US transit systems hit by worker shortages

People wear face masks on the Subway in Manhattan in New York City, on Nov 29, 2021. [Photo/Agencies]

Across the United States, public transportation systems are suffering staff crunches with numerous unfilled job openings as the country reopens and people start returning to work.

In Houston, the city's Metro public transportation system has posted more than 70 job openings in the past month. It is offering generous incentives to attract new bus drivers and mechanics.

In St. Louis, a shortage of 150 personnel forced Metro Transit to reduce its services at the end of November. The agency is offering a $2,000 hiring bonus to fill vacant positions, most of them for bus operators.

And in New York City, the nation's biggest public mass transit system has offered retired subway workers up to $35,000 to return to run subway cars for three months, but there have been few takers. More than 600 positions remain unfilled.

Public transit systems in other US cities are in the same fix. Personnel shortages have forced them to drop services, sharply curtail it and/or offer financial incentives to attract workers.

The pandemic lockdown at first greatly drove down demand for public transportation, but as more businesses across the country have reopened and people return to work, mass transit systems are struggling to find workers.

'Begging for employees'

However, Taulby Roach, president and CEO of Bi-State Development, which oversees the region's public transit agency, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that the Metro has "never had a circumstance where we were literally begging for employees".

In October, more than 14,000 trips on the subway system were either canceled or delayed due to crew shortages.

In Detroit, the city's transportation department suspended three bus routes and reduced the service frequency for 17 bus routes in November, reported the Detroit Free Press.

The agency is short of about 90 drivers, and ridership is down by about 50 percent compared with the pre-pandemic year, said Mikel Oglesby, executive director of the system.

As a result, service has suffered. Oglesby said that about 20 percent of all bus service were missed, and the buses showed up randomly.

Worker shortages go beyond city transit systems.

Amtrak, which serves more than 500 destinations in 46 states and three Canadian provinces, is short of 10 percent of train engineers and conductors, and is hiring 200 people to fill openings, said spokesman Jason Abrams to the Times.

On the website of nationwide bus company Megabus, there are listings for more than 500 open positions for bus drivers.

Daniel, who requested that his last name not to be used, is a sophomore at the University of Texas at Austin. He had an unpleasant surprise when he was looking to purchase a Megabus ticket back home to Houston for Thanksgiving.

He regularly relied on Megabus for trips between Houston and Austin before the pandemic. Then, he normally paid $16 for a one-way ticket. Occasionally, he would find a bargain ticket for under $10.

However, that changed when he went back to school this fall after a gap year due to the pandemic. The regular fare has more than doubled to more than $40, and bargain tickets are priced at $29.99.

"I used to take a weekend trip home on a whim without giving much thought about the fare cost," said Daniel in an interview with China Daily. "Not anymore."

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