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.”
Like many other agencies out there, Whistler Transit has recently changed its hiring philosophy. It has looked at a behavioral-based hiring process, hiring applicants that have the behavioral mindset to be a successful operator, as opposed to just hiring for a driver.
Walchuk explains, “We have changed our hiring standards a little bit, looking for a customer service aspect. Being able to actually hire that person even if they don’t have a license and then training them, sending them for their license.” He mentions they just changed to this philosophy within the last six months.
“There are a lot of people out there that have excellent customer service and if given the chance to be a driver then they would excel.” He adds, “You can train the driving a lot easier than the customer service. Plus, if you’re not a driver, you don’t bring bad habits.” He emphasizes, “We can teach all the good stuff.
I ask Walchuk how the agency is able to maintain consistency with the varying driver schedule. “We train a driver trainer as one of our drivers so he is our core trainer for our group.” The core trainer puts new hires through a three-week driver training course and, he says, maintains training for returning drivers. “Once they return, we always put them through a day or two refresher.” He says, “We do the professional driver improvement course as well as defensive driving. If they’ve never driven transit, it is important that we get them on the routes, learning the routes and learning the timing to make sure that the timing is accurate.”
Getting Ready for Today and Tomorrow
Whistler/Squamish Transit is a management company that operates the transit for BC transit in the resort municipality of Whistler and Squamish. Whistler Transit has been in operation for 15 years now and the system has grown from six buses to its current fleet of 31 in Whistler. In Squamish it runs a smaller conventional service of three buses and paratransit operations.
The buses are owned by BC Transit, Whistler/Squamish Transit operates and maintains them for BC Transit. “We do all the maintenance, we run a full-time shop in our facility here with eight full-time mechanics.” He also explains, “The cost of the system is split between funding from the government, as well as BC Transit and the municipalities themselves.”
Whistler Transit runs on biodiesel and Walchuk says Whistler will be awarded the first hydrogen buses. “In the next 16 months we will be receiving 20 brand-new hydrogen fuel cell buses from BC Transit.” He tells me New Flyer is building the new buses. “The first one is being built as we speak and we should see it this August for trial runs and the rest of the fleet will be delivered October of 2009 for the winter season and for the Olympics.”
Walchuk says there is talk of an additional 100 to 120 transit buses in the area for the Olympics themselves. “We’re currently waiting for the RFP to run the additional buses that will be coming in for the transit system.” He continues, “There is talk of an additional 100 to 120 transit buses for the Olympics themselves, they may not be a part of our transit management plan.
“What I mean by that, we won’t necessarily be running them, there may be a different company that gets the bid for that. Our facility right now can’t handle that many buses,” he says.
“It will be running in our area, so we will definitely be doing schedules and working with them or getting information to them that they may need. For the Olympics you will just see buses 24-7 on the road.”
There will also be possible mobile fueling stations, as well as staging areas for buses in Squamish. “VANOC, the Vancouver Olympic Committee, they’re the ones that are in charge of doing the RFPs for that and organizing that,” explains Walchuk. “They’re basically going to organize the system, the buses that they want so we just need to work around what they want.”
Another important component is security. BC Transit was awarded some funding from the provincial government for the program Transit Secure. “They’ve hired a consultant team to go around on all the properties to assess and make recommendations for everyday security,” says Walchuk. “But for us, it will be for the Olympics as well.” He stresses, “Security will, of course, be a big issue.”