Tag Archives: bus operators

October Performance

Lots of interesting tidbits in TriMet’s October Performance Dashboard.

Ridership Changes

Ridership statistics

MAX ridership has gone down, no big surprise since there’s no more free rail zone so people won’t necessarily wait for a train to get from one point downtown to another if a bus shows up first (or if they just walk…) What is surprising is that despite service cuts in September, there are more people riding buses than this time last year when there was comparatively more service. WES is doing marginally better, but at $11.69 cost per boarding ride and an essentially flat graph, it’s nothing spectacular.

On Time Performance

I’d modified my last post with this graph (at the time I published that post, only performance through September was available, but October’s data made it even more interesting). In an Oregonian article, TriMet spokesperson Roberta Altstadt attributes the cause to external issues (e.g. cars crashing in the ROW, and as I said on Twitter, it’s a nice change of pace that the most recent drunk dumbass to go off-road didn’t do it over MAX ROW) and the inexperience of new operators. That new operator inexperience is not even just an issue of familiarity with the alignment – new operators are more likely to have rule violations that delay their trains (e.g. tripping a signal), and are generally not as capable as most seasoned operators are at quickly and accurately describing to Control any sort of mechanical issue they might have which leads to a delay in fixing it. Yes, these are problems that time and experience will help (until they hit the complacency mark around 6-12 months when rule violations often spike again, but that’s another issue…)

So while it’s true that inexperienced operators are part of the reason for the downward slope in MAX on time performance, that doesn’t really get at the root cause of WHY there are so many new operators out right now. TriMet went for about a year and a half without having new rail operator classes, and lately they’ve been run almost back to back due to operator shortage. It’s the same at bus – a long hiring freeze on bus drivers and now oh dear, there aren’t enough operators. So a hiring rush ends up where there’s a lot of inexperience on the roads and rails at once. This could have been avoided if more focus was given to actual operation and new people had been added at a steady, constant rate instead of in rapid succession after a long period of none at all… and I think that’s one of the contributing factors to this:

Collisions

Bus collisions per 100,000 miles

Ok, if we’re serious about this whole “Safety is  a value, not just a priority” and that’s not just a catch phrase to try and look good, then this warrants a long and hard look. Bus collision rates have been consistently higher (with 2 exceptions) than last year for the past year. After the Sandi Day incident, TriMet head of training Allen Morgan developed an annual bus operator recertification training program, which theoretically would reduce the number of bus accidents. Well it’s a wonderful idea, but it doesn’t work. Or maybe it does work but it’s the initial operating training that isn’t adequately preparing new drivers. Or maybe there’s just too many new drivers at once due to the hiring freeze. Whichever it is, this trend of increasing collisions needs an immediate response, and not just a safety committee that’s all talk and no action.

And so it doesn’t look like I’m just picking on bus and leaving rail alone: Even though it’s not one of the graphs presented in the dashboard, let’s take a look at rail rule violations as well. If there’s a similar trend, then we need to stop seeing how many times we can fit the word “safety” into a speech and actually do something to improve safety.

Budget

Tax Revenue

I’m no financial analyst, so maybe I’m looking at this all wrong, and if I am, feel free to correct me. But after that whole panic attack about TriMet having somewhere between $12-17 million budget shortfall… it looks like the actual revenue is almost $16 million over the budget for FY 2012, and about $3.5 million over for FY 2013. Even taking into consideration the passenger revenue chart which shows the budget being slightly higher than the actual (about $2.3 million for FY 2012 and $1.1 million for FY 2013), it doesn’t look like we were anywhere near being short – if so I would’ve guessed that the actual would be under the budget, or perhaps taking the recent cuts into consideration, about even. Instead it appears to be well over. What’s the story?

BREAKING NEWS

!!!  PRIORITY ONE  !!!

BUS DRIVER WHO IS PAID BY THE HOUR WORKS A LOT OF HOURS, GETS PAID FOR IT.

SOMEONE LET THE MEDIA KNOW, THIS IS IMPORTANT!!!!


Oh wait, they already know.

