King County Metro Transit riders are coping with sudden trip delays and cancellations because of an operator shortage, blamed mostly on the coronavirus outbreak.
Metro has missed a total 516 runs this workweek, as of midday Thursday. The agency normally provides 11,000 one-way bus runs per day, by 2,800 employees.
Many are staying home because they’re exposed to or ill with COVID-19, caring for family members, or taking leave as a precaution.
“We are operating between 98 and 99% of the routes, even with the conditions we’re in,” Metro spokesperson Al Sanders said.
“We’re also sending more transit alerts and tweets than we did in the past,” Sanders said. “Previously we generally only shared these alerts on less-frequent routes, however now we are sending them for all cancellations, to help riders better plan their trip.”
In general, Metro is trimming trips from frequent-use routes, rather than leaving more-sparsely populated neighborhoods stranded.
The worst periods were 180 trips missed Monday morning, 65 on Tuesday morning, 67 on Wednesday morning and 126 on Thursday morning.
“It’s tougher to get someone to fill in at 4 or 5 in the morning, than at 1 or 2 in the afternoon,” Sanders explained. Metro keeps substitute bus operators at each base to assure near 100% service, but even those have run low.
For example, two Sound Transit 545 bus runs operated by Metro, from Redmond to downtown Seattle, and one return trip to Redmond were canceled Thursday morning. On the RapidRide C Line, two trips were canceled from West Seattle to downtown, and one return trip canceled, according to emailed alerts.
Sound Transit previously announced that this week, peak-hour frequency for Link light rail, which normally arrives every seven or eight minutes, would be cut to 12-minute frequency because not enough trained rail operators were available.
These cutbacks would ordinarily cause crowding, but Metro bus ridership is only about 32% of pre-COVID use, which hovered around 400,000 passengers per weekday.
Metro suggests these tools to stay informed:
- Sign up for transit alerts, where people can select their favorite routes to get an alert by text or email.
- Use the Next Departures function on the Puget Sound Trip Planner webpage or the phone app.
- Send a text to 62550 and enter the number printed on your bus stop’s marker pole or shelter to find route updates.
The sudden canceled trips confused some longtime customers, such as Phyllis Hatfield, who normally takes the 79, 49 or 45 route in North Seattle.
“Instead of saying, ‘Sorry for the inconvenience,’ why don’t they say a simple sentence: ‘We have a shortage of operators?'” said Hatfield, a retired book editor currently quarantined at home as a precaution.
Sanders replied that although COVID-19 explains the overall driver shortage, it would be inaccurate to pinpoint that as the culprit for any particular missed bus trip.