Thursday, January 12, 2017
Sometime early last fall, I warned my wife the upcoming winter months would be active and cold. She asked what led to my prediction. "We're just due for one," I replied. Rarely have I been this accurate in my forecast.
Evidently, Mother Nature heard me. Several times beginning prior to the winter solstice until this week, the Portland area has seen snow flurries. Sometimes it stuck, other times it just swirled around. Ominously. As if to say, "You ain't seen nothin' yet." (She can be brutal, but her grammar sucks.)
A few weeks ago, she gave us a tease. A dusting, perhaps an inch or two in some places. Next came freezing rain, providing local traffic with an icy sheen to every roadway. Then she just blew cold wind at us and teased us with days of sunshine. Brittle cold sunshine. (Okay, for people from icier climates, please mute your chuckling. Portland is a very mild, if not extremely wet, climate zone. Our winter weather normally consists of temps between 35-45, with rain. "Sun breaks" are rare and welcome.) Our lows on a few occasions dipped well into the teens, with highs struggling to rise above freezing. Wind chills added to the misery, especially close to the Columbia Gorge, where sustained winds can average 30-40 mph with gusts over 50-60 mph. I nearly cleaned out my coat closet adding layers to my uniform, dress code be damned.
Maybe I was wrong, I thought one sunny day last week. It could very well be next year we'll see the "big 'un" my bones believed was coming. My phone's weather app stubbornly kept popping up a snowflake for Tuesday, January 10. It would disappear one hour, but return the next. I thought it was just another tease, but then those confounded East Winds came roaring in to confront a powerfully-wet cold front approaching from the Pacific.
It started as just another cold, wet day. On my first run, I saw rain, sleet and a few flakes. No big deal, not to worry. Our new buses have those really cool drop-down chains, and by the looks of things at my first layover, I might not even need them. When it's 37 degrees and raining, it's just another Northwest winter's day. As long as the windshield wipers were working, it was no problem.
Then I started back toward where I had begun the run. A few more flakes as I passed the transit center, nothing really sticking. About five minutes later, I started up a small hill and WHOOSH! It seemed as if I had driven a few states eastward into a full-fledged blizzard. Seemingly millions of huge white ice pillows began pounding against my windshield as if they were pissed and I was to blame.
After a nice break, the storm had intensified. As I left the transit center, the back end slipped a little. Okay, I figured it was time to test the drop downs. I flipped the switch. Eery silence, except for the normal sounds of a cruising Gillig. At a stop sign, I glanced down to see the indicator light hadn't come on. Strange, I thought, but not surprising. The chains had been subject to a heavy workout, the most usage our new buses had seen since they entered the fleet a year or so ago. I tried the switch again, mindful of traveling between 5-10 mph. Still, nothing. Since I was still early into my run with the storm in infancy, I decided to inform Dispatch of this dilemma.
The dispatcher listened and replied with "Yes Deke, we know of the problem. For some reason, the drop-down chains have been disabled."
I had pulled over to speak when Dispatch called, and it was a good thing. I was stunned.
"Did you say," I asked after a moment of silence, "that the drop-downs are disabled?"
Lady Dispatch sounded sympathetic and nearly as incredulous as I was. "I'm afraid so, yes, that is correct. They are disabled on many buses."
I chewed on this for a few seconds. Why had this happened? Hadn't the powers-that-be been privy to the same weather forecasts I was?
"Okay," I replied. "It's getting pretty white out here. Am I on snow route on the other end?"
"Not at this time," she said. "We will, of course, inform you the moment that changes. Please continue your normal route. The other end is reporting just rain at this time, and the roads are clear down there."
I thanked her and headed the beast into a world that had radically changed since I came the opposite direction not 30 minutes before. Trees were holding a new white coat; they swayed in an angry dance, crashing into one another as if they could shake loose their new layers and make it the next conifer's problem. Yet as I cruised into the second third of the run past the transit center, all seemed normal again. Wet streets, only a dusting on the ground, mostly chunky rain on the windshield. Hey, I thought, this too could pass. No big deal.
At the other end it was just as advertised. Cold, windy and rainy. Typical Portland weather. I sighed a short-lived breath of relief. Then my follower arrived with a mixed coat of iced-over white.
