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.

Job Satisfaction

A recent Harris Interactive survey* found only 45% of Americans are “satisfied or extremely satisfied” with their job, while only 20% feel “passionate” about what they do. It seems a good job is becoming more difficult to come by these days. I will consider myself extremely lucky that I landed a great job, one in which that allows me to answer honestly in the “extremely satisfied” category.

Never before have I felt such satisfaction with a job I have held. While working at the airlines, for United Airlines I did feel some satisfaction but one important part of the equation that was never going to be met was the pay. Even in the best year I never cleared $60,000, this after 6 years on the job. Unfortunately that sixth year (2001) at United spelled that end and sent the airline into a worse tailspin than it was already in.

I was passionate for my position at United, from ramp serviceman to load planner and zone controller (operations supervisor) to the time I spent in Chicago in flight dispatch. As I mentioned before, the pay was never going to be there and in fact by the time I punched out of United for greener pastures my pay had decreased 35%, with only 3% given back in my final year.

Thankfully BART has been an excellent experience as I approach my second full year with the light rain system. Training was long and very stressful, but I feel I have been rewarded for the effort and hard work I put forth in order to learn the company, the system, the nature of operations and my position as a Train Controller in the Operations Control Center.

While the pay is something that would NEVER have come at the airlines, the benefits are something that are really good, especially with a wife and son, who seems to make monthly emergency room visits. The retirement plan does not include paying into Social Security, but there are two plans I have enrolled in, one in which the company uses in lieu of Social Security.

The position is unique unto itself and while I cannot compare it to any other light rail system I am still impressed every time I walk into work or a tour comes through and they see what we do from our office, which allows us to run an entire light rain system (90+ miles of track) through out the Bay Area. The job requires you grow in order to become a good or even outstanding controller. I am challenged every day I sit down for my two hour rotation and attempt to better myself. Granted I am still learning and will be for the next 4 years from what everyone says.

It’s funny to hear some bitch and complain about the company or their job (not necessarily in my department), especially those who have never worked at another company. A prime example, there is now a time clock and all employees are required to swipe in and out at work. Prior to this there was much “leniency” when it came to punching in and especially punching out. So I can understand the reasoning behind the system, but many were upset with the implementation of the time/pay system.

Thankfully I will get to put in a solid 25-30 years of work at BART and get the satisfaction of doing a good job each day, while having excellent benefits and great pay structure, as well as free rides for my commute. Can’t beat that with the way fuel prices continue to rise.

Step Up Your Game

I remember a time about 7 months ago, when I would I hate coming to work. As I was told during training, “you just puke at the door and know you are going to get your ass kicked.” And a majority of the time that was the case, so much so it caused added pressure and stress on an already strenuous on the job training program.

Now, as we approach July, I have made great strides in my work ethic and performance. I am able to take on more responsibility, multitask as I once did at the airlines and be able to type and talk at the same time. But it has not been easy, as growing pains have taught valuable lessons, most of the time learning by my mistakes. Honestly, that has been the best way to learn, while causing the most problems, but it is all part of the job.

Sunday was one of those days, where your 80 minute rotation came and went and you noticed you had worked the entire system nonstop the entire time. This has been some of the best training, on the job, without the added pressure and stress I had during training. No extra eyes watching and scrutinizing your every decision and Monday morning quarterbacking every task.

As I was told, these are good days to work because you do have to “step up your game” in order to keep up with the system or else it will eat you alive. While I was a step or two behind the system I was able to keep all my trains moving, but the amount of radio traffic was unbelievable. Trains in every part of the system making inquiries, requesting information or routes, reading back instructions. But I did a fine job and had the satisfaction of knowing I did a good job.

Just four and a half more years and I think I will be settled in to the position. LOL!

Evaluation Time: Effective

It has only been since January that I have been “certified” as a Train Controller, but as mid-year approaches it is evaluation time, this coming up on my 2nd anniversary (October). While I have worked with the managers, other controllers and support personnel in the control center, this was the first time I was being evaluated for my performance.

The first evaluation was really just a baseline for the manager who completed it to use for next time. He did compare my “style” of controlling to his. I guess that is good, I am calm under pressure, don’t get excitable on the radio and remain cool and collected. Being here only 6 months as a certified controller, every day is something new, always learning in order to better myself to be a more complete controller.

There were numerous categories on which we were evaluated, with five different ratings, I ended up being “effective” on all those categories, which was fair. No reason to judge me any higher at this point, since there is still A LOT of room to grow and mature as a controller. These reviews also play into our pay raise. That is always a good thing.

This evaluation sure beats the hell out of my final evaluation at United, in which they told me I did not communicate well and I would only see a 3% raise (this after United took 35% from for pay cuts). Nothing positive out of my United review and many positive or potentially positive growth from my first BART evaluation.

Damn, I am happy I am here…

A Funny Feeling

Yesterday morning, I received a phone call while at breakfast. The call came from a friend of mine, whom I have worked with since my transfer to San Francisco with United a number of years back. He and I were both supervisors in the operations center, eventually we both made the move to BART and green pastures.

He called to tell me he was relinquishing his position as Train Controller (in training) and going back to be a Train Operator. I was saddened to hear this news because he has the mind and skills to be a great controller. I guess he delayed calling me because I would have attempted to talk him out of it. Maybe I actually pushed him too much to get in during the interview stages. I don’t know.

Regardless, he and I will still be good friends and I consider him one of the best operators we have in the system just because he is so thorough and knowledgeable. He will be a better train operator now for going through the 2.5 months of training he had, but it makes me wonder just how good of a controller he would have been. I will be curious to hear the “rumors” fly around the office when I return off vacation.

I guess he knew in his heart that this position was not for him after operating trains. I know I have talked to other former operators who are now in the operations center and sometimes they wish they were back out in the system, just them and their train.