This really isn’t as much of a shocking new paradigm as the Oregonian would like it to be. Any moderately bright middle schooler could do the math for you. Remember grade school math word problems? “If a bus driver at the top of the pay scale makes $25.13 per hour for the first 8 hours, and then 1.5x that an hour for every hour after the first 8, and they work 9 hours a day, or 10, or more, how much money do they make?” The pay scales have been posted on TriMet’s website for a long time now – this isn’t news, nor is the concept of overtime.

The operators who are making well above the average are the ones willing to take every minute of overtime offered, working every holiday, working more than 8hrs/day, and working as many days off as allowed (operators can’t work more than 13 days in a row). And operators aren’t the ones who write the runs – if there are runs that pay 10, 11 hours a day, ultimately someone is going to sign them (usually the highest seniority people, but not always). Why should the operators who sign runs written with a lot of overtime have to apologize for it?

Why is there so much overtime available anyway?

Well, it’s kind of funny.  See, we’ve had this hiring freeze due to budget problems…

PORTLAND — TriMet officials said declining payroll tax revenues and pressure to crunch the budget will likely cause yet another round of route reductions and another increase in fares as well.

TriMet officials said they need to cut the budget for the next fiscal year by $27 million. Proposed changes include a 5-percent administrative cut, a salary and hiring freeze, reductions to bus and MAX service and a five-cent fare increase.

I forget exactly when the hiring freeze started – I would have guessed in 2009, but I did some searching and found this KGW news article on the hiring freeze dated February 10th of this year. Okay, let’s start with that date. Now here’s why this is funny – these are the job openings that have been posted at TriMet since February 10, 2010 (and the associated salary range for each, not including benefits):

  • Manager, Benefits; $72,776.00 – $109,165.00
  • Senior Accountant – Treasury & Cash Management; $51,652.00 – $77,479.00
  • General Manager (heh); $215,000
  • Field Outreach & Community Relations Representative; $12.56-$17.58/hr
  • Deputy General Counsel – Real Estate; $93,360.00 – $140,038.00
  • Real Property Specialist; $56,340.00 – $84,509.00
  • Executive Director Capital Projects (after Neil transferred to General Manager); actually I don’t know what this compensation range is, but according to that list of salaries, Neil made $184,690.92 so we’ll go with that.
  • Contracts Administrator III; $56,340.00 – $84,509.00
  • Director Transportation Operations; $85,986.00 – $128,977.00
  • Systems Engineer II-Network; $72,776.00 – $109,165.00
  • Service Worker; $15.78 – $21.04/hr
  • Director Safety & Security; $85,986.00 – $128,977.00
  • Administrator, MTP Contracts; $22.75 – $34.12/hr
  • Manager, Facilities Systems; $72,776.00 – $109,165.00
  • Receptionist; $12.56 – $17.58/hr
  • Legal Assistant; $19.05 – $28.57/hr
  • Coordinator, Operations Services; $20.83 – $31.24/hr
  • Facilities Specialist; $19.05 – $28.57/hr
  • Maintenance Supervisor; $27.09 – $40.63/hr
  • Accounting Manager; $72,776.00 – $109,165.00

Heckuva hiring freeze there…

Not counting the hourly jobs (because I don’t feel like doing the math) or the Executive Director of Capital projects (because I don’t have the range), that’s a total range from $935,768 on the low end to $1,331,514 on the high end of salaries of jobs posted at TriMet during this supposed “hiring freeze”.

You know what’s missing from that list? Bus operators. I don’t remember offhand the last time minirunners (part time bus operators) were hired, but I’d guess it was around the end of 2008. We have the money for all those other jobs, but no money to hire bus operators – in fact, bus operators were asked to take voluntary unpaid leaves of absence!

