Train Controller – 6 Years Later

baToday mark 6 years as a certified train controller for Bay Area Rapid Transit, this after 12 years of thankless work at United Airlines, a company I was all too happy leave. Yet the grass hasn’t always been greener on the other side. Now that I have some experience I can reflect on my experience as a train controller in the 5th largest transit system in North America (based on ridership).

Prior to leaving United I began voicing my opinion on how United Airlines had degraded and the fact I was still “lucky” to be employed. I then caught a break, thanks to a former co-worker of mine who put me in contact with the “right person” on the inside at BART in March, 2006. I made contact, rewrote my resume, with the help of a service and started the long process of gaining employment.

Two months later the position of Train Controller was posted and I jumped at the prospect and opportunity. This was only the start of a very long and complicated process. One of the most stressful periods in my life, the like of which I have never experienced before. Looking back on the the entire process and subsequent job I can now say it has been very rewarding. Yet, if you would have seen or inquired about my training while going through the certification process it would have been a completely different answer.

Even after 13 months of training, you are not ready to take on on the BART system when you sit down and plug in for the first time as a certified train controller. I asked another controller I admire, “For me, it took 5-7 years before I felt comfortable.” That answer sticks with me to this day. While I might have snickered and responded somewhat surprisingly, his answer is spot on.

I can’t say I have experienced everything, because every day is a new day and something different could potentially happen. The daily routine is quite monotonous, your force (or dispatch) trains from the end of the lines and TM or terminal zones, you monitor those trains you have responsibility for as they move through the system. Any problem, question or issue that arises, you must take care of. This could be something as simple as a passenger inquiry to a route through an interlocking that did not request. It could also include a train stopped because of smoke (usually from the train’s brakes) or other issues that require coordination between the train operator, tango (our maintenance supervisor) and the train controller. Sometimes even “routine” problems can turn into major delays.

I write this today, because over the last 8 years since first starting my inquiry into BART and the train controller position I have had 3 train controller candidates mention using the information they have found on T6F. Somewhat surprising to be honest, but hopefully it has allowed them to get information regarding the long and strenuous process. As of this writing, unfortunately out of the last 11 candidates from outside BA, only 1 has been certified. Not a very good track record at all. Granted the information contained in countless posts on my site would not have saved many of these individuals. Some, because of the process weren’t qualified, as was evident early in their training. Others didn’t have the commitment to the training, which is long and stressful. I can’t stress enough the time and effort you, as a candidate must make in order to be successful.

I can be honest now, I did not apply myself 100% during training. If I did, I probably would have certified earlier, as it was I was about a month after the other two candidates I trained with. I can still remember training like it was yesterday, sitting on the console with stress related sweat ringing the armpits of my shirts. This was EVERY DAY! I was talking to myself about what I was missing or what I should be doing, because there is always something you could be doing if nothing is going on.

Yet, if you can deal with the stress you are put through as a trainee (and you are liked by your peers) then you have a leg up on training. Never take anything said to you personal, if you don’t have a thick skin you might think twice about accepting the training offer. I have seen it too many times, where there is conflict between student and OJI based on what is being said. I can still recall having a hard time with one instructor, who was and still is a great guy. On the console he was in his training mode (former Air Force) and he was a ball buster. Off the console, on break away from work, you could talk to a nicer guy. Even to this day, I cite him as an example to trainees.

The job is rewarding and much better than what I came from. Even now, the airlines continue to struggle (yes, even United…err…Continental, whatever the hell they want to call it). I still know I made the right decision to leave after 12 years and find BART. If you are interested, read through the pages of information I have regarding the hiring process, it’s long and involved and some of the most stressful (mentally) training you will face. Once certified, you can relax, start learning the job and making a name and reputation for yourself.

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AFSCME

afscme_logoI am never been a staunch supporter of unions prior to this year. When I was hired at United Airlines I was thrust into the International Association of Machinists & Aerospace Workers (IAMAW), Local 1932. During my tenure on the ramp I never used of the services provided at the local level, went to one union meet (because they were serving El Pollo Loco) and never voted. Being a model employee I never had need to use the grievance process because of a management infringement on my union rights.

