Students and community members riding the Trent Express bus service over the past two months will have undoubtedly noticed some changes. While some are relatively minor and some more significant, these changes were brought in by the Trent Central Student Association, the undergraduate student union that operates the service, in an attempt to improve a service that was considered to be a hot-button issue among students last year.
The Trent Central Student Association (TCSA) is now in its second year of running the Trent Express having officially taken it over from the university administration in the spring of 2011. At the time, the take-over was billed by the union as a way to increase both the accountability and efficiency of the service as it was brought to light that the university administration taking a 6.6% “administration fee” from the transit levy and using it as general revenue.
Last year earned the TCSA somewhat of a mixed response for its new transit portfolio. The union scored a major victory within a month of taking over the service as it negotiated an extension of students transit passes over the summer (previously students had to pay an additional fee for a summer bus pass), however, the addition of the DNA Building stop along the East Bank route ended up becoming a controversial issue during the year. The stop, which was mandated by the municipality to address accessibility concerns, extended the East Bank bus runs from 20 minutes to 25 minutes and left many student riders frustrated.
As a response to the concerns voiced by students during the 2011/2012 year, the union conducted an extensive Transit Survey and used results to devise changes that could bring the service more in line with the student need. Speaking on Wednesday from the TCSA office Tracy Milne, the TCSA’s Operations Manager, stressed that the changes to the Trent Express can be seen as the TCSA’s response to the various concerns. For example, because of the backlash that arose from last year’s East Bank situation, the union viewed it as a priority to get both bus routes back on an even 20 minute run.
Other minor changes were also enacted to better reflect the university and student presence within the downtown. The union changed the name of the “Rubidge at Dublin” stop on the West Bank Route to the more university-specific “Traill College.” Furthermore, it approved a request from the P.R. Student and Community Association to move the “George St. at Parkhill” stop from the front the privately-owned Peter Robinson Townhouses to the doorstep of Sadleir House student and community centre. That stop was renamed “George St. at Sadleir House.”
By far the most notable change, however, has been the union’s transition from a twenty minute bus schedule to a ten minute schedule between 7am and 7pm. Although each bus run still takes twenty minutes, the move has cut in half the time students have to wait for Trent Express buses during the peak class hours.
Milne explains that this decision actually came about as the result of the union discovering inefficiencies within the existing system and redeploying the buses in a more effective manner. “We found out that there was about 54 [bus] runs in a day and only about 30 were being shown on our sheet,” she says. “So we had all these buses doubling up [on runs] so we though why not spread it out and have more service?” Because of this redistribution, the shift to a ten minute frequency only ended up costing an extra $8000, roughly 1% of the union’s overall transit budget.
Even so, the transition has not been entirely smooth and Ms. Milne admits that the TCSA was forced to add extra buses for the morning runs early in the semester to accommodate the demand and ensure that students were not being left behind at the stops. Nonetheless, she notes that the runs have since been adjusted and the association has not heard recent complaints about students not being able to access the bus service.
In addition to these changes, the union is announcing that it has negotiated a $60,000 annual transit savings through a new agreement with the university administration regarding campus snow removal. Previously, the entire $120,000 expense for removing snow from Symons Campus was designated as a transit expense and when the Trent Express service was transferred from the administration to the TCSA, so too was that cost. Under the new agreement the university administration and the union will share this cost, each paying roughly $60,000.
TCSA President Brea Hutchinson says that this agreement will see a distribution of the cost that is more fair for students. “Snow removal would still happen on campus if there were no [Trent Express] buses running, so why should [students] be charged the full amount?” she questioned. “The administration agreed with us on that.”
The money saved will mean that the Trent Express service will remain sustainable in its current form as the savings coincide with the end of an annual university transfer which represented roughly the same amount. Tracy Milne did mention that the union will be forced to increase the transit levy in the coming years to cover costs but noted that it is possible for the union to increase the levy by 3% without going to a student referendum.
Looking to the future, Milne mentioned that for next year (2013/2014) the union is planning to continue to tweak the routes and schedules to ensure accessibility and safety. The Zoo Plane bus stop on the West Bank route has already been identified as unsafe and will be removed in September. The TCSA will also be re-evaluating the cost-effectiveness of running buses every ten minutes between 6pm and 7pm on weeknights. Hutchinson cited lower than expected demand and said that it could be a way for the union to save on operating expenses. More details will be released in the coming months.