Sunday, October 26, 2014

20,000th Hit Today!

In the span of 18 months, my beloved readers have visited my blog 20,000 times! It's more than I had imagined, and I thank you all for reading and sharing.

Lately, the comments have been coming in bunches. I apologize for not replying to you all. Usually when I see them I'm in bed preparing for the next day of driving. Please keep them coming, because I love hearing how these posts affect you. Your shared stories of the road or experiences as a rider are great!

Most of all, I want to thank my wife, Lady Blue. She helps me avoid great blunders, and has always been supportive of my efforts as a driver and as the guy who writes about it.

Thanks again, folks. The Googlers are wondering why I still won't allow their ads on FTDS, but a promise is a promise. Even when the 100,000th hit is reached, the blog will remain... AD FREE.

Peace, and be well my friends.


A Battle Hymn for US All

(Deacon's Note: Please note my use of "operators of buses and light rail" does not intend to omit  service workers, mechanics, trainers, station agents, supervisors, dispatchers, spotters, and other dedicated co-workers. It's just expedient to do so. These brothers and sisters are all vital to our operations; and as such, will hopefully forgive me for including them under the "operator" label.)

Battle Hymn of the Republic -- Herbie Mann

So we have a contract. Amalgamated Transit Union 757's TriMet employees voted yes this past week by a majority of 82.7% to approve the contract terms, effective two years ago.

It has been a contentious battle. Retirees believe the terms give away what they were promised decades ago: health care provided in lieu of no raises in pay for active union employees. Nothing is truly "free". Like a coal miner who breathes toxic air his entire working life and dies penniless, a bus operator faces health crises and a fixed income with shaky financial security in retirement. An increasingly vocal public sector erroneously minimizes our skill level and health risks, simultaneously demanding we pay a "fair" share of our health insurance. It's this "class warfare" which endangers all workers, blue or white collared.

Our service is considered so vital to the local economy that our right to strike was legislated out of existence in 2007. Ridership in 2014 is up 10%*, with about 322,000 people riding MAX or bus daily. Imagine the scenario if we could strike: another 100,000+ vehicles on our roads creating hopeless gridlock, people without alternate transportation unable to get to work. However, without the right to strike, our bargaining position is tenuous. If we disagree with terms presented by the district and vote to reject, our fate lies in the hands of a state-appointed arbitrator. If our terms are deemed not in the best interests of the public or TriMet's financial stability, we are bound by the district's last "best offer". Fighting a battle with our collective fists bound behind us, negotiations are heavily weighted in favor of the district.

As an operator, it is easier to lose the job than it is to keep it. Standard operating procedures are often so ambiguous, they can often be a loose-fitting noose around our necks. With each misstep, it tightens. There is very little wiggle room. In a "fair" world, there would be counterbalances. We can be blamed for incidents that may not be our "fault", yet should have prevented because we're professionals. A growing portion of the general public, however, does not view us as such. We're actually trained to predict the future, based on constantly varying traffic. If a delivery truck smashes our driver-side mirror, we can be assessed a "Preventable Accident" (PA) if the bus is not completely within lane markers. Rack up five PA's within a two-year period and you're fired. Not many occupations are as stressful, yet we perform our jobs admirably, 365 days each year.

We're also expected to remain professional through situations in which we are pushed, spit upon, slapped, punched, stabbed, and verbally abused at gunpoint. Assaults on operators often don't even make (what passes for) the news these days. When one sister's attacker was brought before a judge last Christmas Eve, nobody from management was present. However, when a rider makes a complaint against an operator, it usually makes the news. Management will act very "concerned" and state it is "investigating the incident". The complaint review process can be insulting, especially given the fact people making these accusations purposefully omit accurate descriptions of what happened, let alone their own behavior. Another aspect of media coverage is the bruising lack of coverage regarding the countless good deeds operators commit each day. It's dirty laundry the corporate sector forces onto the airwaves and newsprint, and a hungry public gobbles it with greedy abandon.