"Freezing rain down the road a piece," he glumly reported. "Take it slow, you'll be okay. This will probably blow over."
Doubtful, I opened my local news channel's radar site. A large swath of blue was already covering the city, and a band of precipitation approached from far off the coast. The weatherman was waffling. "Either a few inches or more than that. We're not sure yet."
The next run was fine. Until I found the snowstorm had expanded its boundaries a few miles deeper. By the end I was 15 minutes late. I had charged up a hill sans chains that normally scares off the toughest 4x4's and felt pretty good. This storm was a monster, and as I returned to where it first started, there were already ruts in the road and it was snowing harder than I had seen in years. Still no chaining crews, and I had two more round trips to complete. Cutting my break short, I charged back into the howling whiteness. Still no snow on the other end, but it was sleeting. When I returned to the epicenter, there were five more inches to greet me, but the crews were feverishly chaining buses. Already late to leave by five minutes, several intending passengers demanded to know when I'd leave again.
"As soon as I'm ready," I replied as patiently as I could. Charging outside into the storm to avoid their whining, I checked my phone and tried to ease my back with stretches.
After a few puffs of nicotine, the storm chased me back to my invitingly warm office. Running on pure adrenaline, I picked up a few more folks who stood shivering and assured them I'd complete the entire route. Then I released the parking brake, threw the tranny into second gear and eased back onto the road.
When you drive in a snowstorm, it's amazing how passengers watch the road more than their phones. It's about the only time this happens. I felt under the microscope, but I drove confidently and avoided getting stuck. As I dropped each passenger off, they thanked me for "driving safely." Hey, I always try to do that, but it's nice they noticed. Nobody wants to get stuck and wait. People need to get somewhere, even during a storm.
After my run ended, I had to re-route my deadhead to the garage down the same street I had serviced all day. Not knowing when the next bus would come, I stopped for a lone passenger. He'd been waiting about 20 minutes and was as snow-covered as the Abominable Snowman, so I invited him onboard. I picked up a few others who had been waiting even longer. It's hard passing people who are a degree or two above hypothermia when you're in a warm bus. It felt nice to do good deeds for my fellow citizens. Hell, I was going their way, so why not help them out? As I started off empty again, a lone fellow trudged through the foot-deep powder with his thumb out. Picked him up too, to his surprise, and took him as far as the garage, where he hoped to walk up to Powell and hook up with the last Line 9.
Finally, I pulled into the yard, safely stopped and shut down my bus. No hits, several runs, and no errors. Most of it without chains. I had merely been lucky. Many of my brothers and sisters, driving in parts of town harder hit than my route, had to wait hours for help. Supervisors were chugging through the wintry mess to help, dispatchers pointing them every which way. Once again, the worker bees prevailed, and as far as I can tell, no injuries were reported.
More than a sigh of relief escaped me (more like a Troutdale wind gust) as I set the brake. I shook my fist at the still-erupting sky and stuck out my tongue. Hmm... diesel-flavored snow isn't very tasty, but it was still satisfying to express my displeasure to the spitting sky.
To my relief, my beloved wife and son awaited in the parking lot. How she had made it to my garage amazed me, but I have great faith in her abilities. She's put up with me for decades, so she's no sissy. Our car is a new front-wheel drive that has performed admirably this winter. No chains or snow tires. Just great engineering and patient drivers. And comfy, even more importantly to my screaming lumbar muscles.
We made it home an hour later and crawled into bed. After four winters, I'm finally feeling comfortable driving a bus in all kinds of weather. It doesn't mean I'll never get stuck, but I'm learning new lessons each year in how to avoid trouble.
It ain't over yet, folks. But I promise to not moan about the heat this summer. We deserve a good thawing out!
Monday, January 9, 2017
|Before the ice began to rain down.|
While many have the luxury of staying home during a storm, your bus and rail operators along with supervisors, mechanics and trainers do not. Lift drivers are also braving conditions to help those with mobility challenges get where they need to go. While icy weather is a challenge, it does not stop vital services from operating.
