Thousands of commuters in Montreal are being affected by a major bus shortage and maintenance workers are causing the problem on purpose, according to the city’s public transit managers who testified before a Quebec Labour Tribunal on Thursday.
The Société de transport de Montréal (STM) management is trying to convince a judge that maintenance workers are working too slowly on purpose as an illegal union pressure tactic.
“The productivity is just not there,” Luc Mercier, the head of the STM’s maintenance centres told the tribunal. Mercier described the lack of available buses as “not normal” even when taking bad winter weather into account.
Mercier said at one point this month, the number of buses on the road during rush hour dipped to 1,270. A total of 1,424 need to be in circulation for buses to run on time. The STM has a fleet of about 1,800.
STM superintendent Sylvain St-Denis said 430,000 customers were affected by the bus shortage in the first five weeks of 2019 alone. He claims the problem has been growing steadily worse since 2018.
“I’ve never seen a trend like that over the course of a year,” said St-Denis, an STM employee for over 20 years.
Commuters have been dealing with late and overcrowded buses consistently, according to St-Denis.
Sylvia Morin, an STM superintendent who dispatches inspectors, described chaotic morning rush scenes at certain Metro stations as commuters tried to cram into packed buses.
“On the bus network, I’ve never seen it like this,” said Morin, adding usually her attention is directed toward the Metro.
WATCH: Hundreds of STM buses off the road
Mercier said on multiple occasions when labour relations went sour, work at maintenance centres slowed down. He said usually maintenance on a bus should take about 30 hours, but these days it’s taking 34.
The STM maintenance workers’ union blamed that on a lack of preventive maintenance.
“It’s been two years we didn’t do any preventive maintenance, that’s why we’re here today,” said union vice president Bruno Pierre Gauthier after the hearing wrapped up for the day.
“They didn’t hire mechanics the past four years. They just started hiring some last year. We have maybe 30 new mechanics and we have 32 retiring. So we’re even and we have more buses than before.”
Étienne Poitras, the lawyer representing the maintenance workers’ union, cross-examined each of the witnesses. He presented other possible reasons for the bus shortage, including bad winter weather, part shortages and training issues.
STM management argued all those issues were present well before the current bus shortage.
The union said weather conditions were a big issue this year.
“It’s just the weather,” said Gauthier, adding the union would have preferred to have been negotiating. “Just think of your car during this time.”
The rate of incapacitated buses has risen to about 30 per cent this winter. The STM’S goal is for a maximum of 23 per cent of buses to be out of commission in the winter.
The hearing continues on Friday, when the union will bring forth its own witnesses.
Judge Alain Turcotte promised to render a decision next week. If he rules the union did engage in illegal pressure tactics, they will be asked to stop.