It was highly insulting to read a recent comment posted by a local shidiot. This poster had the gall to state that transit operators are basically "low-skilled workers and their compensation should be commensurate with their skill set". This intellectual midget goes on to equate us with a "shuttle bus driver at the airport". He continues with "If you dont (sic) like your level of compensation than (sic) get a college degree or go into a skilled trade that compensates people at a higher rate based on what they command in the market. It really is a simple equation." When you consider a full bus or rail car transports a significant mass of people whose jobs make our economy tick, it is logical to assume our passengers are intrinsically more valuable to the local economy than one ignorant's luxury SUV.

The "simple equation" actually is the math describing the shrinking middle class. The blue collar worker was once an American hero. Largely consisting of the veterans who liberated Europe and stopped imperial Japan from controlling the Pacific theatre, the American middle class was celebrated. Unions were respected by workers who appreciated representatives negotiating with corporate powers. And the unions got the job done. Better working conditions, respectable wages and the hope of a decent retirement were the results of hard-fought battles unions waged for the benefit of millions. These millions produced the goods which American consumers purchased with their hard-earned money. The economy flourished until the greedy upper crust found a way to split the middle class and turn it against itself. Now, untold millions have been convinced it is somehow our own fault the middle class is shrinking toward extinction. Instead of fighting the corporate monster which created economic disaster, we've been tricked into fighting amongst ourselves. All the while, the puppet masters giggle gleefully at our self destruction and continue to stack the cards against us. Instead of fighting each other, we need to band together to fight the puppeteers.

The minimum wage argument is a prime example. If allowed to increase with inflation, the current minimum wage would now be around $22 per hour. The fact it remains at a paltry $7.50 is staggering. The Great Recession saw a massive loss of middle-class jobs. Many who made respectable salaries six years ago now fight for whatever low-paying jobs they can find. Those who do obtain college degrees are mired in a lifetime of student loan debt, with little prospect of employment paying enough to survive and make the loan payments. Interest on these loans is ridiculously high. Chances are, recent graduates won't be able to work long enough to pay off their loans, let alone achieve a salary level commensurate with the effort it took to earn these expensive degrees. The minimum wage job is no longer the exclusive domain of Joe or Sally Teenager. It's now held by Charlie the former computer tech trying to hold three such jobs just to make the rent because his decent job went overseas to ensure his former employer's shareholders can afford an extra maid whom they pay... you guessed it, minimum wage.

There is a heated debate over raising the minimum wage. Small- to medium-sized companies complain they can't afford paying higher wages. They're already squeezed by payroll taxes, over-regulation and shrinking markets. If the wage had been raised on a regular basis, the economy would have absorbed and grown with it. Plus, consider there is no maximum wage. For every action, reason demands a counter reaction. Those criminals who caused the Great Recession were "bailed out" because they're evidently "too big to fail". Too big to fail, or too rich to jail?

Were we the people given equal treatment? No. Instead, we were blamed for a mess we didn't create, and were left to fight over whatever crumbs remained. The auto industry paid us back for their bailout; the banks have not. Corporate executives have seen their salaries and bonuses increase to the point they make 331% more than the average worker. It's time the entire middle class got a raise, not to mention securing the retirement income of those who paved the way for the rest of us.
A bus or light rail operator is highly-trained. He or she has passed rigorous and grueling courses that would flummox the common driver. Over the course of several years driving a 20-ton, 8.5-foot-wide, 11-foot-high, 40-foot-long vehicle, even more valuable training is acquired through experience. We get so road-savvy we can accurately guess a driver's reaction to any number of situations. Our passengers' safety is of utmost importance to us. If you consider the millions of people who enjoy safe journeys because of our hard-earned professionalism, our contribution to the local economy is invaluable.

Which leads us back to this local ATU 757 vs. TriMet battle. Could we have done better for our retirees? Unless we reverse the trend of legislating against our own best interests, retirement is equated with extreme poverty. The once sacred promise of security after a lifetime of dedication may soon be a thing of the past. Someone who is promised a secure retirement, should not have to fear poverty due to the breaking of said promises.