Transit is a vital part of any city, but there are many others who risk their own safety to ensure that of others. Police, firefighters, paramedics and ambulance drivers, electric power company linemen, freight train workers, snowplow and de-icing drivers, long-haul truck drivers, doctors and nurses, trash collectors, airport personnel and even people in the hospitality business brave storms to serve the community. We all are the worker bees who get the job done, no matter the risk involved. You'll find the least-paid are the ones who put in the demanding work to provide the most-needed services no matter what Mother Nature throws at us.
All these people, along with those I probably haven't listed here, have to make it to work every day of their week. If not, we're given "time loss." We sacrifice our own safety for the common good. It's our job, one we're proud to do regardless if we're properly recognized by our community. Hey, our driveways and community streets are icy and treacherous too, but we still manage to make it into work.
Professional transit riders do recognize us, and are very grateful. They thank us profusely for stopping in an ice storm between bus stops, just because they look cold and tired. Residents bringing stuck operators coffee and offering the use of their warm home as a refuge while waiting for a responder are immensely appreciated. Then there are those of the ignorant variety, who berate us for being late, even though our wheels are chained and they've watched thousands of vehicles creep by them while they wait for the bus. Once they are on the warm bus, they sometimes see the error of their behavior thanks to other passengers they've annoyed with their rantings.
|The signature of drop-down chains.|
As I began to steam and my Irish temper began to boil, another passenger stood up for me. "Sit down and shut up, or I'll personally throw your ass off this bus. That driver is a nice guy, and he saved your sorry ass from walking any more." I could have hugged him for that. I did, mentally. He made sure to stop as he was getting off, pat me on the shoulder and thank me for getting him home safely.
There's no other message in this post except to thank everyone who braved the recent weather to keep Portland moving and working. My hat is off to you all.
Wednesday, January 4, 2017
In order not to get into any possible legal trouble with a certain band, I've decided to change my pen name.
How does Deke In Blue sound? I kind of like this play on words. Hope you do too. Should make it easier to sign books too.
How does Deke In Blue sound? I kind of like this play on words. Hope you do too. Should make it easier to sign books too.
Sunday, January 1, 2017
Friday, December 30, 2016
First, it's funny how I've transformed in the past few months. Comparing how green I was when this blog was born to how I view the job today, the difference short-circuits my thought processes. A few months ago I hit "the wall." Didn't want to do it any more. Interviewed for a different job in the private sector, found the money wasn't right. I re-focused my energy toward being happier and more positive in this life, and found myself liking it again. The short temper is being replaced by calm acceptance that there are just too many battles one can lose, and those fought are usually ridiculous. Hey, I still don't take any shit, but for a while there I was throwing it back. Now it usually just slides down the back of my shoulder, into a puddle near the door and dissipates when a new passenger boards. It just ain't worth an argument.
Which leads me to today's work. Lighter traffic than normal this week has allowed me to relax. In this job, you know this can be dangerous. A young man I once coached in rec league basketball boarded, and we had a great conversation reminiscing about "the old days." (I have to laugh at this; it was just a few years ago to me, but half a lifetime ago to him.) After I dropped him off, I was re-playing a championship game in my mind. I had stepped in to coach for my buddy who had health issues, and we lost a hard-fought game. It still bugs me, six years later, that I didn't have the team apply pressure defense early enough in the fourth quarter. Anyway, I was tooling along in overdrive when something disastrous nearly happened.
Early in my career I learned the value of covering the brake approaching an intersection. Once again, it saved not only my bacon, but that of two foolish jaywalkers as well. They darted across six lanes of traffic against a solid red DON'T WALK signal. My light had been green a good five seconds. I was in the far right lane, wondering why the two left lanes weren't moving yet. Just as I approached the point-of-no-return line, I caught two dark silhouettes in my peripheral vision. I hadn't seen them in my previous left-to-right scan. Luckily I keep my head moving, which preserves the peripheral vision. Since my foot was already covering the brake, the lack of an extra second of reaction time saved these idiots' lives. A quick, controlled brake and extended application of the horn kept me from smashing them flatter than a bloodless tick. It was a smooth, and nobody fell out of their seat, but it was sudden enough so that many passengers saw a catastrophe averted.
