Metro trip cancellations: Bus system still needs to hire more drivers to handle ‘enormous spike of work’

By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor

Metro hopes its hiring spree will take care of the trip-cancellation problem by the end of this month.

While the bus system has stressed that only a small percentage of trips get canceled – they know it’s a big problem when it’s your trip. And when Metro started tweeting cancellation alerts – while acknowledging that it doesn’t get to send alerts about all the cancellations – it seemed three north West Seattle runs were affected more often than others – routes 55, 56, 57. Three trips from two of those routes were announced as canceled again this morning:

Those weren’t the only Metro trip cancellations tweeted/texted today – there were four others that were NOT on West Seattle routes:

Whichever routes they happen to, the concept of canceling a bus trip seems incomprehensible – you print a timetable, you run buses, you assign drivers, the service goes on, right? So we asked Metro exactly how a trip cancellation happens.

For an expanded, in-person version of the answer, we were shown around the two Metro “bases” at 6th and Royal Brougham one recent weekday afternoon. That’s where the buses are parked and where the drivers are scheduled, assigned, and dispatched. This building houses two of Metro’s seven bases, home to most West Seattle routes, with a few exceptions – for example, Routes 128 and 50 go from the South Base, Route 120 from Atlantic.

It’s where we learned phrases such as “piece of work.” Not what it meant in oldtime slang.

And we heard a lot of numbers.

Example: 1,052 daily trips out of 11,000 system-wide touch West Seattle.

The drivers for those trips are assigned by dispatchers who work in front of screens in what resemble big reception windows (top photo) – inside the 6th/Royal Brougham building, each of the two bases has its own dispatch window. While we watched and observed, we were pointed to a group of drivers waiting in a small lounge-like area down the hall, to see what might come open. Announcements were made from time to time.

In scheduling, some part-time drivers might get a “piece of work” that is very short – the minimum amount of time for which they can be paid, two and a half hours. And that’s where a cancellation might come in. A certain trip on a certain route might be part of that small “piece of work,” and if not everything can be covered, the shortest “piece of work” is what will end up going uncovered.

“What’s usually canceled is the smallest piece of the smallest part time route,” says Sandy Sander (photo above), who is superintendent of Central Base operations.

And even with that, they have policies – “we’re not going to cancel the same route two trips in a row, no first or last trips (of the day, on a route) can be canceled, no school trips.”

Since the addition (or restoration) of service paid for by last year’s Seattle Transportation Benefit District Proposition 1, she says, “we’ve gone through an enormous spike of work” – so they’ve been going through two dozen new driver candidates every two weeks. There’s attrition in that number, and every two dozen will result in about 18 new hires. (You can get a hint at the hiring challenge by looking at Metro’s fall employee newsletter online:

Already this year (through August) we’ve hired 322 transit operators and more than 300 people for other positions, which meant processing over 1,990 transit operator applications and more than 6,325 applications for other Transit positions. We’ve also promoted 58 employees into new positions.

How long does it take a part-timer to get promoted to full time, if that’s what they want?

“Typically two or three years, but currently, 9 months.” And while you might expect it would be the other way around, the part-timer works the same route every day, while drivers with seniority get to choose.

A driver can work up to 16 hours and then has to have at least eight hours off. Extra work might be assigned on the fly as the dispatchers toil to keep everything filled – a driver might be out finishing up their originally scheduled shift, Sander explains, and on the way in, when a dispatcher finds out they have a spot to fill, they’ll contact the driver and ask “can you become the X route?”

Sander told us, “We’ve gone through a period where it’s like a snowstorm every day” – crazy scheduling and juggling. And until they hire enough people, some trips will be canceled. (Interested in working for Metro? Find out more here.)

34 Replies to "Metro trip cancellations: Bus system still needs to hire more drivers to handle 'enormous spike of work'"

  • Mar-C October 22, 2015 (9:28 pm)

    Good thing we got those empty bus lanes and jugged-up car lanes.