This contract was voted upon by a scant 57% of active union employees. This is a pathetic display of apathy. That 43% which didn't bother to cast a ballot is too complacent to fight for its own best interests, or for those who came before us. We owe our retirees the respect they earned as operators who worked under harsher conditions than we endure, using equipment not nearly as advanced as what we operate today. We also owe future hires a commitment to fight for their benefits as well, in the hope they will someday fight for ours. It is also imperative we require TriMet to fulfill its commitments, rather than allowing it to make excuses for its financial shenanigans.

Whatever your opinion about the contract, a bigger fight looms. It's not about Democrats vs. Republicans. Instead, it's American Workers fighting each other, rather than collectively working toward a better future for all of us. We make the collective economy's wheels roll. Unless we learn to work together, we're all doomed to a fate beneath these wheels.

*TriMet's Monthly Performance Report, September 2014

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Clean Buses or Dirty Deacon?

A spotter once told me a grand total of three (out of 200+) buses at our garage get "cleaned" each night. This would entail wiping down every surface and washing the floors. Normally, a bus is emptied of garbage and sent back out into service the next day. But "cleaning" a bus at this rate, it takes about 10 weeks to get to each of them. Given that, you could say each bus is in-service nearly three months before it gets cleaned again. Taking it even further, that would mean each bus is cleaned an average of four times a year. Considering the personal hygiene habits of many of our riders, that just adds to the "yuck factor".

I'm not saying this is entirely true. Questioning my fellow drivers, however, revealed there are a grand total of six bus cleaners district-wide. Each is reportedly given eight minutes to clean a bus. When doing so, they are dressed for it, unlike the operators who spend 8-12 hours driving the germy monsters. Most buses seem to make it through the wash rack on a regular basis, so they appear clean. But that's only aesthetics; the interiors are often mold-infested, bug-crawling germ factories.

One driver reports, "The sickening reminder comes as I'm walking back to my car, after a long day's work, and I see the brother and sister cleaners wearing full gloves, respirator masks, and practically dressed in hazmat suits just to get, safely, though their eight minutes!"

My trainer suggested using wipes to clean surfaces an operator touches as part of the pre-trip. This made sense, because the first time I sat in the seat, my first reaction was "eew" when I first gripped the greasy steering wheel. I took this wise advice, and I routinely wipe not only the operator controls, but the rails, stanchions, door handles and stop buttons near the back door. Each time, my wipe comes up black with grime. Some days, it takes two or three wipes before I feel relatively "safe", and even then I still seem to catch every bug that walks through the doors.

Other operators take their pre-trip to elevated heights. Several wash the interior windows (at their own expense). In one video, a driver shows a clean wash rag prior to washing one interior passenger window. After he's done, it's black with grime.

There's simply no time, or personal finances available, for drivers to clean all surfaces. The seats are usually the dirtiest. While older buses have cloth seats, the dirtiest, the district touts plastic seats on the new models as cleaner. This has long been an issue. But if each bus is cleaned only a handful of times each year, bacteria will build up when not properly sanitized. This 2011 news report gives an example of just how dirty bus seats can be: Dirty Seats Report.

Our district cut the number of cleaners at some point, while later granting non-union employees generous raises and working to charge us for health insurance. Dirty laundry here, but it's abusive to expose us to long hours in unhealthy working conditions, then making us pay for going to the doctor when our very job makes us sick.

I wonder what our passengers would think if we donned haz-mat garb to protect ourselves from germ-laden "offices" while we work? We're already exposed to whatever pathogens our customers bring with them. Another fellow operator states, "I have never been as sick as many times since I started working here".

It isn't the fault of those dedicated, masked souls who try to clean up after the hygiene-challenged who ride public transit. But next time you ride a bus, you'll wonder, "when was this bus last cleaned?".

Eew, indeed.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Punching Bags to Olive Branches

Another driver attacked. I don't know the details, but that's irrelevant for what I'm about to state. Of course, the attack itself isn't irrelevant. But there have been so many the past few years as to make it a top priority for our agency and union to seriously address.

