Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Spinning Wheels... Got to Go Around

After an extended vacation from writing, I'm back. So much has happened in the past month, but the past week offered plenty of ideas for a post. I was tired of my irritable writing, and wanted to step back. I needed to rein in my inherent grumpiness and regroup. Avoiding the usual hustle and bustle of the holidays, I took a more relaxed approach. It helped. I may not be angelic, but that'll never happen. Anyway, Happy 2016! It's time for another edition...

Deacon in Blue

"If you don't like the weather in Oregon, wait five minutes..."

We hear this a lot. Sure, we get about 35 inches of precipitation each year, most of it as rain. This past weekend, it came in the form of an inch or two of the frozen white stuff. Snow? Yeah, that's it. We get some every few years. Two years ago, we got a shitload of it. This time, just a dusting. What came afterward however, was hours of freezing rain. That's when things got treacherous.

Fellow operators in other parts of the world may laugh, but when Portland, Oregon gets a snowstorm, the aftermath is anything but picturesque. It is usually followed by freezing rain. We call this a "Silver Thaw". If we only got the snow, then sunshiny warm temperatures to melt it away, life would be grand in our lovely city of rolling hills and narrow winding streets. But no. Snow is easy to drive on. Ice on top of it makes for white-knuckle driving. It sticks to the bus mirrors and windshield wipers. Sidewalks instantly turn from safe havens to broken bone magnets. Power lines become encrusted with the stuff, making light rail travel unreliable. Tree limbs, already saturated with the 15 inches of rain that fell in December, freeze and become so heavy and brittle they break away in the accompanying 50mph winds. Our fearless power company workers get kudos from me for all the emergency situations they've handled (so far) this winter. Tree limbs seem to love falling onto power lines.

Driving to work on Sunday morning was lovely. It was still snowing. Billowing, drifting along the road, picturesque expanses of white floated down upon us. Made me want to cuddle with Mrs. Blue in front of a fireplace emptying a bottle of Merlot. (We don't have a fireplace, dammit!) I rolled into work, ready to charge out into the streets and get people where they needed to be. My line was on a snow route, so the first half of the day was easy, with extended breaks. Then the snow stopped. After about 10 minutes, I heard the telltale "snap crackle pop" of freezing rain, and I inhaled deeply on my vape. The rest of the day, I knew from experience, was going to be a disaster. An added boost of nicotine helped prepare me for what was to come.

It takes a lot of mental toughness just to operate a bus in normal conditions. When you add ice to the equation, along with motorists who have no idea how to drive in it, our job's difficulty is compounded 100 times. When you're maneuvering 20 tons of a 40-foot vehicle around on icy streets, it's miraculous when you set the brake at the garage after it's all over and you've done so without a scratch. I saw numerous cars slip and slide, crash and smash; 4x4 big truck drivers (boo yah!) who hadn't a clue how to let their vehicle do the work for them; people slipping and falling in the worst possible places; and numerous stupid stunts showcasing humanity's lowest common denominator. I was so exhausted after this day's shift I slept 10 hours straight.

Normal driving has us on high alert. When you're driving on snow, your whole body tenses. Your mind works overtime. You're constantly measuring stopping distances, using your feet in an operatic tap dance between brake and accelerator. The steering wheel, and the actual seat of your pants become highly in tune with each other. The slightest slip of the front or rear of the bus is met with a coordinated response between hands and feet, with the mind constantly problem-solving to keep all six wheels in a straight line. Add the confusion of traffic around you doing everything it can to make your situation even more difficult, and these tasks are magnified. When you come upon a dangerous situation, you have to use problem-solving magic. Normally, when I'm mystified as to how I should handle a situation, my support line to Dispatch is a lifesaver. During a storm, they're just too busy to get back to you in time. So you have to carefully think situations over and act accordingly. If you can't figure it out, you sit and wait for our lifeline to contact you. Bus operators are excellent at problem solving, but sometimes it helps hearing a voice of experience giving you another set of options.

My day was almost over. I was maneuvering through a busy mall parking lot to our break area, artfully avoiding pedestrians and sliding cars, when a perplexing incident unfolded before me. An oncoming bus and mine were stopped at an intersection when from off to my left, a little teenager's car started spinning donuts in between us. This driver narrowly missed the other bus as he attempted to show the world what a "pro" he was. He zipped past a few terrified onlookers and headed for a deserted patch where he continued spinning around like a dizzy bumblebee. Dumb shit kid, most likely.

Instead of Mrs. Blue daring the horrific conditions to ferry me home that night, I took the rail home. Stood in the freezing rain 40 minutes waiting for it, but it came. We were within 200 yards of the end of the line when it stopped. For another 30-45 minutes, we endured a fascinating game of back-and-forth as the operator and a supervisor worked to inch the train forward. Ice on the lines was interfering with the electric current. They delivered us to our destination and a bus whose operator graciously waited for us.

My stories of this "event" pale in comparison to some I've heard. But the hard work of everybody shows just how dedicated our transit community truly is. From the mechanics and chain crews, to the heroics of operators, tremendous support of supervisors, tireless coordination of station agents, incredible organization of dispatchers and rail controllers, and invaluable advice from trainers... it all worked out in the end. We kept Portland moving in the worst conditions possible.

I'm sure we'll hear kudos from management when it's all said and done. They're supposed to say the right things. But one has wonder... will they remember our heroics when contract negotiations begin? Probably not. By then we'll be back to being "greedy union thugs with Cadillac benefits". But for now, let's enjoy a well-deserved pat on the back.

Good job brothers and sisters! We take Portland to work!


  1. Nailed it! Lol I'm so thankful for the ears of those drivers more experienced, willing to share their techniques and insight or at least allowing me to observe some tactics of keeping myself unstuck! I've never been more exhausted mentally than the two days I worked on ice.

    1. You are a great operator to keep all six on the road! Great job.

  2. Walked up to 28th and NE Sandy at the height of the late afternoon slipperyness. At the west bound stop, two #12's were nosed in towards the same stop like it was angled parking. I think that the first had its front wheels slide sideways to the curb. The second must have come upon the scene and decided to drop off ahead of the stuck bus. It then had its front wheels lose grip and it slid to the curb parallel to the original bus. Quite a scene. The Trimet mechanics were there with one of the big garage push trucks. They were fully chained up and so they pulled the nose of each bus out from the curb using brute force. Both were back underway within fifteen minutes of the truck's arrival.

    Drivers and mechanics do amazingly good stuff when these winter situations happen. I remember bad weather run driving with that adrenaline buzz going; it gets very exhausting after a few hours...