6:15 am – Drive the 36 in the snow
I’ve been watching the relatively mild chaos unfold (well, except for that overturned bus in Tacoma) from the comfort of home and figured I should write up my thoughts. I started driving for King County Metro back in November 2006. For those that remember, there was a snow storm that hit an afternoon commute back then that stranded LOTS of buses and caused a ton of chaos. That was my 1st week on the job – talk about trial by fire, er.. I mean, snow and ice. Back then I was driving the 342 which goes from Renton, to Bellevue, Totem Lake, Bothell, and finally Shoreline. In short, it’s a LONG route with a lot of different driving conditions. On a route that normally takes 2 hours 45 minutes to complete, I managed to make it back to the base after 7 hours without chains. I did slide the bus into a guardrail but the accident was ruled non-preventable and the damage was relatively minor.
Since then I’ve driven in just about every snowstorm we’ve seen here and have experienced all kinds of screwed up situations. There are the days that it threatened to snow and we went out with chains, only to have them taken off while on the road. There was the day that it started to snow right after I left the base without chains and it turned NASTY. (I made it back without hitting anything that day – Thank goodness for Gillig’s traction control). Then there was the day in 2008 where I drove an inbound trip on the 212 in the morning (in the tunnel with a 40′ Gillig – That was interesting) but when I reported for work in the afternoon, Metro had canceled all of the afternoon trips. I have *no* idea how those folks got home. The thought of what it would be like to be stuck downtown, waiting for a bus that never shows up still haunts me.
In short, I’ve seen a LOT of decisions made that went the wrong way and pissed off a lot of passengers. I’m not going to armchair quarterback past decisions since I understand how difficult it can be to coordinate all of the people, equipment, and politics involved. There’s enough folks out there griping about all of that anyway.
This time around, I felt like Metro has been much more organized. The web site had an announcement last night that routes would be on snow routing. When I arrived this morning to drive the 36, the supervisors had a list of canceled routes – mine wasn’t on it so I was headed out to play in the snow – with a 30 ton hybrid bus, no less. I then spoke with another supervisor who asked whether I was being relieved off the road – I was, so I was handed an instruction sheet with several phone numbers I could call if I had problems with my coach. (Metro’s older radio system can’t handle significant surges in radio traffic and has been a major problem in past snowstorms. It’s due to be replaced soon, but work is still ongoing) There was an additional phone number I could call if I was going to be late to my relief point. They then took down my cell phone number, just in case. When I headed out to pick up my 60′ coach, it had chains on 2 axles instead of just one – something that might come in handy when driving an articulated bus in the snow, which is notoriously difficult. The drive wheels are in the very back. Think about driving a truck while towing a boat with the boat trailer’s wheels doing all the pushing and you’ll get an idea of what it’s like.
I can’t say everything was perfect – I heard about various problems, but given the chaos Metro has seen in past years, this commute has been relatively mild. Hopefully amateur snow drivers, like the bozo on the Jose Rizal bridge who smashed up his pickup truck this morning, will stay off the road until Wednesday. That way, we at least don’t have to maneuver our bus around disabled vehicles.
For those who think Metro shouldn’t have sent buses out with chains and on snow routes this morning, I’d like you to think about the effort needed to chain up over 1400 buses. That’s a LOT of effort – it typically takes all night with Vehicle maintenance pulling overtime to get it accomplished. At some point, when it becomes obvious that the roads are safe, it’s relatively easy to have mechanics stationed around the city to remove chains as buses come to a certain point – Say 3rd & Union or maybe Bellevue Transit Center.
In short, it’s better to be over-prepared than under-prepared. Given how rarely it snows around here, I’d say that Metro’s cautious approach is a good one.