Our Standard Operating Procedures merely state "Do not respond physically when confronted with threatening, violent behavior or unstable customers unless it is absolutely necessary to defend yourself or a passenger and the degree of physical force is only that which is minimally necessary." This is pretty vague. We're taught to "stay in the seat", unless we need to protect ourselves. Some believe this means I'm to wait until Joe Jerkoff punches me before I can jump up and slam his fist up his rectum, or risk suspension. Of course, common sense dictates using calm, rational customer service techniques to avoid physical violence. An assistant manager once told me the rationale behind the "stay in the seat" rule is to avoid escalating a situation, and also to stay close to the radio, which is our biggest safety device. The trick is to know if and when you need to leave the seat. If we allow our anger to rule, we can make mistakes. Being calm in a tense situation is a tough thing to do, especially if one is scared. Some violators cannot be "talked down".

As I've said before, I don't want to be caged like a zoo animal, cutting me off from the majority of my customers. Sure, there is that fraction of freaks who make a habit of attacking us, but most people are respectful. To simply throw up a cage might be construed as insulting to those who enjoy friendly banter with their regular operators. I don't think this type of barrier can stop a bullet, or a knife wielded by an experienced combatant.

Other transit agencies around the country have opted to install cages around the driver's seat. Miami-Dade Transit in Florida has barriers on a small percentage of its buses, but I can't seem to find any statistics as to their overall effectiveness. The cost is approximately $1600-1900 per bus (From Alameda-Contra Costa Transit District Staff Report). Other means of "protecting" operators, as practiced by Alameda-Contra Costa (SF Bay/Oakland, CA area transit) include random yet frequent boarding of buses by sheriff's deputies or uniformed and plainclothes police officers, operator training in non-threatening customer service techniques, and public outreach. In addition, surveillance cameras are becoming more of a presence in an attempt to deter criminal activities on transit vehicles.

In my time as a driver, only once have any officers ridden my bus. In fact, the route they did ride was a neighborhood commuter run serving a quiet nest of professionals who never gave me any guff. I asked the officers why they chose that particular route and their response was, "it was just random". It seems not much thought has been put into ride-alongs. Since then, I've driven many more dangerous routes. Most have been without incident, but a few tested my customer service skills to the hilt. In fact, I've had to re-evaluate my approach to difficult customers. You see, I'm a dog of Irish descent. When someone growls at me, I have a tendency to bite. Normally, I'll give someone a warning... once. Then, they either leave my bus willingly, or else. (I won't say what "or else" means, but I've had to stop myself from "leaving the seat".)

After a difficult situation, I'll evaluate how I handled it. Luckily for me, I haven't been severely tested or attacked. However, I'm constantly thinking about possible scenarios, asking other drivers their "horror stories", and combing the web for information. It could save my life someday, if I'm prepared for the worst. Some are simply not able to adequately defend themselves against a sudden, unprovoked attack. Take our sister Pam for example: Line 4 Assault.

Portland's transit agency, named TriMet, is either woefully ignorant of what we face as operators, or they simply don't care. Having met our GM, who appears a decent man in person, I doubt he doesn't care. He just doesn't know how to. He's never driven a bus in service, so he has no firsthand experience or working knowledge of the situations we routinely face. When Pam was severely beaten last winter, nobody from our management showed up at the accused attacker's pre-trial hearing. Several union officers and about 25 drivers showed up to support our fellow operator. TriMet's initial response was the usual bluster about offering a reward for information leading to an arrest, but my feeling was echoed by others... do they actually care about our safety? If they can talk the talk, why don't they walk the walk with us, rather than bemoaning how we're a bunch of money-hungry whiners with "Cadillac benefits"?

In addition to the threat of being assaulted, this job takes its toll on our bodies. Maneuvering a 20-ton, 40-foot long bus through traffic is stressful in itself. I've touched on this many times, so to do so again is overkill. I found an interesting article which deals with the stresses operators face. Over time, these stresses take a heavy toll on the average operator.

Our morale suffers every time one of us is assaulted. Each time this happens, it feels like we've all been beaten, because it could happen to any of us. The public is largely ignorant of the problems regarding our safety. What if our union, in cooperation with TriMet and local law enforcement, began to educate the public? Explain that the Federal Transit Administration reports assaults on transit operators has increased 144% since 2008, and what penalties people face for this crime. In addition, punishment for assaults needs to be more harsh.

