Sunday, August 22, 2010

Metro St. Louis Bus Changes Are 8 Days Away. Are Riders Safe On The Buses?

The St. Louis public transit agency, Metro will be instituting the final phase of its service restoration program on August 30th.  That's eight days from today, and I'm seriously concerned that Metro has sacrificed customer service and safety in the interest of getting new service up and running ahead of the original schedule they gave their patrons.

My impressions of Metro's management and staff have gone up and down in the years I've used their system.  I do think there are some very committed and well meaning people in the plush offices Metro occupies on Laclede's Landing in St. Louis, but I think they're too concerned with getting the service we so desperately need  restored as quickly as possible and have less regard for the level of training of new employees and the conduct of existing operators than they should have. 

Metro wants to get their new routes implemented, but that's meant that they have had to hire a small army of operators, mechanics, and other personnel.  It also means that they're restoring the service with some FIFTY less buses than they'd like to have in order to provide service with the right sized, properly maintained buses they'd like to have. 

Maybe its just my bad luck, but in the last couple of weeks, I've experienced these disturbing incidents on Metro Buses:
  • I was thrown from my seat as a careless operator turned his bus at a high rate of speed, injuring my knee and having some of my belongings damaged.  After well over a dozen calls with various Metro people, this case remains unresolved.  In the interest of getting this situation behind me, I think I should not go into details of the accident or the calls with Metro employees.
  • A new driver had no idea where he was supposed to go, and despite the fact he was holding turning  directions in his hand, had to ask passengers where and when to turn.
  • Buses have been clocked going ten to fifteen miles over the speed limit on a busy winding road in St. Louis County on multiple occasions.
  • An operator completely missed going into a Park and Ride lot, part of the route he had driven for months.
I'm happy that Metro has accelerated their rollout of service changes, but have they done so at the potential risk of passenger safety and customer service?  I'm guessing I can't just pick up the phone and chat with the people who run Metro about this.  So I took advantage of a public bi-weekly chat the local newspaper runs.

Here's a conversation I had with Metro's COO Ray Friem during an STL Today Web chat last week. 
MarkE: I saw the same thing at the Ballas Center last night. That computer is an embarrassment, has been vandalized, and should be removed. On another note, are you comfortable with the level of safety your riders are experiencing based on the large number of new bus operators?

Ray Friem: We are committed to taking care of the kiosk you mention. Regarding the safety of our bus operators... we are very selective in those we accept into training. Then we put the potential operators through a rigorous training period. Included are defensive driving and customers service. All operators must obtain a commercial drivers license issued by the State and must pass written and on-the-road tests. We continue to monitor and supervise all operators. The new drivers may not be able to give you all the Metro system information immediately. That will take some days/weeks/months of on the job training.
 Do we have "days/weeks/months" to train people driving 40 foot buses?  How many other people get injured on Metro buses due to (what I contend is) operator error?  Would the same thing that happened to me be a bigger problem for an elderly person?  

Over the next week, Metro management and other employees will be taking time away from their jobs to promote the service changes.  Here's how their news release describes the campaign:
Metro will help customers prepare for changes to more than 50 bus routes starting on August 30 by delivering literally busloads of information to many of the Transit Centers across the region starting Monday, August 23, through Friday, August 27.
“Information Buses” – buses loaded with Metro transit experts, new route schedules and other information about the service changes that start August 30 – will be at many of the Transit Centers. Information tables staffed by transit experts with schedules and information to distribute to customers will be located at other centers.
I agree that it's important to let riders know what is about to happen to their bus routes and what kind of new service options are available to them.  But at a time when the COO of the organization admits that his employees are enduring "on the job training", couldn't these "Metro transit experts" be using their time to show employees how to drive safely and provide customers with decent service?

I want to ride Metro.  The new service on August 30 is a tremendous leap forward and will bring a bus much closer to my house and to thousands of other potential riders.  But I want to feel safe and confident that the operator knows what he or she is doing when I get on the bus.  Right now, I don't feel that way, and I find it hard to champion the work Metro is doing when I look behind the curtain and see what is really going on.

Metro is about to hire a new $200,000 a year CEO, perhaps before the restoration of service takes effect.  I hope this person has actually ridden a Metro bus as part of their research, because it looks like they're in for a very bumpy ride if the agency doesn't improve its safety and customer service.
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