Friday, January 29, 2016

Bus Stops and Body Parts

It's truly a good job, one I enjoy. It is however, a tough one. Sometimes it gets to me, and I bitch people out for the crazy chances they take to catch a bus. Other times, I just smile and shake my head, glad I was alert enough to avoid potential disaster. Still others, I curse myself for making mistakes that could be potentially disastrous and promise myself not to repeat them.

We're often lambasted for being "greedy", since all we do "is drive a bus around all day". Wow. Really folks, is that all we do? Everything we do is part of operating a bus, and there's a lot more to it than most are aware. We're not, after all, sitting behind the wheel of your fancy new Lexus, with a seat programmed to remember your pampered body. It's a monster of metal and glass, with a seat designed back when Abe Lincoln was driving a bus in Springfield. (Okay, so I sometimes exaggerate.)

This is an incredible responsibility. Each weekday, we transport nearly 400,000 Portlanders around the metro area. Professionals on their way to work, mothers with their beloved precious cargo, elderly headed to doctor's offices, countless others to whatever destination awaits them. People who use mobility devices, walkers or canes receive our special attention. Each passenger is our responsibility, their safety entrusted to our skill and instincts. No matter what Mother Nature throws at our windshields, we brave conditions to provide millions of safe rides every year.

The first weekend of January was particularly challenging after a few inches of snow were topped with a thick sheen of treacherous ice. We remember snow days of years past, when our fellow citizens were urged to stay home while we braved dangerous conditions just to get to the garage so we could slip and slide along our hilly town to safely transport friends and neighbors.

Sometimes, when I glide along in my 20-ton mega ride, I'm treated to a lovely sight. It could be a dazzling snowy Mt. Hood illuminated by a full moon, downtown Portland bathed in the shades of pink and purple during a grand Northwest sunset, or deer grazing along the roadside. I marvel at the kindness of my fellow Portlanders who see someone struggling to cross the street in their mobility device, so they push them to safety. Rush hour traffic affords the opportunity to observe the Portland "zipper", where merging vehicles are allowed in one at a time in a show of solidarity in our steadily worsening traffic. Yes, there are many good things we see out there too. Somehow the good balances the tougher moments of our everyday toils.

Just like any job, it's hard sometimes. Often, it's extremely difficult. It's also physically demanding. By the last day of my work week, it seems each joint of my aging body has been subjected to a triathlete's training regimen. One night I recently counted how many times my foot depressed the brake pedal to stop the bus. In one 80-minute ride, the busiest of my shift, I stopped 90 times at service stops, traffic lights, pedestrian crossings or stop signs. Since that's on the high end of things, let's say I average 65 stops an hour for a total of eight hours of driving. That means I stop the bus 520 times each shift. When you consider how many muscles in your lower back, hips, thighs, knees, calves and feet are used to perform this maneuver, you get a better idea of why we might be a bit grumpy at the end of the line. Our brake pedal isn't as soft a touch as a car's; it takes a few hundred pounds of pressure, plus intense fine motor control of our legs and feet, to smoothly stop a bus. By the end of our shift, it's best not to piss us off. Multiply 520 by five nights and you'll see I stop 2,600 times a week. Ouch. Yeah, our parts can wear out quickly, especially those of us who've haven't seen our 30s in quite a while.

Repetitive motion injuries are common in transit operators. Resisting claims for these injuries is common among transit agencies. It's an ongoing battle sometimes to get compensated for them. Contract negotiations in which the agency bemoans our "Cadillac health benefits" tend to irritate the hell out of us. Especially when those doing the moaning make six-figure salaries and golden parachutes await their retirement. Any operator who makes six figures is a working madman hell-bent on retiring into a wooden box, maxing out their hours of service for as long as their body holds out. In short, we earn every penny we fight for. It's harder to keep our job than it is to get fired from it. Too many complaints get us "counseling sessions" from managers. If we're involved in a collision, even if it's not our fault, our actions prior to the collision are studied by panels to see if we did everything reasonable to avoid it. If not, we're assessed a PA (Preventable Accident). Get five of these in any two year period, you're done. We're constantly on the alert out there as a result, and that's usually a good thing. However, the mental combined with physical make for stressful working conditions. The rigors of the road age us 2-3 years for every one in the seat. Our health insurance was once covered 100%, as agencies realized the toll this job has on the body. Since the recession, we've been paying a small percentage of our premiums but we're still getting beat up out there. Something's got to give soon, but chances are it'll be my knee joints before the agency grants us any healthcare concessions.

