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?


[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.


2 responses to “Bus and rail comparisons

  1. interesting view — there has been a lot of rail-bus talk going on lately from the planner/policy maker perspective, but not from the operator’s.

    I also had the impression that light rail is a bit higher responsibility job as the trains are dependent on each other — another example is that in a Swedish city you can be a bus driver with limited Swedish knowledge but need a high command of the language to be a tram driver, in order to solve problems via radio quickly.

    Interaction with passengers, however, is only indirectly a technology difference: many bus networks operate with off-vehicle ticket sales (so no passenger interaction) and there are also tram lines with drivers selling tickets.

    • That’s true about the communication aspect. A bus operator is like the captain of their own ship. At rail, you’re so closely tied in with everyone else that good communication is imperative.

      The passenger interaction part, at least at TriMet, is very different for bus and rail operators. You’re right that other places have different approaches (I think a lot of BRT lines have someone other than the bus operator dealing with fares) but I was just speaking from my perspective at TriMet.

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