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Calls for transit safety come as assaults surge on buses

WINNIPEG (CityNews) – Transit safety is in the spotlight in Winnipeg after a woman in her 70’s was stabbed on a bus.

Even though police have arrested a 43-year-old man in that incident, the union that represents bus drivers says more needs to be done to make riding transit buses safer for all.

“We do need the city to step up and we do need the province to step up,” said Romeo Ignacio, president of ATU 1505.

Data provided to CityNews by the ATU local 1505 indicates that 2021 is on pace to surpass the previous year when it comes to assaults on bus drivers specifically, with the data showing a number of disturbing instances happening on transit buses like verbal threats and attacks on drivers.

This past summer, there were instances where operators were spat on, punched and threatened with a weapon and two instances where someone was able to grab the steering wheel of the bus.

“Right now, the shields are barely enough to prevent major injuries, but still, we’ve had at least half a dozen or so occasions where our operators have been attacked by members of the public, who have reached into the driver’s compartment, you know, around the shield,” explained Ignacio.

In 2020, there were roughly 80 recorded assaults on bus drivers and in 2021 up until August, there have been a reported 59 assaults.

The ATU says more needs to be done, and is calling on the city’s Transit Advisory Committee to support its calls for a transit police force and a real-time app where drivers can report, and track, instances of assault.

“If the trend goes, we’ll probably hit 80 or 90 this year.”

Ignacio says bus drivers are individuals who love and care about their community but says the constant worry of danger does take its toll.

“There’s actually a lot of our members who are off work because of mental health. It’s hard enough to deal with the traffic and sometimes the angry passengers when you are running late, it’s even more difficult to deal with situations like this.”

CityNews requested an interview with a representative from the City of Winnipeg to respond to concerns outlined by the ATU, but the request was not accommodated. Instead, a statement from the city indicated the safety of its operators, passengers and employees is “top priority.”

“All of our bus operators are trained on how to handle various emergency situations. In the event of an emergency, bus operators immediately alert Transit Central Control and the appropriate responder is notified. We also launched a new pilot project in June involving 50 buses that will allow live camera feeds to stream directly into the Control Centre in the event of an emergency,” reads the statement.

The city also notes it has created a transit advisory committee to examine the issues and has spent roughly $8 million on initiatives to make the system safer, including expanding audio and video surveillance and bringing onboard more transit inspectors.

However, for the ATU 615, they still say more needs to be done, as they too want to see both passengers and drivers safe when travelling on the bus. Romeo Ignacio says while they’re still confident to say overall the system is a safe one, it’s a question he says that’s becoming more difficult to answer.