A few years ago, this incident would have ruined my day. Today, I count my lucky stars and remind myself that daydreaming while working is strictly boneheaded. Sure, we all have our thoughts while driving, but you learn to multi-task operator functions with higher-level brain activity. It becomes automatic after a while, but that's not necessarily good. If you're on auto-pilot and something like this happens, you may not be as lucky as the last time. The tiniest lapse of attention can allow your 20-ton beast to wreak havoc with disastrous consequences.
Some things you learn only by experience. Here's a few:
* There's no such thing as "luck" as a bus operator. All you can rely upon is your driving skill, your ability to make a split-second decision based on many factors all at once, and whatever higher power you choose to believe in.
* People will do amazingly stupid things without a clue as to the consequences.
* Impatience kills at least seven of a cat's lives.
* A motorist, given the chance, will make the stupidest, dumbassed move possible. You learn to predict it, so be ready with a Plan B, C, D and E. (Especially those in the smallest, most vulnerable vehicles.)
* Management will not back you. Period. They're only interested in risk, avoiding lawsuits and making overall numbers look good. You are only a fraction on a large stat sheet. If you find yourself in a sticky situation, ask the union's help. It's our best, and often only, defense.
* No matter how wild an incident you've just been through, somebody else has experienced the same thing. Talk to your fellow operators. You are never alone, unless you prefer to be.
* If your body says STOP, listen to it. Take a break, no matter how late you are. Walk around, stretch, pass gas, yell at the heavens if you need to. Dispatch would rather have you late than driving impaired.
* This job is not "stress free," as our brother said in the agency's latest recruitment video. It is not for the weak, faint-hearted or boastful. We age a good two or three years for every one we work this job. Take time to be you. Enjoy your time off, be with those you love. Don't work more than necessary. You can only spend money while you're alive, and if you're not careful, that won't be very long.
Peace be with you all, and have a safe and prosperous 2017.
Tuesday, December 20, 2016
Luckily, I usually drive one of the newer buses in our fleet. They have a nice drop-down chains feature, which means the chains can be dropped or raised at the flick of a switch. In snowy conditions with the temperature below freezing, the roads are easier to negotiate in a 20-ton vehicle. When you have to drive up a hill, it's usually not so bad with chains. You just don't stop until you've conquered the incline. Passengers quickly realize when we zip past their stop on a hill that they're in for a longer walk home than usual. The wise ones don't complain; rather, they know from experience that a bus can slide in any direction if the driver attempts to stop on an incline or decline. They're patient, and wait until the hill has been conquered, and thank the driver for a safe ride as they depart.
It also helps if other motorists employ the most basic common sense, which they usually don't. People are in a hurry, especially during the holiday season. Those who know what they're doing behind the wheel are usually safe. Combine poor driving skills with wintry weather and a need for speed, and dangerous situations occur. Zipping around a bus just beginning to negotiate a hill, when you don't know how to properly guide your own vehicle in these conditions is a recipe for a messy ending.
"This is my training, you dolt," I replied. The best way to learn is by doing.
It's strictly on-the-job, because there is no other way. Operators glean winter driving tips from veterans. We also learn tricks from experience. Trainers are extremely valuable resources. During snowstorms, they're out there hustling to rescue operators who have become stuck. Zipping around with shovels and kitty litter (for traction), I know of several operators who were rescued by training supervisors. They also offer advice at each garage.
Bus operators learn patience is the key to many situations. I've found that simply stopping before entering a challenging situation, studying the road's condition and traffic, and making sound decisions based on the information before me to be the best method of safe winter operation. As we drive a route, operators make mental notes on each section for future reference. Hills are obviously a great concern. My route meanders from one hill to another, with flat stretches in between. I knew the moment snow flurries would arrive thanks to my weather app, and I was already predicting what would happen on certain stretches before I started. It's the surprises along the way that require calm problem-solving and precise driving techniques only learned behind the wheel.
"I don't know how you're gonna make it up there without getting stuck," he said, shaking his head. "I barely made it up last time and now things are worse."
"Yeah," I agreed, "but there's only one way to find out, because I ain't backing up."