But buses still have to go out even when we’re short on operators – spend about 5 minutes on Twitter when a bus doesn’t show up to see how much people love it when their bus is a no-show. If we’re not hiring more operators to fill out the ranks, the only alternative is to have operators work overtime to keep things moving. Many operators are willing to take on overtime because hey, if you can do the work, it needs to get done, and you can make time and a half on it? Why wouldn’t you take it? So a lot of operators do. I don’t see why people have a problem with this – if operators didn’t pick up RDO work or if none were willing to work overtime, there would be a lot more buses & trains canceled due to no operator available to take them out. It’s mutually beneficial to the operators who want the overtime and the transit-dependent who want their buses to show up.

Here’s a thought for you – if there were enough operators to cover all the work, there wouldn’t be so much overtime available.

It’d be a lot cheaper if TriMet would hire minirunners again. They start at the bottom of the pay scale – a whopping $13.83/hr. Sure, operators who have been picking up the overtime would lose a lot of that and there’d probably be some grumbling about it, but overtime (though nice) is not guaranteed. Paying a newcomer $13.83/hr for their shift versus paying $37.70/hr (time and a half for the top rate of bus operator pay) would be a lot cheaper for TriMet to do, and you’d see fewer operators making these apparently oh-so-extravagant salaries. Actually I’d kind of enjoy it if TriMet posted openings for minirunners again – to all of the people whining about the work bus operators do and what they get paid for it: that would be your chance to either turn in your application to be a bus driver yourself or forever hold your peace.

Edited to add: Been talking about this with someone else, who said that there could be a budgetary reason why TriMet feels it makes more sense to pay lots of overtime than it would be to hire new minirunners.  Maybe that’s true – neither of us are TriMet financial planners with particular inside knowledge into that.

But I think it would be kind of nice if there was an official TriMet response to this media frenzy over operators who work a lot of overtime and make the money that they do because of it. TriMet doesn’t seem to mind paying it, so they should stand up for the operators that take on that work.

Health care and the sickout

And here we go with round 2 of this mess.

Portland not pictured, but would fall somewhere between #12 and #64. Source

I’ve already gone into why TriMet operators receive those health benefits – the job has severe negative health impacts, and so the union has negotiated a lot of the compensation to union employees to be in the form of health care rather than straight pay, which is why the hourly rate is lower than other cities. And the health care is not “free” any more than the paycheck you get from your job is “free” money. So effectively, with this announcement of requiring workers to cover some of the health care costs, TriMet union employees are taking a pay cut. And… somehow this became something for the public to be thrilled about?

This is not a zero-sum game.

What, specifically, are you (“you” being anyone calling for the firing of all bus/rail operators or saying anything along the lines of “I’m miserable and broke, therefore we all should be miserable and broke”) thinking that supporting this will accomplish? A bus driver needing to pay more for benefits doesn’t make yours cheaper. Nor does it suddenly require your boss to provide health care as part of your compensation. Your anger should be at them, not at fellow workers who thus far have not been screwed over. By all means be angry at what you may have lost, but don’t misdirect your anger. I don’t know any bus or rail operator who is happy at how much people are suffering right now, and doesn’t have friends/families/loved ones who are also struggling with pay cuts and high health care costs (if they can even afford insurance)

I don’t remember seeing any bus drivers cheering when the news reported that Intel was closing its Hillsboro office, losing 1000 jobs. Or when another 200 Oregonians were laid off when Cessna left the state. Or when another 200 Oregonians lost their jobs when Con-Way decided to outsource. You know why no bus drivers left hundreds of nasty comments on those stories?  Because it sucks when your fellow citizens are faced with pay cuts and/or lose their jobs, that’s why.

No one would blame any of those workers for being angry at being wrung over by their employers, but for some reason TriMet operators aren’t allowed to be upset when the general manager makes a unilateral decision that would change the contract while the contract is still awaiting arbitration? Now that it’s bus drivers (and the rest of the union workers too, but the bus operators are always the main target) as the focal point, suddenly it’s open season on transit operators for the rest of the public? Hundreds of comments across all the major Oregon news sources calling operators “fat”, “stupid”, “pigs” – what are we, in 5th grade again with the name calling? What is wrong with you people?!

Yes, many would. That’s the problem – companies are too eager to pay people next to nothing so they can blow money on their own pet projects.

