OmniRide improves with more driver training
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
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
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
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?”
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,”
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
· Contact Chris Newman at [email protected].