  • Ws October 22, 2015 (9:29 pm)

    Well I have to disagree with Metro’s statement about no first trips being cancelled. I personally experiences this on the 57 a couple of weeks ago.

  • MOVE! Seattle PLEASE! October 22, 2015 (9:43 pm)

    “According to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, transit buses use more energy per passenger-mile than cars.” That tid-bit in National Geographic 11/2015.

  • carole October 22, 2015 (11:09 pm)

    So if the 7:18 and the 7:43 #55 were cancelled, and as a commenter earlier reported the 7:58 didn’t appear either, that means there was ONE bus direct to downtown on that route between the 7:01 and 8:17 scheduled departures. Given that those 55s are usually pretty full by the time they reach 35th and Avalon I wonder how many were left standing. I know on Monday of this week the 8:47 left people standing on Avalon near the Yancy stop. The bus was packed and the driver didn’t even slow down. And that is the LAST 55 of the morning.

  • Out for a walk October 22, 2015 (11:19 pm)

    Great reporting! Love your research. City/County council should take notice. How in the world do they let someone who has worked a complete shift get called for another with no rest/sleep break? Seems like an accident waiting to happen.

  • WSobserver October 22, 2015 (11:23 pm)

    This has a much larger impact than they think, well beyond the frustration and inconvenience of a missed bus.

    I’ve seen many job openings where you’re required to have your own car. Not because a car is necessary for the position, but because employers know that if employees don’t have their own transportation and depend on transit they will often be late and missing from work.

    Metro’s tax subsidized incompetence has a direct economic effect on job seekers who don’t dare admit to an employer that they don’t have a car. If you want a job – you pay for a car. And you pay the taxes too for the transit system that can’t get you to work reliably.

  • KD October 23, 2015 (12:56 am)

    Hey! That’s my worksite and my coworkers!! Thought I was seeing things, couldn’t figure out why after I logged onto WSBlog I was seeing my ‘secure’ worksite. I work at the most beautiful of all Metro bases with the city skyline in view!
    (Sorry I missed you Tracy or Patrick.. that would’ve really blown me away if I saw you at work! Hope you enjoyed your tour).

  • Gimmesummer October 23, 2015 (6:00 am)

    Sandy Sander is an excellent manager. My question is, if you worked 8 hours with no breaks, how often would you volunteer to work a tripper after that?

    So they cannot get and keep quality hires because new part timers get only 2 hrs pay a day at 21 dollars per hour (70% x 31). Who is going to drive from Auburn to DT Seattle 5 days a week for that? And for how long? Full Time drivers will not volunteer because they are tired from working all day without a break.

    So these Trippers go unfilled. The only reason it is being addressed right now by Metro is because there is a vote for Transit going on. It will be back to incompetence after the vote.

    The solution is not working FT drivers to death, giving them sufficient recovery time, and basically treating them decently.

    If that happens, which it will not, these problems go away.

  • LB October 23, 2015 (7:16 am)

    Thanks for getting to the bottom of this! West Seattle is so lucky to have your stellar reporting, as usual. You’re the best!

  • Colleen October 23, 2015 (8:06 am)

    My issue is with the shortest “piece of work” cancellation policy – given the limited service the Admiral District gets, by default, the 56/57 are some of the shortest pieces of work, leading to the increase in cancellations, and less people taking the bus.

  • Norma October 23, 2015 (8:07 am)

    And if you must drive a car to work or to any appointment where you’re expected to be on time that means more cars on the road. So what are our city planners doing? They’re doing their best to make it more difficult for cars to get around. I will not be voting for the transportation package which is way too open and expensive and does nothing to bring back our much needed neighborhood bus service. Rapid transit does me no good without connecting service.

