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.

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:

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.

BART Shuts Down Tube

It’s one of those days commuters dread, since many don’t consider an alternative mode of transportation to and from work. Should they? Eh, I don’t know BART service is pretty reliable with a 95% on-time performance (show me an airline that can do that regularly), so even when there is a minor incident, service usually can be back on schedule within 30 to 60 minutes.

Today…well last night was one of those nights that turned the commute for BART riders into a complete shutdown of the Trans Bay Tube, which connections Oakland and San Francisco. The problem, a fire at an under construction build near the BART right-of-way (area in which the trains operate), which ended up burning a portion of our trackway, including the electronic equipment used to operate our trains. While there are contingency plans in place, sometimes even the best plan doesn’t work.

Reading different sources today and comments by the public, some fault BART for not doing enough. Such as this comment,

I believe BART should have taken a more active part in setting up alternative transportation to the City. Contracting with a private coach service, for instance – even charging us $5-10 to cover costs would have gone a long way toward getting us into SF and removing the frustration and freeway clog. They have once agan alienated their most prized rider- the commuter – who daily pays upwards of $10 to ride their system! Yes, the fire was unforeseen and not BART’s fault but as a member of the community, BART should take more responsibility!

More responsibility? The city bus companies were contacted real early in the process. Messages from BART’s web site went out, many commuters, if they took responsibility would have known BART was going to have issues, which we did all day. No service to downtown San Francisco. I knew by 4am when I got up there was no service, I made the decision to drive into work today. Regardless of the plans put into effect by BART with the other local transportation companies, the demand was just too much.

When BART carries some 375,000 riders a day and there is a major disruption in service no contingency plan is going to be good enough. While I don’t care for the local media, they were at some bus stops and the lines were hours long! When the bus would arrive it would already be near capacity. It’s no wonder many individual were stranded or had to look elsewhere to get to work.

Driving was an option, but it’s the worst traffic I have witnessed since I moved up here. I drove a pretty crappy commute for 2 years from Oakley to SFO Airport and I saw some bad traffic, but nothing like today’s congestion head towards downtown San Francisco. The infrastructure and transportation companies can’t shoulder a complete shut down like BART experienced today.

Thankfully at 3:45pm this afternoon service between West Oakland and Embarcadero was restored, which was probably a relief to many commuters. I know it’s a relief for me when I walk into the office tomorrow and know there will be some form of service. Much like the derail we had last year, I commend all the personnel involved, for getting service restarted in just over 12 hours. That is huge effort in order to service the riders who make BART one of the best systems in America.

Would you sit next to this guy?

It’s been since August, 2011 I last posted something for ‘Standing Room Only’ a feature on my site that centers around commuting on BART, the light rail system in the Oakland/San Francisco area. The last time it was Anonymous mentioned in a story as they threatened cyberwar against BART, after the cellular service was shut off in downtown San Francisco stations preventing protesters from “organizing.”

This time, it’s a personal experience while riding the train. On May 19th my wife, God love her, shaved my head. First time since before we met about 9 years ago. She was not fond of the look, citing my head was “ugly.” I can accept that coming from a woman who has cut hear for 25 years or so. Now, she being my wife and me having a “stylist” as opposed to a barber she does what she wants to with my hair. Unfortunately there are times I have trouble getting an appointment to see her and the hair really starts to look shaggy.

So on May 19th something came over her and she shaved my head. It was short, nearly as short as how I wore it before I met her. Short enough you could call me a “skinhead” it was THAT short. The story doesn’t end there, it’s merely the beginning. A few months prior I bought a pair of Dr. Martens. Yes, these are the boots that are favored by skinheads. You see a theme developing here?

So the first day I go to work after my haircut I arrive at North Concord and walk to the platform to wait for my train. I get on, like I do every morning and ride it to Lake Merritt. This time, something was different. By Lafayette Station, the first car I was sitting in was full, except for one seat. That seat was next to me, yet there were people standing.

My morning is routine when I am on the train, I am reading a book on my Nook Color, minding my own business. Yet this day, no one would take the seat next to me. It didn’t take long to put the haircut and the boots together to realize many of these commuters probably thought I was a skinhead. Tell you the truth, doesn’t matter to me, gives me more room to stretch out on my 42 minute ride to work.

It is interesting to see the stares and glaces I get from people who are quick to label my look without knowing me. I don’t mind, label away people seem to be very good at that. My coworkers were a bit startled when I first walked in, but it seems to be a going joke now. Thankfully it’s not winter or I would look like the guy in the picture above, wearing my olive green flight jacket. Talk about looking the part.