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February 27, 2012 / mike54martin

OC Transpo Getting Back on Track

My thoughts on the changes at Ottawa’s public transit service plus suggestions for the new boss to improve labour relations and customer service.


The sudden departure of Alain Mercier as the head of OC Transpo is welcome news but by no means a panacea to the troubles of our public transit service. Labour strife swirls above its head like the sword of Damocles. And we have the unsightly views of one bus driver yelling obscenities and another singing his way beautifully but almost out of a job. Almost everybody is wondering what the heck is going on at OC Transpo.

But even with all this background noise it is important to note at the outset that we have a good transit system for a city of our size. The buses and transit stations are relatively safe and clean, the buses are well-maintained, mostly on-time and with a very few exceptions are staffed by courteous and polite operators. There is a well-spring of support for our transit system and almost everybody in the city wants to make it work.

OC Transpo is a system that is strained but not broken. It works. It has some serious problems including a tense labour relations situation. But now at least it has one of the perceived barriers to fixing some of these problems out of the way. Alain Mercier as the general manager of OC Transpo certainly deserves some of the blame for the bitterness of the dialogue between drivers and management. But it also must be remembered that he inherited an LR mess at OC Transpo which has been toxic and fatal in the past. He also followed the direction of ex-Mayor Larry O’Brien who seemed to want to apply his macho tendencies to employee and union relations. And we all know how well that worked out.

Thankfully there is a new sheriff in town at City Hall and now at least an interim new head at OC Transpo. This should mean that things get better in labour relations, if only because it’s hard to see how they can get worse. But unless a few steps are taken even that is possible. The first step that John Manconi should make is to call the unions, especially ATU, the bus driver’s bargaining agent and schedule a get to know the issues meeting. The second thing that he should do is to write a quick memo to all staff saying that he is new on the job, he’s going to take some time to figure out the issues, and that he respects and supports the people under him to do a good job.

There are many more things that he needs to do, including putting some space between him and Alain Mercier’s regime, but starting off on the right foot with the staff and unions is crucial. As he is going through his review at OC Transpo I would also encourage him to take advantage of some of the resources that are available in the community to assist him in dealing with his staff and unions. One suggestion that I would offer is to set up a labour relations advisory committee made up of former management and union representatives who live inOttawaand can make suggestions and offer him and his team advice on how to improve labour relations at the company.

The other major challenge facing Mr. Manconi is one of public confidence in the transit system. Even though there have been only a few isolated problems that have surfaced there have been enough to get people, both drivers and passengers a little irritated and cranky. That is not to undermine or defer any attention from the real cases of violence against drivers or abuse by some operators, but I do think that the volume has been turned up pretty high and needs to be lowered. Mr. Manconi could do this by setting up a Transit Users Council that consists of representatives from the commuting public (not “experts”, in fact one criteria might be that you have a monthly bus pass), the bus drivers union, and OC Transpo management as a neutral chair. They could advise OC Transpo on a new rider/driver protocol and other ways to improve and enhance services, as well as being a place where both riders and drivers could take personal complaints.

The other change that needs to happen at OC Transpo is to look at making the service a real hands-off crown corporation of the City ofOttawa. There are just too many political hands trying to grab the OC Transpo football and run with it in too many directions. Set up a permanent Transit Board and let it focus on running an efficient and effective transit service. There can be a direct liaison with Council but leave the management, both day to day, and long term planning to transit experts. There may be some growing pains as Councillors are weaned from the transit trough but in the long term we will get the transit system we deserve inOttawa.

One final thought about OC Transpo is that this is that the firing of Alain Mercier is a wake up call for all OC Transpo employees, especially the union leadership, that the ownership has had enough with the chaos at the bus company. This is just like a hockey team that has fired its coach or general manager to send a message to the players that it’s time to up their game. The time is now for improvements in both labour relations and overall operations at OC Transpo. Let’s hope all of the players can get on board.

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