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Kids 'packed like sardines'

District cuts to bus service force students to crowd into city transit

Posted: September 24, 2009 10:57 p.m.
Updated: September 25, 2009 4:55 a.m.

West Ranch High School students make their way inside the packed 636 Castaic Transit Bus after school on Wednesday. This school year shows an increase of students using public transportation to and from school.

 
West Ranch High School students who take Route 636 after school every day call it the "worm bus" - a 60-foot-long vehicle hinged in the middle so it can inch around corners.

But West Ranch campus supervisor Yuleth Beatty says the giant bus resembles something entirely different after students have crammed inside.

"They're packed like sardines," she says.

"It's very squished," agreed 17-year-old Alfredo Vasquez, a West Ranch senior who boards Route 636 every day to get to work at the mall. "We have too much body heat."

As the students and their backpacks and binders cram into the Castaic-bound bus, Vasquez says he'll watch students push each other to make room.

"People get on each other's nerves."

Beatty and two other campus supervisors monitor the lines to make sure kids get on.

"Keep moving!" they order as the bus fills up.

Beatty, who watches her son board Route 636 three times a week, says the process is frustrating.

A busy stop
The West Ranch bus stop is among the busier bus stops that serve students.

This year, students and school officials have watched the number of riders increase, said Pat Willett, spokeswoman for the William S. Hart Union High School District.

Students living in Castaic are split between West Ranch and Valencia high schools.

"We don't provide yellow bus transportation to Castaic," she said.

The influx of students to West Ranch, along with crowded city buses, will most likely continue next year, she said.

City buses has seen a significant increase in ridership since school started, said Adrian Aguilar, Santa Clarita's interim transit coordinator.

During the first two weeks of the school year beginning in August, the city saw a 17 percent jump in ridership.

"A lot of it has to do with reductions of services," Aguilar said, attributing the increase to local school districts' decisions to reduce or do away with bus service for students.

Over the summer, districts like Sulphur Springs and Saugus Union school districts slashed bus service to deal with state budget cuts.
The city currently offers 19 school day routes, Aguilar said.

Safety concerns
With so many kids crowded into the bus, Beatty worries about the safety of all the students - especially if the bus driver were to slam the brakes.

"Safety should be their main priority," she said.

Harper agreed and pointed to the crowd of about seven students who stand in the doorway and huddle together to allow the double doors to close.

"It's dangerous," she said. "Kids are against the door."

Aguilar said city buses are designed and rated to accommodate standing passengers.

"All the vehicles are equipped with grab rails," he said. "It's not like people are just hanging onto each other for security."

While the ideal situation would be to have a seat for every single person on the bus, Aguilar said it would expensive and impractical considering the routes run less than three or four miles.

As for adding more buses, Aguilar said the city dispatches four buses to serve Rancho Pico Junior and West Ranch high schools.
Only one bus is available for Castaic-bound students.

"Right now we don't have any plans to add additional buses," he said. "We don't really have the additional fleet capacity."

Even though the city anticipates a new delivery of buses during the first part of next year, Aguilar said that doesn't mean more of them will be running. Many of the new buses will replace older vehicles.

Working with districts
To meet the demand from students, the city has taken advantage of other options, like using 60-foot buses - 20 feet longer than standard ones.

Those buses can accommodate 60 sitting and 30 standing, Aguilar said, in comparison to standard buses' 42 passengers sitting and 25 standing.

The city makes an effort to coordinate routes and schedules with local school districts so that the buses can serve students coming to and leaving school, he said.

Still, city transit was never meant to be a substitute for school buses, he said.

"The city does not provide school transportation services," Aguilar said. "That is not our role. We don't pretend to be a yellow bus."

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