So if you're in the general bus-riding community, hear my prayer. Call in with compliments more than complaints, recognize your particular bus operator's humanity, and remember that when we begin negotiating our contract again this year we're not the spoiled brats we'll likely be made out to be. He who smelt it usually dealt it. Or something like that.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Sharing 'Flight of an Eagle'

One of the best singer/songwriters of our era passed yesterday. Here, Patrick Coomer writes about it. Check it out...

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Funny Ha Ha

My dear lady buds were gathered at the Extra Board table one day when I came in to do a quick work-related errand. A few minutes later, I was outbound.

"In and out so fast?" dear Karen asked.

"Well," I replied, "if that's the only time a woman asks me that, I'm doing pretty good."

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Now for the Frozen Truth...

Sunday night's icy conditions, with one bus having slid off the road.

My last piece being about what it was like "out there" driving on the ice, it's time to show the other side of the story.

Portland is a terribly-run city when it comes to inclement weather. The lack of planning is astounding. True, the freeways are the first to receive attention, but the rest of us have to wait. We're expected to be at work, ready to drive, no matter what the weather is. Where's our support? I've read a lot of Tweets ranting about how we "suck", but when there's icy weather, who is out there taking Portland to work and home? WE are. Operators, supervisors and maintenance crews are on the road, risking injury to serve an often ungrateful public. I saw no management out there spreading salt on platforms, chaining buses or making sure we were okay while they took credit for the invaluable service WE provided during this storm.

Our dispatchers worked tirelessly for us, and I am truly thankful for their incredible dedication. They were trying to get sand trucks to the worst spots. But I only saw four such trucks the entire day and into the evening. Two of them came to lay sand at a trouble spot just in front of me where a bus had slid off the road. I had stopped and locked my bus because I didn't want to slide into the bus ahead of me. My few passengers abandoned me, but I don't feel comfortable moving 40,000 pounds of glass and steel downhill toward a busy intersection knowing to do so would seriously endanger the driving/walking public around me. The sand trucks came and did their thing, slipping and sliding a little themselves. Only then did I feel comfortable proceeding.

A serene scene at Oregon City Transit Center, before the ice struck.
To the frustrated rider who Tweeted that they had seen buses sliding off the road and wondered "how much winter driving training do they get?": what do YOU think? You imbecile! We are taught in training what to do, but how to do it can only be learned on the road. We're professionals, yes. But to maneuver a vehicle that large without sliding on wet ice is an incredible display of driving skill. Keeping it away from fools on four wheels who shouldn't be out in the first place is nothing short of miraculous. Fools have a way of armchair quarterbacking what we do, when they have no understanding of operating anything more complex than a video game controller. In the real world, you don't just get up and get a "do over" or use another "life" after crashing. We're playing for keeps out there, folks.

When we have snow/ice storms, we're supposed to have a "Snow Line" available to us. Dispatch is so busy fielding emergency calls it has no time for questions or advice. When I tried to call this line, I reached a recording that said we were "operating on normal conditions" so it wasn't necessary. Wow. I felt trapped. We had two inches of snow on the roads, topped with another inch or two of ice. I had  a question I didn't think important enough to bother our brother and sister dispatchers. They were dealing with true emergencies and I didn't want to interrupt the process of someone in trouble getting help. So as many others of us did that day, I sat and thought it out. Logic, professional experience, and a ton of grit went into many of our decisions. Luckily for me, I didn't end up in a ditch somewhere. Nor did my bus make contact with anything or anybody.

Unluckily for some operators, they slipped and fell on icy sidewalks. One reportedly suffered a serious head injury requiring surgery. Other ops were surely bruised and battered from trying to keep upright in their quest to use a restroom at the end of their line. I nearly slipped and fell, and I had ice trekkers on!

Many of my passengers graciously thanked me for working that day. Conditions were terrible, and they were thankful to have a safe ride. But the ignorant masses are never satisfied. They say horrible things about us as we're doing our best to keep people moving safely. But I know one thing: we may not be perfect, but when the weather's so bad nobody should be out there, WE are. Bank on it.

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!