He wished me luck. I waited for my opening, dropped the chains, and began the ascent. Low gear, no sudden acceleration, and a clear path later, I topped the crest and breathed a sigh of relief. Already 25 minutes late, I wasn't concerned with schedule. The return trip however, would be a much different story. The snow was coming down harder and the road surface was getting worse by the minute.
After a brief break at the end of the line, infused with nicotine and invigorated by a brisk walk in the snow (with ice trekkers on my feet, of course), I muttered my mantra and started back down the road. Just as I thought, the 25-minute interval between runs had turned the hill into a sledder's paradise. Not so fun for the several cars which were stuck on either side of the street, and much more challenging for bus operators. I stopped at the top of the hill and observed the scene ahead. The operator just ahead of me had curbed his bus and promptly been rear-ended by a compact car. He wasn't going anywhere until a road supervisor arrived. Judging by conditions, we agreed that would be a good wait. Meanwhile, at the bottom of the hill another bus waited where I had earlier, watching and waiting. Cars zipped past her and found themselves getting stuck. Smarter motorists turned around when they saw what happened to those in front of them. I flashed my brights at the bus down below to say "go ahead when you're ready, I'll wait." A few moments later, that bus started up the hill. I crossed my fingers and sent forth good luck. Just as the bus started its charge, a motorist passed her, sliding sideways. The bus operator braked. Her rear end slid to the right, duals over the sidewalk and treading nothing but air. To her credit, she avoided a collision with the bonehead, who didn't make it up either. Now there was a bus blocking the bottom of the hill, its front end just a few feet from the opposite side of the street where another car was parked.
"How long will we be stuck?" Depends on how long it takes for a supervisor to arrive and assess the situation.
"Can't you detour around?" Not on these hilly, residential streets already piling up with traffic taking their own alternate routes.
"How far is the transit center?" Down the hill a mile and to the left.
"Can I have a free pass for the inconvenience?" This one didn't merit a reply. As if inspectors would have time or a reason to check fares on a night like that. Shook my head silently.
We waited an hour. Then 90 minutes passed. Neighborhood residents graciously allowed a few passengers to use their restroom. One guy took a short and quick walk, reminding me of a distant Frank Zappa tune.
During this interim, I noticed a young lady running up and down the hill. She bounced up to my bus and informed me a supervisor was downhill attempting to free the stuck bus. This quick-witted marvel then recommended I put out my reflective triangles to warn traffic behind me that I wasn't moving. Great idea. The other two triangles I placed in the middle of the street at the very top of the hill, hoping this would give motorists a hint that trying the hill just wasn't a good idea. She waved several cars down and warned them not to try it. Even if they made it down, there just wasn't enough room to get between the stuck bus and the parked car. One monster truck on high decided he didn't need to heed, and made it down. I didn't see him maneuver around the bus, but he must have made it because Joey Jeep went down next, barely missing my heroine as he sped by. Then Miss Zippy ran down the hill for an update from our heroine road supe and then back up to tell me the supe couldn't get the bus out and was coming our way. Our white-shirted sister then assessed the rear-end collision and dealt with it before trudging up to me.
After greeting my former manager and now-awesome supe, she told me I needed to turn around and head back to the transit center.
What self-respecting operator would say no? Granted, I had my doubts. I was parked just a few feet short of the cross street. The maneuver would entail a button-hooking wide turn, encouraging a slide if not done just right.
"Aw hell boss, I got this," I said, puffing up. I got in the seat, closed the door and said another silent prayer, between cursing myself for what I was about to do. Taking a deep breath, I released the brake and put it in low gear. Making sure there was nobody coming up behind and that nobody was in the street, I took my foot off the service brake. There was no turning back, only turning around would suffice. I rounded the turn okay, got pointed straight and just barely went up the incline before stopping. Slip sliding, I carefully got her stopped. Lady Liza the Supe walked up to my window.
"Doing okay in there? I noticed a skid before you got 'er stopped."
"Yeah, I thought it would do that, but I'm good. Let's back this beast up."
