Lack of bus drivers means the Redbird Express shuttle to Cardinals games is cancelled
Metro East residents who are used to taking the Redbird Express shuttle to and from St. Louis for Cardinals baseball games will have to find another way to get there.
“We contract this out to Metro Transit of St. Louis to provide the service,” Sharkey said. “What happened is Metro St. Louis has a big shortage of bus drivers. Commercial Driver’s Licenses are in short supply nationwide and in our region. I made an inquiry to Metro early on to see if they could or could not service Redbird Express and they informed us they were unable to do so.”
Sharkey is unsure when the service will resume — if ever.
“I would say for the 2022 season, I don’t see it being revived,” he said. “Metro at some point in time when they get their bus drivers hired up, they may put the service back up. As soon as they can get staffed — they have plenty of buses — we’ll have to take a look at it. But for now there doesn’t appear to be an end in sight.”
While disappointed, Sharkey said he prefers an outright cancellation to sporadic, ineffective service.
“The worst thing would be to attempt to put out a service and have a lot of operational problems with customers being upset over sporadic service,” said Sharkey, noting Metro Transit has not cut any other St. Clair County or Illinois transit routes. “The worst thing would be to try it and then customers have a bad experience. And I think people understand the manpower shortage.”
Redbird Express took riders to Busch Stadium from St. Clair Square mall in Fairview Heights and then back after the game. Sharkey guesstimated the shuttle service began in the 1980s.
He noted, on average, 1,350 people per day used the service. For more prominent games, such as the Cardinals home opener or a series against the rival Chicago Cubs, he estimated Redbird Express exceeded 2,000 riders.
“There are very few days it would fall below 1,000 people,” Sharkey said. “It’s unfortunate people can’t enjoy that. It was a very popular service.”
One interesting data point Sharkey cited is that about 60% of people who used Redbird Express live outside St. Clair County.
“We get people from Kentucky, Carbondale, Peoria, Mount Vernon, Herrin ... some from South St. Louis,” Sharkey said. “I’ve kind of always wondered why people traveled so far to come to a Cardinal game but did not drive the extra 20 minutes to get there. I guess a lot of people prefer not to park downtown for whatever reason. It is basically a tourist event and does kind of support tourism because people will go shopping and do other things.
“Even though St. Clair County residents are not the majority of people who ride the bus, they do miss it.”
Will Redbird Express return?
Sharkey explained Redbird Express is an extra service, and not an essential one, which basically means it gets cut before a more necessary service. Thus, for an extra service such as this, he estimated an additional 30-35 bus operators would be needed.
“It’s a sign-up service and most of the service is a voluntary sign-up,” Sharkey said. “Most of the operators liked the overtime. They’re getting squeezed as well. Some of them did pretty well by signing up and doing the Redbird Express. They just seemed to enjoy it.”
Sharkey said Metro Transit is aggressively trying to recruit for CDL drivers, offering incentives such as hiring bonuses. If Metro can bolster staff, the chances of Redbird Express certainly improve.
“The skilled work force is in pretty high demand,” Sharkey said. “Metro Transit has a big outreach. For anyone interested in becoming a Metro bus driver, they should turn in an application.”
Fleet shift for St. Clair County Transit District
Looking ahead, Sharkey said St. Clair County Transit District has been migrating toward 30-foot buses that only seat 23 people rather than the 40-foot buses that seat 37-41 people. This shift also could impact the future of Redbird Express.
“We would need the right-sizing fleet for the entire service for 81 days a year for the baseball season,” he said. “It’s a smaller, lighter-weight bus that is more fuel efficient. If the service gets back in the swing in the future, perhaps you can only carry X amount of people and that’s it. We don’t want to do a bad service.”
Whether Redbird Express returns or not, Sharkey praised Metro Transit for providing the service.
“It’s a challenge. Metro really did a good job,” he said. “But it’s no easy task, especially getting people back on time.”
For Redbird Express Service updates, visit scctd.org or call 618-628-8090.
Garen Vartanian is a reporter with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.