And so many of those comments just show how ignorant people are – like thinking that TriMet operators are PERS employees (no), or that when your bus or train shows up 10+ minutes late, the driver is doing it because they’re lazy or to spite you, therefore all operators should be fired. Did it never occur to you that when a bus or train is that late, there’s a good chance that operator isn’t going to have time to take a bathroom break for the next few hours in order to try to make up that lost time? Or that they’re late because of traffic or because they’re unfamiliar with the route if it’s not one they usually do? Full confessional time – my first time operating a full trip on a Blue Line train from Cleveland to Hatfield, I was extremely late by the time I got to Hillsboro, not because of any incident that was delaying service or because I wanted to spite my passengers, but because I was so completely new at what I was doing and I didn’t have a very good sense of timing things – and it was my own fault that the train was that late because I was so new. If you were on my train, well, sorry. I did take a bathroom break though before turning around and going back to Cleveland. I’m not sorry for that. There haven’t been new operators in a while to make things run late, but there are plenty of reasons why your bus or train will be late and pretty much none of them have to do with operator spite.

This whole divide and conquer approach is sickening. Operators don’t hate the public (sure, there are some jerks that do, but find me any job that doesn’t have its share of jerks), and the public should not be turning on the operators for this. Want to be angry? Fine! Direct it where it should be directed.

  • Be angry that TriMet paid former General Manager Fred Hansen $40,000 to advise Australia on how to build a transit system. Australia didn’t pay for his services, we did, which then-TriMet board leader “[didn't] see it as a material issue, expensewise”.
  • Be angry that TriMet poured in $20+ million to a company they knew was failing (but felt was of “little concern”) in order to get WES, because by god, we need commuter rail.

Photo from the Portland Mercury

  • Be angry that the Green Line (which had service cuts before it even opened) was celebrated with a swanky foie gras & cocktails party where executives could congratulate each other on opening the Green Line. You know, I was one of the many nameless, faceless people who did some of the not-so-glamorous work into getting that going… where was my party invite?
  • Be angry that former Executive Director of Operations Steve Banta received a $15,000 retention bonus, stayed until after the first of the year (the stipulation for collecting the bonus) and then promptly left for Phoenix.
  • Be angry about the sneakiness with numbers surrounding the Milwaukie Line (and I say this as someone who obviously likes rail). We’re $130 million short, but then got $27 million from Metro, $20 million from the city of Portland, and a $10 million state grant to which spokeswoman Mary Fetsch says “We all came together quickly, and basically have almost closed that entire gap, and so I think everyone in the region feels very comfortable and really confident that we’re moving forward.”  27+20+10 = 130? Must be that new math.

None of this contributes to you as a rider getting reliable service (well, maybe the WES, but that carries a small fraction of TriMet riders). At least operator health benefits contribute to keeping your bus driver healthy and doing their job so that your bus shows up. And again, this had been part of the mutually agreed upon compensation for employees – and I’m in favor of your employer giving you the same exact thing. So for TriMet to decide that this, this is the breaking point after all of this other nonsense that was just fine and dandy to blow money on is ludicrous.

That being said, I don’t support a sick-out today. I do not fault any driver, mechanic, supervisor, etc who is angry about the way this whole thing is being handled. But I have never liked misdirected anger. Calling a sick-out doesn’t do a thing to hurt the people making these decisions. You think TriMet is going to send the salaried office workers (who don’t carry CDLs) out into the field to fill in for operators who don’t show up? Of course not! Their day isn’t going to be affected one way or the other. All a sick-out would do is screw over the transit dependent, and TriMet management does a good enough job of that on their own. They don’t need operators’ help making it worse.

Short and sweet.

Question: Are TriMet bus & rail operators PERS employees?

Answer:

NO.

 

If you’re going to criticize, at least get your facts straight.

More on the sick-out rumors, health insurance cuts, & everything else later.

Bus and rail comparisons

In the comments of my last post, both Michael of Portland Afoot and Nick asked similar questions, which I thought would best be addressed in their own post because my responses to their comments were getting pretty long.

