OmniRide Continues to Roll on Despite the Punches

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By Wendy Migdal

Like just about everyone else, OmniRide has had its share of ups and downs lately, but one direction it has never gone is backward. Here are some forward-looking developments.

OmniRide (and everyone else along the I-66 corridor) is thrilled about the new express lanes that have opened and run in both directions. Not only that, the new commuter lot at Balls Ford and I-66 has also opened and has its own ramp to the express lanes. “It’s been a total game changer. In the past, even I-66 eastbound at 2 in the afternoon would be completely gridlocked. Now, we’re moving steadily through there and it’s certainly going to improve reliability,” says Perrin Palistrant, Director of Operations and Operations Planning at OmniRide.

Labor Shortage

Reliability has been a key focus lately, because again, like the rest of the nation, OmniRide has been faced with a significant labor shortage. “During the pandemic, many people re-evaluated their lives, and some didn’t want to keep doing the same thing,” says Palistrant.  That, combined with retirement losses and the lure of other delivery jobs such as those offered by Amazon, meant that OmniRide has had a difficult time keeping and hiring bus operators and maintenance staff.

Even though wages and benefits at OmniRide equal and may even exceed those offered by other local transit systems and delivery services, driving a bus is not an easy job, says Palistrant. In addition to dealing with heavy traffic and occasionally difficult customers, operators have to maintain 100% focus on their job at all times. “There are stringent federal regulations that have to be followed. There’s no listening to music, no cell phones while they’re working. They have to be focused on operating the bus, listening to their dispatcher and paying attention to the monitoring system on board the vehicle at all times.”

OmniRide has addressed the labor shortage using a multipronged approach. They’ve increased their recruiting efforts, and now hire people who initially don’t have their CDL license. A training course takes anywhere from 6–10 weeks.  “Right now, we have people who are about to complete training, others who are in the middle of it, and a class that’s about to start,” says Palistrant, who is cautiously optimistic that things are now on the upswing. “But we also know that on average, only one out of two people who start training will actually complete it. Some decide it’s too hard, and others have another job offer come through that they had previously applied for.”

Palistrant feels that it’s very important for current and potential operators to understand how important their job is and to feel appreciated. “Our drivers take people to work, to school. They’re an essential part of the community and the economy of the Prince William area.” OmniRide shows staff appreciation in a variety of ways, including lunches, gifts, and quiet rooms where operators can rest between morning and evening shifts.

 Changes to Commuter Express Routes

Operator shortage has resulted in some important changes to the commuter express routes. After a point in mid-November when many trips failed to materialize due to staffing shortages, OmniRide made the expedient decision to sacrifice the number of trips in favor of reliability.

So OmniRide cut back their express service routes and operate from the Pentagon, “where about half of our riders worked anyway,” says Palistrant. The other half would be required to either take Metrorail or a Metro shuttle into the city. After multi-weekly conversations with operations staff, beginning Dec. 5, the first route to be reinstated into DC was the Dale City-Pentagon-Navy Yard route, said Palistrant. Each week, OmniRide re-evaluated the situation and was able to gradually re-establish routes. Leadership felt it was best to “go slowly and diligently and make sure we had the resources in place.”

Palistrant acknowledges that they may not be able to get back to the good old days but hopes that they can soon offer the same routes, maybe with slightly less frequency. “As long as it’s reliable and on time, people can plan around that,” he says, adding that you never want to promise something you can’t deliver.

He further explains that solutions that seem “obvious” to the public aren’t always possible to put in place. A common suggestion is to run all the same routes, but only every other trip. During a shift, Express operators drive multiple trips, which may be on different routes. Their trips are paired together based on start and end times. To run every other trip on a route would require the trip pairings to be completely revised and operators being required to drive routes they are not trained for. Operators, whose employment is managed by the contracting firm Keolis North America, are unionized and earn the right to bid on certain routes based on seniority. This means that operators can’t be randomly required to drive different routes on a whim.

At the same time, changes in ridership make new things possible. “We’re looking at the possibility of running a route back from DC in late morning, for example,” says Palistrant, who points out that those return commuter trips in the morning had no riders and were known as “deadhead” trips. Now, someone who only needs to go into the city for an early morning meeting may be able to take OmniRide back later in the morning. This would also open up possibilities for the general public to take the bus in just for a museum visit, for example. Just like the door-and-window expression, sometimes one route closing means another one opens.


Wendy Migdal is a freelance writer who has lived in the Northern/Central Virginia area since 2000. She has written extensively for The Free Lance-Star and also works for online educational companies. Wendy enjoys traveling around the area to learn about parks, restaurants, attractions, and especially history.





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