  • PigeonPoint October 23, 2015 (8:17 am)

    As someone who takes the bus from the Avalon and Yancy stop to downtown every morning, one missed 55 early on creates a huge backlog of people here at the bus stop because the C line then gets too full to stop and there isn’t another direct option (which is why I’m standing here right now, after watching a C just pass us without stopping)

    I’ve always wondered if it were possible to have the 21X stop at this stop on its way to downtown (doesn’t go through sodo) as it mirrors the C line for the first few stops. I know the majority of people standing with me right now would have jumped on that one if we could. Is there a good way for us to submit metro route comments/ideas and do we think they’d listen? I know I’m not the only one who has wondered about that bus and this stop…thanks!

  • Olivist October 23, 2015 (8:18 am)

    While I appreciate all the research by the WSB team a lot of issues not answered. First, if 3 out of 7 routes cancelled are gen hill/admiral in WSeattle that is crazy disproportionate impact. Second, I don’t beleive for a second they follow their “rules”. Case in point back-to-back route 55 cancellations YESTERDAY. There is no way I’m voting for Prop 1 to pay more for even less reliable service.

  • anonyme October 23, 2015 (8:48 am)

    Route 5 changes into Route 21 downtown – so that’s one more West Seattle run canceled.

  • Sue October 23, 2015 (9:25 am)

    Olivist, while I agree with most of your post, I did want to point out that the cancellations on the 55 were not back-to-back routes. There was one in between that was to leave at 7:31. It’s still way too many cancellations on that route though in a short period of time.

  • Greystreet October 23, 2015 (10:01 am)

    And for all these reasons and more, I will not use Metro Transit, it does me no good in Arbor Heights…I feel bad for the folks who have to rely on transit, if I could I would but I can’t and being a nurse means I need to be at work on time–from all the stuff I read I am surprised
    Folks haven’t been reprimanded at work for tardiness, when I was a manager I had to sternly communicate that the public transit schedule doesn’t matter to the patient in need of a nurse :-/ I hope this city gets it right sometime soon before it’s too late or is it already?

  • hannah October 23, 2015 (10:14 am)

    Ok Mr Mayor you increase the density to the point of destroying west seattle…you want me to take the bus so I have …however buses dont show up to get me to work which creates a issue at my job
    Last time…I am driving now on….and hope to heaven you are fired during the next election
    Hay here is a thought don’t spend 75K on cutsie crossing zone and hire a bus driver…Ugh no sense at all with our city govenment

    • WSB October 23, 2015 (10:32 am)

      While Seattle is chipping in some money because of voter-approved Transportation Benefit District Prop 1 – Metro is run by the county, not the city.

  • Azimuth October 23, 2015 (11:22 am)

    If we only had a subway…

  • Sue October 23, 2015 (11:39 am)

    I hope that every person affected by these cancellations on their routes is contacting Metro to complain about it.
    Greystreet, as for being reprimanded for lateness at work, I work at a firm that encourages the use of mass transit, heavily subsidizes the cost of our Orca card, and has been very understanding that with transit comes variables with arrival time. I know all are not so lucky. However, I still have to work my 7.5 hrs a day no matter when I arrive, which means that every delay I have because of the cancelled bus issue or other delays is eating away at my lunch hour, and that’s frustrating.

  • jetcitydude October 23, 2015 (11:47 am)

    I’ll keep voting NO…

  • Q October 23, 2015 (12:36 pm)

    …and you’ll keep sitting stuck in traffic every day with all the other lemmings.

  • wetone October 23, 2015 (12:42 pm)

    System is broke, you can throw all the money you want at metro and city but it won’t help. SDOT and Metro have many of the same issues going on right now biggest being bad management. Until management changes neither will the problems. WS is really being hit hard right now and will only get worse as building continues. When you have 5000 sqft lots that once had 1-10 residents and replace with 10-100, how long before roads (in/out/around WS) and utilities (water/sewer) overloads infrastructure ? WS’s infrastructure was designed and built well over 60+yrs ago. Metro even on it’s best days will only service a small percentage of people living here. T-5 rebuild will also add much more truck/rail traffic in /out of area and forcing many back to upper bridge WSFY….

