Cruz METRO sends out system-wide and route-specific text and email alerts to riders who subscribe to their “GovDelivery” service.

VTA uses the Transit app, which works to provides real-time push notifications, and a subscription service riders can use to get updates.

METRO spokesperson Jayme Ackemann said their system has been in place for at least five years in Santa Cruz. She said most riders appreciate the service, even if notifications are only minutes before scheduled arrivals.

“The communication is only as good as the person who happened to be assigned that day to putting them out in the timely fashion,” Ackemann said. “We’re literally in our dispatch center trying to cover every shift up until the moment that bus rolls out of the gate.”

Santa Cruz METRO is also working on adding tracking technology to buses that allows riders to see where they are in real-time.

While a “Service Alert” tab is available on VTA’s website, it only alerts riders of temporary bus stop closures or route detours due to construction. But the “Real Time” feature does not alert users of last-minute changes to schedules, such as drivers calling in sick.

According to VTA’s customer service representatives, the best course of action is calling the hotline for updates. But Childress acknowledges that user-based outreach isn’t the best scenario, and her team is actively working to improve the process. She hopes a plan to use technology similar to METRO’s happens soon.

“We do not expect customers to have to try and call in and confirm that their trip is coming,” Childress said. “That is not the customer service we want to provide. We’re absolutely on the same page of wanting to do better and be better by our customer.”

Contact Katie Lauer at klauer77@gmail.com or follow @_katielauer on Twitter.

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