There is a disconnect between the union and the agency we work for, largely due to contentious contract negotiations the past few years. Now it appears we may have reached an agreement, the time has come for us to work together.

Community outreach is severely lacking in Portland where transit issues are concerned. Whenever there's a news article about something good about operators, you can count several negatives which offset the positive. One local newspaper, The Oregonian, has a nasty habit of over-using the "Cadillac benefits" phrase. Its reporters don't seem to have a clue what we face out there. We are more prone to work-related injury and health problems than an overwhelming majority of other professions. Issues concerning driver comfort and fatigue are being addressed, which is a positive note. But the disconnect between US and those we serve needs to be bridged.

Educating the public about how to ride transit is also needed. Public Service Announcements, with operators explaining basic rules and procedures, would be worth consideration. Giving transit operators a face, highlighting the deeds of decent people who work a tough job every day of the year, might bring about a more positive work environment and more pleasant ride for all. Other agencies around the country do this (see Riding a Bus in Burlington, or this interesting tutorial from the Twin Cities of Minneapolis/St. Paul, MN). You'd think Portland, which boasts several options for transit, would do this on a regular basis. It's an opportunity for our union to promote the positive things we do daily for people who use transit. It might just give people a better idea of what we do, in addition to teaching them the basics. It could also help folks understand why buses can be late sometimes by explaining what goes on "in the seat". Perhaps then we wouldn't be vilified so often on Twitter and other web tools. Even the nicest rider is often ill-informed.

There will always be bad-asses out there who don't care about penalties. There are also good people who have come to the aid of an operator in trouble. Our supervisors are widely spread and it can take several minutes for them to arrive at the scene of a problem. While it is impossible to end all assaults, it is possible to work toward drastically reducing them.

Portlanders largely depend on TriMet. We take this city to work, and we get them there in terrible weather conditions and horrific traffic. Routinely avoiding dangers on the road, our operators are truly some of the best in the world. We were once considered the No. 1 transit agency in the country. Officials from transit agencies far and wide once marveled at our efficiency. Now most comments are negative. We've slipped to No. 10 or worse, depending on which reports you read.

While no transit agency can be perfect, we don't deserve being beaten up. Literally or figuratively. We're good people, we work hard, we care about our neighbors. The good deeds we do on a daily basis far outweigh the negative publicity we've endured. The fight must end, so the healing may begin. There are many operators with great ideas, who are supremely more intelligent than I am. There's a wealth of possibility to make transit better for both customers and operators.

Cages make people feel like animals, and they further restrict our movement. It's time we come together, think "outside the box", and regain our No. 1 standing.

What say you?

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Priority Battles and Honored Antics

Gee there are a lot of "Honored" citizens in Portland. Many could run the length of a bus backward and hop-skip back to the front quicker than I can get out of the seat. Methinks they just don't want to pay the exorbitant Adult fare, but who am I to judge?

To me, it would seem right that to truly be "Honored" means you are elderly (over 65, even though many people who fit this category are in much better shape than most of us "juniors"), or that you have some  disability that limits your movement or intellect. You should also have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt, if under 65, that you fit specifications of the Honored Few. But in this day of absurd political correctness and "anyone can claim disability" social atmosphere, that's but a pipe dream.

There are also many, surprisingly, who either can't read, or just can't be bothered by, silly rules. The "Priority Seating" area of buses and trains are reserved for "seniors and people with disabilities". Sure, it's a pretty vague statement, but many abuse these terms because, well, they're assholes.

Let's take, for example, a crowded bus meandering its way toward downtown. In the "Priority Seating" area are two seniors with bulging shopping carts. The bus is their only means of transportation, and they compete with "standees" in the aisles. The right side of the priority area is dominated by a dangerously obese man in an equally large mobility device, displacing three seats. Squeezed into the two remaining spots are Smelly Shelly the Senior Streetwalker and Larry Loudmouth her "handler" (who drones on about his own supposed "disabilities").

