Transportation always a focus of discussion

The Chinook School Division’s transportation department had to deal with a lot of change during the past year.

Manager of Transportation and Facilities Kevin Jones provided details during the presentation of the transportation status report at the regular Chinook School Division board meeting, which took place via video conference on Dec. 14.

The provision of transportation services to schools were influenced by the COVID-19 pandemic, which resulted in the closure of schools in mid-March. As a result, no transportation services were provided to schools until the end of June.

“During this time frame, planning and new procedures needed to be developed that followed the Saskatchewan Health Authority directives and the Re-Open Chinook plan,” he said. “These new directives and procedures included disinfecting of surfaces and PPE for staff and students. These materials and supplies were procured during the remainder of the 2019-20 school year.”

He expressed his appreciation towards bus drivers, mechanics and the transportation team for their efforts to ensure transportation services were safe and ready for the reopening of the schools in September.

“The transportation department continues to look at efficiencies and ways of improving transportation for Chinook students,” he said.

Another change during the past year was the direct operation of a number of rural bus routes that were previously a contracted bus service.

“We had the opportunity to fully manage the operation of additional routes,” he said. “This includes equipment and staffing for six routes in Leader, one in Burstall, and one in Cabri. The transition involved placing equipment and new Chinook staff members in these locations with a number of logistical considerations for servicing the buses. We continue to look forward to work with the new Chinook employees, schools and parents to support this new transportation initiative.”

The 2019/20 transportation budget was $10,177,487. This included $4.8 million for salaries and benefits, $3.3 million for operations, and $1.7 million for amortization.

Six busses were sold for a total amount of $128,943 and 20 new buses were purchased at a cost of $1,524,386. The 2019-20 financial year was the fourth year of the busing solutions initiative to right size the bus fleet, which aims to reduce operating and maintenance costs with fewer breakdowns through the operation of a newer overall fleet.

The school division has ordered 10 new 29-passenger buses, and their expected delivery date is the fall of 2021.

“We have been successful at maintaining the bus fleet at 10 years old or newer,” he said. “We're currently at 6.8 years for the entire fleet. … In the 2019-20 year, the average route kilometers on our spare fleet are 236,622 kilometres. The kilometres on the spare fleet are proportional to the number of new buses purchased in a year.”

The main cost factors in the transportation budget are salaries, fuel and oil prices, and the cost of repairs and maintenance. The transportation budget was underspend by $1,172,477 by the end of August. The largest amount of underspending was $877,307 on fuel and oil. There was also $188,010 of underspending on repairs and maintenance.

There are currently 116 rural bus routes and 34 city routes. Rural buses drove an average of 24,891 kilometres per day in 2019-20, and during the same period the average daily route kilometres for urban buses were 1,072 kilometres.

Rural and urban buses are currently transporting a total of 3,275 students every day, consisting of 1,899 students on rural routes and 1,376 students on urban routes.

“About 60 per cent of all Chinook students are transported by bus daily,” Jones said.

The rural ridership has decreased 12 per cent (167 students) since 2012. The urban ridership has increased 37 per cent (344 students) since 2012. The main reason for the increase in urban ridership is the joint use bussing arrangement between the Chinook School Division and the Holy Trinity Catholic School Division.

The average age of the bus route fleet is five years old. The average age of the spare fleet is 11 years old.

“We continue to look at ways of reducing the age and mileage of the spare bus fleet,” he said. “We're seeing improvements in supporting this concern by finding operational solutions. These solutions include smaller buses. We can purchase more units due to the purchase price variances over the larger buses.”

The Chinook School Division is largely a rural school division and buses quickly acquire a lot of kilometres.

“We wear one bus out a month,” he said. “So every month we have to retire a bus. That's 12 buses a year. They get miled out 350,000 or so kilometres. Then we retire them and we sell them to auctions.”

The buses that have done between 200,000 and 350,000 kilometres are used in the spare fleet, and the buses with less than 200,000 kilometres on the odometer are kept in the regular route fleet.

“The other piece too, what we're finding in the busing world is it's a little different than the automotive sector,” he said. “Parts become unavailable once they get to be 12 or 13 years old. The manufacturers just quit making the parts as well for a lot of the components on the buses. So that's another concern.”

The school division spent $928,866 on bus maintenance to repair buses during the 2019-20 financial year. The transportation department is servicing an additional 23 city and seven rural route buses, because the school division has taken over the urban route fleet in the city during the last three years and it also assumed seven rural bus routes during the last year.

The school division’s human resources department held recruitment fairs in recent years that were a useful way to recruit bus drivers. There is currently a shortage of spare drivers in Consul, Ponteix, Vanguard, Shaunavon, Eastend and Leader.

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