Management & Operations

Fast Times At Edmonton Transit System

Posted on December 6, 2006 by Steve Hirano, Editor

The challenge of providing transit service in this fast-growing Canadian boomtown is not for the faint of heart. Heavy demands are being placed on the Edmonton Transit System (ETS) from different directions.

Rapid population growth is a major contributor, translating into a need to absorb ridership increases, better serve new neighborhoods and reduce overcrowding on existing routes.

Meanwhile, high employee attrition rates due to an aging workforce and a tight job market are increasing the difficulty and costs of recruiting and retaining needed staff.

In addition, funding for new transit equipment and infrastructure development is insufficient, and inflationary pressures in the local area are driving up the costs of refurbishing existing terminals and construction of new ones.

On the equipment side, the 800 buses in the fleet average about 12.5 years in age, including some GM New Look models that are 43 years old. The fleet of 37 railcars averages 25.5 years and dates from the implementation of Edmonton’s light rail service in 1978.

If this picture of ETS sounds bleak, you wouldn’t know it from talking with Transit Manager Charles Stolte. Stolte is decidedly upbeat about ETS, where he arrived last January to replace Wayne Mandryk, who left the post to oversee the city’s light rail expansion. “There are a lot of exciting things that are happening here,” Stolte says.

Not so much in spite of the challenges, but because of the challenges, Stolte feels a sense of fulfillment at ETS. “There’s always a challenge ahead of us, whether it’s an aging bus fleet, human resource issues or whatever,” he says. “The community wants someone who will be a champion for public transit.”

Giving transit its due
Stolte is happy to be that champion. He’s spent the past 31 years in the transit industry, starting his career at the age of 20 as a junior planner at the Toronto Transit Commission. “I wasn’t even old enough to drive a bus yet,” he says.

A year later, after turning 21, Stolte transferred to a driving position. “It was great because I got to drive every piece of machinery they had, from subways to trolleys to buses to streetcars,” he says. “Eventually, I was able to work my way up to be supervisor of the control center.”

In the mid 1980s, Stolte’s ambition to become more of a generalist prompted him to take the position of manager of Welland Transit near Niagara Falls in Ontario. It was a great opportunity because he learned how to deal with budgets and contract negotiations, as well as how to work with government agencies such as the city council. During his seven years there, the transit system won national awards for accessible transportation.

From there, Stolte took the post of transit manager at Whitehorse Transit in the Yukon Territory. In the first five months of what would become a four-year stay, the temperatures got so cold that cars wouldn’t start and buses became the city’s transportation lifeline. “The buses were jam-packed,” he says. “People were standing in the stairwells.” It was so cold that the buses would run in two-hour shifts so they could return to the garage to have their air lines thawed.

“At the end of it, we all survived even though we were working 15- to 20-hour days,” Stolte says. “The city council was happy and supportive of transit.”

From there, Stolte took a job as transit manager of Sault Ste. Marie Transit in Ontario, where there was a history of severe labor problems. “I thought it would be a seven-year turnaround,” he says. “Working with the city council and city manager and the union president and executive committee, we were able to turn things around into a very positive and respectful workplace.” It took three years instead of seven.

Stolte then took the position of manager of Saskatoon Transit in Saskatchewan. The transit agency had gone through several managers in a short period, which lent some doubt to the wisdom of his decision to make the move. “But it was quite clear that the city wanted to support public transit initiatives and was willing to make tough changes,” he says. With that underpinning of support, Stolte was comfortable revamping the management structure and making the union and employees a partner, as well as involving them in the decision-making process.

“You have to spend the time in your problem areas to get the benefit,” Stolte says. “And no one person can do it all at a large organization.”

In January, he left Saskatoon for his new adventure at ETS, where, in an organization with 1,900 employees, the focus is on a team environment. “I have 10 directors who report to me,” he says. “They’re a very dynamic group, very forward-thinking.”

Although in his position for less than a year, Stolte has found his rhythm and is comfortable with the challenges. “Every day that I’ve been in transit, I have loved coming in to work,” he says.

Bringing more light rail
One of Stolte’s key challenges is expanding the 7.6-mile light rail system, while at the same time rehabilitating the infrastructure of the existing line. The goal is to double ridership on the system before the end of the decade.

ETS’ light rail system opened in 1978 and has expanded several times. The more recent extension opened Jan. 1, 2006. The line now serves 11 stations (five surface and six underground) and carries approximately 46,000 passengers a day.

Stolte says the existing system is having capacity problems during rush hour, which he views as an “exciting” challenge. “Transit is booming, but now we have to catch up with it,” he says.