I can’t help but wonder what difference it makes to have a sealed-off cabin like on MAX or on bus rapid transit systems, where the driver isn’t responsible for dealing with fares and doesn’t have to deal with people as they drive. Does this lower stress and ensuing health issues?

and

[H]ow do you think operating a MAX compares, in terms of physical and emotional stress, to operating a bus?

Physically speaking, I’d say bus is worse. I do know rail operators who ended up going back to bus for health-related reasons caused by operating the trains, but I probably know more rail operators who’d be happy to go back to bus but they can’t physically handle it. There’s a lot more turning, twisting, bending, etc at bus than at rail typically, unless you get into things like train troubleshooting – manually retracting a bridegplate, cutting out a door, pumping off a brake that’s hanging, etc (which is relatively rare compared to the physical movements done at bus). Most of the rail health problems I’ve seen are back problems – which most transit operators have – and left arm problems (hand, wrist, elbow, shoulder, etc) from using the motoring drum handle, or MDH.

Type 2 MDH – no gas or brake pedals in the trains, everything is done with this

Emotionally? It’s hard to say. Some people are mentally/emotionally more suited to one job than the other. If you’re a people-person and need interpersonal interaction in your job, rail is not the job for you – sure there’s still communicating over the radio and talking with other operators at the ends of the line, but it’s not the same as the constant interaction with bus passengers. On the flip side, if you’re more introverted, you might find that operating a train is less stressful than a bus because for the most part passenger interaction at rail is a choice – some operators will talk to passengers on the platforms through their window, for example, but many have very little interaction with the people on their train or on platforms. I have very little experience with bus rapid transit, so I don’t know how the stress of that compares with bus at TriMet, but bus operators needing to deal with driving the bus, announcing their stops, and handling passenger fares and questions is like “driving a truck while operating a checkout stand at Safeway” – that aspect is easier at rail where (generally speaking) the automated stop announcements work properly and you don’t need to field nearly as many questions as a bus operator does. And if someone boards a train without having valid fare, it’s not really your problem.

The differences in passenger interaction at bus and rail is mentioned in this old TriMet TV video interviewing operator Donna Popi (which gives a nice snapshot of what rail operators do):

Aside from the interpersonal interactions as a mental/emotional stressor, there are other differences in stress at rail and stress at bus. One of the most obvious ones is the risk of accidents. At bus, if someone runs out in front of you, you can hit the brakes, but more importantly, you can swerve. When someone runs out in front of you at rail, you can hit the mushroom (emergency brake) and the high horn and hope/pray that you stop in time or that the person gets out of the way, but there’s no swerving to evade a collision.

There’s also the difference of essentially being the captain of your own ship at bus, and being one of many vehicles sharing a fixed guideway at rail. I know there are a lot of operators who prefer that flexibility at bus – it’s easier to wait if you see someone running for your bus if they’re a little bit late, you’re not required to report in every little thing you do to dispatch, if you make a mistake and turn on the wrong street, you can get yourself back on route without causing any problems, or if your bus breaks down it’s unfortunate for your passengers but your follower can get around you and keep things moving even if there’s a delay in service, etc. So in that aspect, bus is pretty low-stress.

The four-car Type 4, after a broken down Type 4 tied up the alignment for more than 4 hours this past June

At rail, since you’re one part of many in a string of moving parts, if you stop moving unexpectedly it can affect all those parts behind you. If you break down, your followers physically can’t get around you, unless it happens to be in a place like BTC or Gateway or Rose Quarter, for example, where the setup of the switches and other tracks gives you some flexibility to get trains around you. If you need to leave your cab for any reason, you’re supposed to radio it in to Control – again, so that they and the trains behind you know that you’re not moving when you’re supposed to be. And it’s a lot easier to violate rules at rail than bus – from having the wrong route code in the train (essentially the equivalent of making a wrong turn) to getting an ATS trip from speeding or “running a red light”.

I’m not sure one job is more stressful than the other – they’re both high stress and have some overlap and some differences in what the major sources of stress are. I think a lot of it also depends on your own individual personality which one might suit you better.