Two hours from Vancouver along scenic Highway 99, Whistler is a tourist hotspot for skiing. With more than 200 ski runs, the longest ski season in Canada and the largest ski area in North America, Whistler and Blackcomb mountains are the biggest attractions in the area and they will be attracting the world as the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games come to the area.
Kevin Walchuk, manager of Whistler Transit Ltd., operator of Whistler and Valley Express Transit System (WAVE) says of the area, “It’s a great little community, a small place with only about 12,000 permanent residents that live here.” Having an influx of tourists creates problems for many agencies. Adding skis, poles and snowboards, along with all the riders on a bus, it adds additional challenges for the agency.
Running in Tourist Town
With 90 percent of his ridership being tourists on vacation, Walchuk says with a laugh, “If you’ve ever gone on vacation, I’m sure you know that tourists do have a high expectation.” He adds, “Not to mention the fact that most of the people that are getting on our buses have snowboards and are wearing ski boots and have their skis and ski poles, so passenger boarding and alighting does take a little more time than usual. So, a flexible schedule has to be in place, but at the same time it’s still a schedule that has to be met.”
During the winter season Whistler Transit has ski racks on the sides of its Orion and Denison buses. They bolt directly on the sides of the buses and Whistler just received brand new ones which now allow larger skis to fit on. “I don’t know if you’re a skier or not,” Walchuk asks me, “but skis have gotten wider so now we can fit all the skis on the sides of the bus.” He mentions that the skis fit on the sides, snowboards and ski poles go inside the bus.
Scheduling drivers is another challenge of a heavy tourist season. “We have four distinct seasons in Whistler, summer, spring, fall and winter. The summer, spring, and fall, schedules run pretty much the same with minor variations being closer to winter,” Walchuk says. “We have a winter ramp up, we start increasing a little bit of service once people start arriving in Whistler and then we have at the end of winter season, early spring, we have a ramp down because people are still here, but they’re starting to leave.” As he explains, it’s a modified winter season during those times.
During the winter season, it runs at nearly 24-hour service. Not only its drivers, it also counts on schduling software. “Our schedules can be a little confusing at times, they get quite large,” says Walchuk. “We’re pretty much 15-minute service throughout the winter season on everything.” He adds, “During the winter we are only off the road about 37 minutes a day, so we are almost a 24-hour service.”
“We usually run about 70 drivers during the winter and then go down to about 40 in the off-season,” says Walchuk. Regarding the winter drivers, Walchuk says they typically return each year. “They know when they’re first hired that we have our core drivers that are full-time year round. The lower-in-seniority drivers know that once winter season is over, they have to set something else up for themselves for a job.
“In Whistler getting a job is not hard.” He says with a laugh, “On a weekly basis there are nine pages of job opportunities in our local papers.”
Although with the Olympic Games coming, having enough drivers is a concern. “I find it to be a big problem,” Walchuk explains. “It is something I am currently trying to work on as much as I can, especially with the 2010 games coming very shortly. I’m going to need as many operators as I can get. We’re finding it difficult. People aren’t applying, there aren’t drivers out there that aren’t working.” He adds with a laugh, “Everybody’s working out there.”