Manassas museums 2/09/01



smoother ride:

OmniRide improves with more driver training


Chris Newman



MANASSAS – Donna Lauderdale was settling into her afternoon commute

on an OmniRide bus last fall when the driver told passengers the bus was

breaking down and she would have to pull over.

With perturbed Interstate 66 motorists whizzing by the slow bus, the

driver stopped and called in for a replacement, Lauderdale recounted. A

passenger told the driver she needed to be in a higher gear.

“I wonder how that happened,” said the driver, correcting

the problem.

It made Lauderdale wonder: Shouldn’t the bus drivers be better trained

than this? Why does it seem that drivers on the Manassas route go through

so fast that by the time they learn how to drive, they’re replaced by another


OmniRide – which passengers say they like and want to see succeed –

has been frustrating for riders with its inconsistency and poor customer


“A large percentage of them act as if they are hauling blocks of

concrete,” said Lauderdale, who has used OmniRide for a year. “It’s

so frustrating to so many people that they give up after a few months. People

say, ‘Well, I’ll take my car to Vienna.'”

When it’s cold, some bus drivers on break would rather not pull up to

the stop to allow passengers on, but rather have them wait out in the elements,

she and others said. When commuters wait in their cars at the K-Mart stop

in Manassas during bad weather, rookie drivers, seeing no one outside, go

right by.

Her complaints – echoed by other commuters interviewed by the Manassas

Journal Messenger – are a tough issue for OmniRide’s operators to solve

and one they have been trying to address since complaints peaked last July.

From the Metro to schools, area bus services in the hot economy have met

with unanticipated problems in hiring and keeping bus drivers.

“It’s been a management problem … We and other operators have

really been overtaken with events,” said Al Harf, executive director

of the Potomac and Rappahannock Transportation Commission, which operates

the OmniRide commuter bus system and the OmniLink local bus service.

Harf said PRTC bus routes are at a competitive disadvantage because

PRTC’s routes have split shifts, which does not compete well with other

straight shift routes. OmniRide’s strategy has been to target new drivers

who are retirees or persons who live in or south of the county and therefore

less likely to transfer to D.C. and Maryland bus routes.

That’s when the breakdowns in consistency occur.

PRTC drivers can opt to transfer to other routes operated by the Washington

Area Metropolitan Transportation Authority at several points during the

year, Harf said. Drivers are staffed by WMATA through a three-year contract

that began in July 1998.

The most recent “opt out” was Jan. 15, when PRTC lost 35 drivers.

Out of a total of 75 drivers, that is a fairly substantial turnover, Harf

said. The last two opt outs in July and October saw approximately 20 and

30 drivers leave, respectively.

PRTC received complaints for weeks after each of those turnovers, but

in January they had virtually no complaints as a result of an improved bus

driver training program aimed at reducing the learning curve, Harf said.

Among the training improvements:

· A new two-hour orientation that goes over PRTC responsibilities

that are distinct from Metro.

· A revamped curriculum with 12 hours of classroom training and

two hours of customer service training

· For drivers transferring from non-PRTC routes, a mandatory

weekend session to teach PRTC-specific protocols

· Instructors who ride with new and transferred drivers on their

first days of service

One factor that cannot be changed is the starting hourly rate for PRTC

bus drivers, which is $11.22, Harf said. That is the rate WMATA set in its

bid for the contract and is higher than what PRTC had asked for. It is the

same as the entry-level rate for WMATA routes, but the rate of pay increase

is faster in internal WMATA routes, Harf said, so drivers can make more

when they transfer to WMATA.

Pay rates could be looked at in the future, but not now with WMATA’s

renewable contract going until July 2001, he said.

Passengers on the 4:40 p.m. bus from the West Falls Church Metro Station

to Manassas said they liked their new driver, who started last month.

“For the most part they have been good,” said Manassas resident

Mike Wood. “It’s just last summer.”

“This thing would be great but it needs to be consistent,”

said fellow passenger Jorge Villavicencio of Manassas.

Passengers said the frustration caused by inconsistent service cuts

down on ridership.

Last month, OmniRide had an all-time high ridership with 3,448 passengers,

which PRTC officials attribute to Metrochek benefits drawing in more passengers.

But they’re still coming, which proves it is a quality service, said spokeswoman

Sheila Larson. That high mark is a 24 percent increase over a year ago.

Drivers’ inexperience can not only be a source of frustration, but also

mild entertainment.

Villavicencio and Lauderdale reported separate incidents when their

drivers inbound to Vienna took the Route 123 exit instead of the Route 243

Nutley Street exit for the Vienna Metro Station. Lauderdale said they yelled

out to the driver that it was wrong way, but they still lost half an hour.

“I had to say, ‘Hey, buddy, you know which way you’re going?”

Villavicencio said.

On Monday, the driver in Manassas missed the turn off Sudley Road to

the first stop on Williamson Street. The driver surprised passengers with

a massive U-turn, then at the stop no one got off. “That was funny,”

Villavicencio said.

Or when the driver had to keep stopping on I-66 because the side mirrors

kept blowing back.

Most OmniRide commuters in Manassas get off at the K-Mart on Sudley

Manor Drive because it saves them half an hour to drive themselves into


Wood said he’s tried the Virginia Railway Express, but it takes just

as long. He can save $1.90 on days he skips Metro and takes the bus all

the way into D.C. But there have been days, like once on a snow day, he

waited from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. for a bus. “They’ll tell you, ‘What

do you expect for a $1.75?’ That what they told me last time,” he said.

Mike Robinson of Manassas said he he has been riding for six months

and usually sleeps soundly. The most notable event he remembers was when

they were hit by a truck that ran a red light. No one was injured.

“One complaint,” Villavicencio said. “We could use a

wet bar.”

· Contact Chris Newman at [email protected].



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