As previously mentioned, the 37 railcars (Siemens-Duewag U2) average 25.5 years of age. They are scheduled to receive a major refurbishment over the next three to four years, with about $26 million set aside for this work. Stolte says the vehicles’ major subsystems are obsolete and require upgrades. Repair of body corrosion and rehabilitation of interior sections are also needed.

In the meantime, construction of a 5-mile extension of the light rail system is underway and is expected to be finished by the end of 2009. The extension, which will be completed in stages, starts at the southern terminus at the University of Alberta and heads further south. Four new stations will eventually be added. Two of the stations and 1.2 miles of tracks are scheduled to open by the end of 2008.

To support the increase in service, 26 railcars (Siemens SD-160) have been ordered and are due to arrive from May 2008 through June 2009.

Stolte says ETS will be expanding its DL MacDonald rail facility to handle storage of the 26 new vehicles and will also construct a right-of-way building to enable auxiliary rail equipment, such as tamper/liner and locomotives, to be stored and maintained in its own facility.

Catching the bus
The construction of a badly needed fourth bus maintenance facility is also on the agenda. “We hope to have that completed by 2009,” Stolte says. The project is partially funded, but will require some future budgetary assistance. At press time, he wasn’t sure if the additional funds would be procured.

Stolte says the city works as a team in trying to get projects completed. The budget process is part of that team effort. “Whether it’s a capital project or an operations project, we all work together as a family of services,” he says. It’s especially important when the different departments hold community meetings. “That’s when the unified role really pays dividends.”

With ridership growth of 5% to 7% each year, the 800-bus system carries a heavy load and is often overburdened during rush hour. Stolte says 25 routes could use additional buses. The city has plans to purchase up to 34 buses in the next few years to provide additional capacity and service expansion. It also plans to purchase 35 replacement buses each year to help retire the older buses in the fleet. In particular, ETS would like to replace 150 GM New Look buses, some of which are more than 40 years old.

In addition to traditional diesel buses, ETS operates 53 electric trolley buses. Their service life is expected to end around 2010, but Stolte says no decision has been made on whether to replace them with new low-floor trolleys.

BRT gains momentum
To complement its existing bus service and the light rail system, ETS is pursuing the development of a bus rapid transit (BRT) network. Stolte says preliminary planning is underway for BRT lines in the city’s north, southeast and west sections. He says the plans will be submitted to the city council next year, with implementation of service scheduled over the next few years depending on the availability of funding.

Although a BRT plan has yet to be approved, the city is considering a procurement of 24 articulated, low-floor buses for the BRT program. BRT funding, however, has been scaled back because of higher-than-expected costs of road improvements.

In any case, ETS will be testing hybrid diesel-electric buses for possible BRT application. Stolte says six buses have been purchased, including two New Flyer DE40LFs with GM-Allison drives, two New Flyer DE40LFs with ISE drives and two Orion VIIs with BAE drives. “We have been in discussion with the University of Alberta’s engineering department about participating in the design and management of the testing,” Stolte says.

Paul Smith, vice president of sales and marketing at New Flyer, says his company’s 40-foot hybrid buses will be delivered this winter and expects that they’ll be put through their paces with an eye on how they perform in inclement weather. “They want to test the buses through the harshest seasons,” he says.

New Flyer has a longstanding relationship with ETS, supplying them with many buses over the years. “We enjoy a good business relationship with the city,” Smith says. “We look to deal with them for a long time to come.”

As a fellow Canadian, Smith has followed Stolte’s career and likes what he has seen. “He’s a very ambitious individual and just seems to get a lot done for transit,” he says. “Any initiative that he starts, he completes. And he’s always looking to push the envelope in technology.”

To stay on top of the latest developments, Stolte networks with colleagues and maintains high visibility in organizations like the Canadian Urban Transit Association, where he’s currently serving as vice chair of communications and public relations. “It’s important to be involved with our peers,” he says. “It’s being able to call somebody up in Minneapolis, Dallas, Houston or British Columbia and ask for advice. You know somebody somewhere will be able to help you because they’ve all seen the questions before.”

Security taken to new level
Since the 9/11 attacks, security has gained traction at ETS as it has at other transit systems across the world. The more recent attacks in Madrid and London added to the resolve of transit systems to reduce their vulnerability and enhance their emergency response preparedness. “Security is paramount for us,” Stolte says. “We take our lead from our sister cities in the U.S., and having one of the larger rail systems in Canada, we can’t let our guard down.”