When hired at BART, I signed my card and paid my dues to the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). One of the smaller groups governed by a union, with SEIU 1021 and ATU 1555 drawing a majority of the membership. Our membership is quite diverse in terms of job titles as covered in Section 3.2 of our contract.

Recently, with contract negotiations raging, fueled by a 4 day strike at the beginning of July 4, the Train Controllers have been very vocal towards officers and executive board members. In a closed door session with (now) past president, the controllers were appalled and upset (as was much of the general membership) with the actions of the board, including the president. Our meeting led to her downfall and eventually resignation when charges were brought forth against her.

Since that time we have taken a liking to the Business Agent at Council 57 and her thoughts and comments as it pertains to our situation. She has provided us with strong words and brought our group in the Operations Control Center (Train Controllers & Vehicle Maintenance Supervisors) closer as a group. We were also the group that brought charges forward against (now) past president. None of us in the OCC accepted the temporary agreement and in a statement made to the press, supported the strike of ATU and SEIU workers at BART, even when we were told we could return to work.

Now as we approach the Sunday, August 4th midnight deadline there is little movement in contract negotiations, depending on what source you consider reliable. A strike is imminent, the duration, unknown. Unions continue to organize in order to strike and walk the picket line until we receive a fair and just contract, considering the $100 million we gave in concessions just 4 years ago.

I was contacted by our Council 57 Business Agent to determine my interest in being the strike captain at Pittsburg/Bay Point Station. She detailed what the position would require and agreed to take on the roll. This is hopefully the first step in further union involvement with AFSCME, as I am going to consider a position in the local when elections come up in September.

We seem to have a very strong and vocal group in the control center, but no one seems to have the time to put into the union effort. We are united and continue to push for change in our contract. Hopefully with the support of the membership, especially those in the control center and our Business Agent I can make the right moves and gain a seat on the union board.

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In Solidarity

bohica-bartAs an AFSCME member and BART employee I supported ATU & SEIU when union contracts expired at midnight on June 30. While my union could not picket, we could support the other unions, which I and my fellow union members did. Unfortunately during the 4 day strike I have lost all faith in the president of Local 3993. Her actions, breaking solidarity with the other unions might have gotten her a temporary agreement (TA) between AFSCME and BART management, but only enraged those employees who work in the operations control center. That comprises a group of only 25 out of a 215 member union, one that has a “me too” clause attached to it when it comes to union bargaining.

Behind a closed door meeting on July 3, between the union president and secretary with the OCC employees we literally got sold out by the union. The TA read, “The agreement means important changes to our compensation and classification system plus other improvements that will put us in a good place for the four years.” That was followed by, “If you want to return to work under this new tentative agreement it is within your rights.” Unfortunately returning to work for me, as a train controller would have been job suicide! The union majority are pencil pushers and analysts in our Lakeside office and do not deal with front line employees like train operators, foreworkers and station agents on a daily basis. I have spent the better part of 7 years building relationships with these employees, which make my job easier to accomplish. Returning to work in the face of this strike would have enraged the train operators and all those relationships I built would have been destroyed.

Much like ATU & SEIU voting 99% in favor of the strike, our group was unanimous, no one would cross the picket line. We went so far to draw up our own statement for release:

07/3/13
Statement for release to all AFSCME, SEIU, AND ATU members on behalf of the Train Controllers and Central Maintenance Supervisors.
 
     We are members of AFSCME 3993.  We want to state we emphatically support our ATU and SEIU brothers and sisters in their ongoing negotiations. 

     A tentative agreement was reached by our Union Board leadership.  A portion of that agreement included a statement from our negotiating members which encouraged our members to cross the picket lines of our ATU and SEIU brothers and sisters.  We are invoking our rights to continue to honor all picket lines. Your fight is our fight.  We, the Train Controllers and Central Maintenance supervisors within the Operations Control Center stand in solidarity with our Brothers and Sisters and will not cross the picket lines.

Social media seemed to be the best outlet for information, couldn’t trust the media to put out an honest story. I made it known while listening to the drivel from our union president that train controllers were not crossing the picket line. In a show of support train controllers made it out to strike locations including El Cerrito Del Norte, West Oakland, Walnut Creek, Fremont and Dublin-Pleasanton. This show of support seemed to go far and gave ATU & SEIU the reassurance we stood in solidarity with them in our fight with BART management.