She back-stepped to the rear of the bus, made sure it was clear, and motioned me back. Already on an incline, I just put it into neutral and gently rolled back until she gave me the stop signal. Into first gear, I turned the wheel as far to the right as I dared and guided it to a safe distance from the curb. If there was such a thing. Now my front end was lower than the back. I had to put it into reverse. Luckily, there was no more skidding. I backed, went forward, backed again and cleared the curb as I went forward. Onlookers cheered. I brought the bus to a stop as near the curb as I dared, earning me a sideways glance from Liza.
"I hope you can get going again being that close," she chided, adding "but that was a great job! Awesome, Deke!"
So as I puffed in some much-needed nicotine, she guided passengers back onto my bus. Outside, I remained humble as people patted me on the back. On the inside, I felt damn lucky that 40,000-pound monster didn't go sliding down to meet the bus at the bottom. When I got back into the seat, my supervisor told the passengers where we were headed and how the reroute would take them to their destination. She also encouraged them to call in "and congratulate Deke on the great job he did getting this bus turned around." Aw shucks, ma'am. Much ado about nothin'. Sheeit.
Such is the way of winter weather transit in Portland, Oregon. A few inches of snow shuts everything down. The media plays the same game each time it happens. "What lessons can we learn from this?" My suggestion is that you actually do what should be done. Period. It happens every other year or so. Haven't you learned these lessons yet? Employ emergency crews to plow the main streets, not just the freeways. Sand the hills. Chain the older buses before the snow, not during. Also, it's a good idea to remove the chains once the snow melts. I don't mind the resulting overtime, but the 25-mph speed limit and constant thumpity-thump of the chains on dry pavement is extremely annoying.
My advice to new operators who aren't familiar with driving during winter weather conditions: take it slow, be patient, be smart, be vigilant, ask questions, use common sense. The rest of it is either skill or pure luck, but most likely a combination of both.
I have a feeling we're in for a much more severe snow event. Or several. Mother Nature is a fickle lady. You never know what surprises she has in store for us.
Great job out there, brothers and sisters. Mechanics on the chain crews, operators, supervisors, trainers, station agents, garage managers and especially our awesome dispatchers, you ALL performed splendidly. Upper management, once again, most likely rode the storm out in front of a cozy fireplace. I hope they remember this as they negotiate our new contract, but they have short memories.
Sunday, December 11, 2016
|Short-lived snowfall, before the ice storm arrived.|
Wow. I've waited years to hear this. I've wondered if anyone felt that way. Well thanks, Lady Claudine. You made my day!
|The snow is pretty cool. The ice that follows it isn't.|
"You're late," a drunk told me as I opened the doors.
He was right. By then I was on my last run. I'd been held hostage several minutes by a pokey freight train, caught every red light, played dodge-the-dumbass at a mall parking lot more than once, and dropped or raised my chains so many times I wasn't sure where they were. I had nothing left in the tank. I thought hard for a few seconds for a witty or artfully-crafted comeback.
"Duh," I finally said.
I love teasing kids. This time of year, it's especially fun. One lad of about seven boarded my bus and was excitedly talking about Santa.
"Do you believe in Santa?" he asked.
"Why, sure I do!" I said. "He brings me something every year!"
"Wow," he said, wonder lighting up his cute little face. "See Dad? I told you he was real!"
I glanced at Dad in my mirror. He was not amused. I grimaced and told my driver window, "Ruh roh, Daddy's pissed." Since I was on a roll, however...
|Santa's Headquarters on the left.|
This time, the lad wasn't so sure. "Nuh uh. Santa doesn't ride the bus."
"Actually," I said, painting myself an incredulous look, "he drives a bus too. When he's not delivering toys, that is."
"Yep," I said. "Seriously, if you go into Macy's and ask Santa if he's ever driven a bus, I'll bet he'll wink and tell you he certainly has."
They got off downtown just across from Macy's. Dad scowled at me as he departed, but the holiday spirit returned and he managed a half-smile as he walked by and said, "Gee thanks, buddy."
(So, Santa Mark Lawson, but please tell me if some lil' blond boy asked for your résumé. Oh, and hopefully the sleigh repairs are being covered by the transit agency. Just make sure you submit your expense report before the end of the month.)