At ETS, security has been “totally enhanced,” Stolte says. In 2003 and ‘04, a comprehensive analysis of the system’s security program was undertaken by outside consultants and a host of recommendations were made, many of which have been implemented.

Stolte says ETS has installed closed-circuit TV and blue emergency help phones in all light rail stations and major bus terminals, as well as pull and touch-strip alarms in all light rail vehicles.

Earlier this year, ETS deployed 34 “special constables” to enhance security across the transit system. The officers are armed with pepper spray and batons, but not guns. “They have a lot of respect from our community,” he says.

The transit system also works closely with Edmonton police, trading information that might be of use to each agency. “There’s a good intertwine of information, and it’s very timely,” Stolte says. “For example, if there’s something happening around a school yard, LRT station or bus terminal, the police are quick to bring us in line with it.” In return, ETS is quick to share the videotape of its 450 surveillance cameras with police if a crime investigation requires it.

Stolte says his agency is also sharing information with other transit systems in Canada. “We provide our resources as much as we can,” he says. “We encourage people to give us a call.”

So far, the system has not had a terrorist threat, but continues to review safety and security processes, procedures and partnerships. It also uses a needs-based deployment model to help determine “hot spots” where it should deploy resources. “This is working really well for us,” he says.

Tough on the unruly
In regard to safety on its buses, Stolte takes a tough stance on misbehavior of passengers. “I will not hesitate to aggressively charge a minor or adult who acts up on our system,” he says. “There has to be respect for the system, the people who operate the system and the people who ride the system.”

Stolte himself has been involved in altercations on the bus. In one instance early in his tenure at ETS, he helped a bus driver by tossing some misbehaving teens off the vehicle. The teens bristled at Stolte’s interference. “I had my fists ready just in case they tried to attack me,” he says. But they did as they were told and the other riders applauded his efforts. The bus driver, unaware of who Stolte was until after the altercation ended, also became an instant fan.

In another situation, a group of people were attacking an individual one evening as an ETS bus happened to be driving by. “Our driver saw it happening, stopped and lit up the area with the high beams, and the perpetrators ran,” he says. “It was a sterling move by our employee. It shows that you don’t have to jump out of the bus and put yourself in harm’s way. That’s the last thing I want them to do.”

Battling the labor shortage
Finding and keeping good employees has been a struggle for ETS. “This is a booming economy,” Stolte says. “It’s not uncommon to see a ‘Help Wanted’ sign on every third street corner. In my 10 months here, I don’t think there’s been a time when we haven’t been short at least 10 drivers for our special-needs service.”

Mechanics are also hard to find. “They’re being gobbled up by the big manufacturers where they can get paid $50 an hour,” Stolte says. “Our rates are $30 to $32 an hour under this new collective agreement.”

ETS employs about 70 mechanics but could use about 12 more. “We’re aggressively out recruiting mechanics, but it’s a team problem,” Stolte says. “We all take responsibility for getting buses on the road and making sure they’re safe.”

To improve the efficacy of the hiring process, Stolte has begun emphasizing attributes such as personality and desire to work with the public. “If they’re going to be a driver, they need to be excited about greeting people on the bus,” he says.

In addition, the training program has been reworked to focus on making new employees feel comfortable about being part of the operation. It also emphasizes that employees at ETS are “professionals” that deserve respect. This not only raises morale but also encourages employees to recommend friends for vacant positions at the agency.

ETS has also made it easier to apply for a job, adding an online application form and offering pre-employment interviews with training staff.

Stolte makes it a point to make sure that his staff is performing strongly and are praised for their successes. “When compliments are due, we need to pass them along,” he says. “We need to energize everybody in the organization.”

Get caught . . . reading
To promote the use of the transit system, ETS partnered with the Edmonton Public Library earlier this year in an ongoing program called “Get Caught Reading.” It targets adult riders that use their time on the bus or rail system to read. ETS deploys its “Get Caught Reading Reconnaissance Team” every third Wednesday of the month to reward readers with a prize pack containing things like a promotional T-shirt, a free membership to the library and a free book. “Also included in the pack is an invitation for readers to join our online club,” Stolte says. “This is under development and will include book club selections, invitations to special library and transit events, and personalized book lists.”

A recent “Get Caught Reading” day resulted in more than 100 giveaways to reading riders at four major transit centers. Stolte says the program, in addition to promoting the transit system, encourages adult literacy and valuable use of commuting time. It follows on the heels of another ETS program, “Read ‘n Ride,” held in October 2005 that promoted literacy through the giveaway of thousands of books to transit customers. “It was a huge success and convinced us and the project team that we were on to a good thing,” he says.

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