Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Ho, Ho, Slow

I'm dreaming of a white Christmas, as long as it's on TV. The past week was exhilarating at times, but mostly exhausting. It takes great effort and concentration to guide the beast in good conditions. When snow and ice enter the equation, it becomes much more challenging.

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.

A few years ago, when I was pretty green, a passenger berated our transit agency for "not training drivers how to drive properly in adverse weather conditions."

"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.

Before starting up one particular hill that snowy eve, I stopped at the bottom. Up ahead I could see good Samaritans pushing stuck vehicles and offering advice. On top of the hill, watching from that viewpoint, was a fellow bus operator doing the same thing I was. Waiting for the opportune moment to say "it's now or never, get the hell out of my way because here I come." Since he had arrived before me, and also because I wanted to watch how his bus reacted, I waited for him to come down. He did so nicely. Slowly. Deliberately. Nary a slide, skid or waver. Nicely done Coop, I thought. He stopped and we chatted a few moments.

"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.

I sighed, pulled the parking brake and set the transmission in neutral. "We're not going anywhere now, folks," I told my passengers. They sighed in frustration, but they knew the score. Those who didn't came forward to ask why. I patiently explained, with a full illustration gracing my windshield.

"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.

"I need you to do a five-point turnaround in this intersection and take all these passengers back to the mall," she said. "Are you up to it?"

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.

The rest of the night wasn't nearly as exciting. The hill on the other side of my run had been shut down, so my break at the other end was nearly an hour long each trip. We had it easy; our passengers who needed to get up that hill were stuck, and I felt bad for them because I had nothing to offer.

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.

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