  • Jon Wright October 23, 2015 (1:48 pm)

    The system is not broke, the system lags. It causes a huge amount of frustration but infrastructure almost never gets built anywhere in advance of demand. It gets built long after existing capacity is exceeded.
    And “bad management” always gets thrown around by people but what does that really mean? How about if everyone actually spells out what, specifically, they think is bad about the management being referenced?
    For what it’s worth, I think people who post vague anecdotal complaints are bad commenters. Touché! ;)

  • Greystreet October 23, 2015 (1:50 pm)

    Ugh Sue, that is so frustrating! That’s awesome that your company provides that incentive it just looks like Metro isn’t able to keep up with it :-(

  • lookingforlogic October 23, 2015 (5:22 pm)

    It’s a gggggrrrrrrrrrrrreeeeaaaaaattttt that the naysayers of the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s blocked all light rail, subway and mass transit proposals. I think they were all related to Tim Eyman. I personally know islanders that voted for that “progress blocking dingbat” yet ferries are HEAVILY subsidized.

    ME 1st ME 1st ME 1st ME 1st ME 1st ME 1st ME 1st

  • CG October 23, 2015 (7:38 pm)

    I ride Sound Transit from downtown to Bellevue. The buses are on time without cancellations. Why does Sound Transit get it right, but Metro struggles? If it isn’t bad management, then what explanation can there be?

  • Todd Boyle October 23, 2015 (9:08 pm)

    Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz
    The Route 56 Bus is cancelled again
    I’ll miss my damn transfer, I’m stuck here again
    Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz

  • Neighbor October 23, 2015 (9:56 pm)

    I would like to get rid of the heavily subsidized orca card that allows this rich benefit to go to suburban commuters. We all pay the same small fee for it, yet people that live in Everett and Tacoma have their commutes heavily subsidized. We could divert this funding for transportation improvements in the city. Everybody should realize there own transportation costs. Maybe that will cause people to rethink the how much we are all paying for someone else’s commuter trains from the suburbs.

  • Greystreet October 24, 2015 (8:18 am)

    Todd Boyle, thank you for having me choke on my coffee this morning, that was hilarious and well placed :)

    Neighbor, I do agree, we are paying for other communities to use transportation that, us who live in the city and in WS are not able to use in an efficient manner. My employer subsidizes ORCA cards as well but there is no point living in Arbor Heights and working the shifts I do.

  • Bruce October 24, 2015 (3:27 pm)

    Tweeting might be more helpful, if they include the time of the next scheduled trip.

    Longer term, could they study the routes and consider consolidating trips to and from downtown on the Rapid Ride C, move it to the bus way through SODO, and use remaining resources to set up better service in West Seattle or a dial-a-bus pilot project to connect riders from their homes to the Rapid Ride?

  • kelly the bus driver October 24, 2015 (10:05 pm)

    Sound transit doesn’t actually employ any bus drivers, each of those routes is driven by a metro, piece or ct driver. By metro’s policy, sound transit routes can’t be cut, so regular service suffers. Just an fyi

  • wb October 25, 2015 (2:06 pm)

    How about being nice to the drivers who are working? I see firsthand what they put up with, and admire their fortitude in weaving their buses in and out of the traffic while dealing with some rude behavior.

  • KELLY November 10, 2015 (9:42 am)

    I commute daily from Westwood. It OFTEN takes an hour or more. The 21 gets stuck behind a train between 1st & 4th on Lander. Why? Why does it turn on Lander? There are not a lot of options for those of us who work in the civic center/south end of the city. Get home? Good luck. You’re going to miss 2 or 3 C-lines, even if it’s 2PM or 7PM. Coworkers who commute from Puyallap on the Sounder have a SHORTER commute than those of us 10 miles away.

Sorry, comment time is over.