Pop hops on board with Lil' Sally in the stroller. He demands one of these seats, after arguing with Ollie Operator as to whether he should remove Snoozin' Sally from her comfy Stroller SUV. In order to comply with transit agency rules, he's to remove Sally and fold up the stroller. Today's strollers have many handy spots to store the 150 items necessary to transport small children, making them nearly impossible to fold up. Ollie informs him the next bus is just a few minutes behind (and gaining every second this bozo argues), and perhaps he'd be more comfortable on that one. Ollie's follower is enjoying a relatively empty bus because Ollie's so late he's picking up the extra passengers. Pop continues to argue until one stately gentleman stands and offers his seat to this rude young father, just to get the bus rolling again. After all, Aging Arnie is on his way to an important doctor's appointment that took weeks to schedule.

So with that incident settled, Ollie rolls on. At the very next stop, his buddy Madame Guttersnipe awaits her favorite operator's overloaded Gillig. Legally sight and hearing impaired, she is also unsteady on her feet. She's also very well-versed in disability directives. She will blatantly tell Pops to "MOVE" if she determines he is unlawfully taking a seat reserved for her. One look at Madame and they usually move without comment, especially if she raises her cane. Only problem is this time, most of those sitting have fairly-valid reasons. Except Smelly Shelly, who defiantly refuses to budge.

Operators often have to deal with these delicate situations. If not handled properly, they can result in one or more complaints. Usually, the pissed-off customer ends up pissing on the hapless operator. If passengers cannot resolve the conflict on their own, Ollie's only recourse is to call Dispatch and ask for a supervisor to come sort it out. Or, he can pivot in his seat, roar in his impressive lion voice for someone to make room, "or else". Which makes him sit, clock ticking.

Other passengers become irate, and start badgering Smelly to move. Arnie nervously checks his watch. Franny Follower zips past Ollie, who can only hold his hands up in a "sorry, I got problems here" gesture. Meanwhile, Madame begins reading Smelly the riot act, because her back is hurting and she needs to sit. Terry Teenybopper in the seat behind Smelly unplugs and re-engages to ask "whattup?". Upon learning of the ordeal, he (surprisingly) offers Madame his seat, who thanks him profusely and accidentally thumps Smelly with her cane (muttering "sorry, dumb ass" as she sits).

Feigning indignation, Smelly makes a terrible decision. She starts berating Madame in guttural pidgkin English. Ollie smirks in spite of his growing headache, because he knows what comes next.

"Stifle," Madame hisses, "or suffer my wrath, you odoriferous waste of precious oxygen."

Smelly pauses, trying in her drug-induced confusion to decipher Madame's obviously insulting command.

"Hey bish," Smelly complains.

"You don't even know the definition of bitch, let alone have the ability to competently pronounce, or even spell the word. Now back off or you'll be sporting a rectal-cranial inversion brought on by my trusty mobility device." Madame waves her cane menacingly in Smelly's angrily-contorted face for emphasis.

An experienced street-dweller, Smelly understands a threat. She may be messed up, but she believes herself certainly tough enough to handle this hobbled geezer. Her final mistake is to clumsily reach in front of Madame in an attempt to grab the cane. Sensing the move, Madame has positioned herself so that Smelly's arm brushes against her, initiating the contact allowing her to "reasonably defend herself".

The first strike is a sharply-upward thrust of the cane's curved handle, which breaks Smelly's nose. Second, the tip makes contact with a knobby knee, which bends Smelly over in order to receive a third "thunk" which connects with the top of her head. Smelly melts into a fetal position in a pool of blood and urine.

She's still screaming when the police haul her off the bus in handcuffs five minutes later. Ollie, having predicted the outcome of Smelly's abuse of Dearly Beloved Madame, has alerted Dispatch to have a supervisor and police meet the bus en route. This allows him to avoid losing even more time waiting for help to arrive. He manages to avoid chuckling as he gives his report, but thoroughly enjoys retelling the story later at the end-of-the-line break he's managed to salvage.

There is no moral to this story. People make up their own morality, and act accordingly. While this may be a work of fiction, Madame Guttersnipe is a real person wholly capable of ruining your day if you refuse to yield to someone who truly needs Priority Seating. And don't be surprised if you join fellow passengers applauding her when she teaches another Smelly a much-needed lesson in humility.