While AFSCME accepted the TA it still needs to go to a vote with the general membership, hopefully we have a strong enough voice that it won’t pass. Until then BART management and the unions have 30 days to knock out an agreement or we will go back out supporting ATU and SEIU in their strike.

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Access Denied

It’s quite interesting to note that I am no longer allowed access to www.abovetopsecret.com because the content is categorized as, “Alternative Spirituality/Belief;Newsgroups/Forums.” ATS members exchange and debate their Above top Secret approved ideas and theories on a variety of “alternative topics”, including UFOs and extraterrestrial life, political scandals, New World Order, the 2012 phenomenon, cryptozoology, and secret societies. (source). So the content is already considered by some “questionable material.”

At my previous employer it seemed to be a weekly occurrence that a favored web site of mine would suddenly end up on the ‘Access Denied’ list. While I have no idea who maintained this filter, it became rather frustrating. Many times I would frequent forum based web sites, for example QRZ.com and MercuryCougar.net. Both of these sites I use specifically for the forums. Oddly enough neither ever made the list. But the forums for the game I helped develop was put on the list. To this day I have no reason why. Could it be because the word, ‘terror’ was in the domain name?

I am sure my time perusing the web site, Godlike Productions while at work is limited and will most likely end up on the “Access Denied’ list in the coming month(s). Why? The content is similar to that of ATS and presented in a forum and probably more loose in terms of moderation. Yet as of this posting, I still have complete access to it.

While not too surprising I can access ATS via the IP address (67.228.0.162), although I am sure this too is against policy and it would probably be advisable if I didn’t. Too bad to see more and more of my frequently visited sites being on the ‘Access Denied’ list. Guess that is why it’s called work.

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Tsunami. Derail. Power Issues. Oh My!

In the years leading up to my employment by BART, here in the bay area I can only remember a single event that delayed an extensive period of time. I had just got off work at SFO airport and was on the train headed to Bay Point about 6am in the morning. To be honest, I am not even sure what caused the problem (I believe I recall it was a software issue, but I can’t be sure). I remember having the train sit at the platform at Daly City until service was restarted.

Now being employed by BART, I see delays from the “other side of the tracks” so to speak. For the most part service is very good (in terms of on-time) through out the bay area. Of course you read some of the unofficial BART web sites and you would think the employees are overpaid, the system is archaic and unreliable and the trains themselves are never long enough, run on a poor schedule and always dirty for the amount of money people pay for a BART ticket.

The past two days have been a real challenge, not only for commuters today and people wanting to off board or catch a train between Pleasant Hill and Pittsburg/Bay Point. Yesterday a train derailed departing Concord Station. This incident caused delays and no one was injury. The trackway was shut down and train service was terminated at Pleasant Hill (Check out the images on Claycord.com!).

I do believe maintenance crews are to commended for all of their work through the evening and in to the early morning to get the trains usable for morning operations. While the derailment did cause delays and inconvenience patrons between Pleasant Hill and Bay Point, it paled in comparison to the power issues experienced downtown San Francisco this morning.Delays were rather extensive, “when an insulator protecting the third rail between the Montgomery and Embarcadero stations in San Francisco failed at 5 a.m., forcing BART to single-track trains through the transbay tube,” spokesman Linton Johnson said. The track was put back in service by 6:30am, but”police activity at the West Oakland station” compounded the delays further. This made for a very long morning commute, not only for patrons, but for employees.

Thankfully I work with some amazing people in my department and while it would seem like chaos to the casual observer there is actually some method to the madness in order to get trains where they need to go and establish some sort of service in order to get patrons to their intended destinations. It was about 10:30 or so when things finally settled down and the system back on time and trains were running to schedule.

These days are few and far between, but couple this with the “tsunami watch” we were on Friday and the events the past couple of days, I can understand why some patrons could be frustrated. Personally, many riders don’t know the full story and will only know what they read in the media. BART continues to maintain a high standard of safety and rules on-time over 93% of the time every month.

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