Unappreciated Jobs

Today’s post is dedicated to what I believe might be one of the most unappreciated classes of jobs: the public transit driver. The train conductor. The bus driver. The subway guy (the underground system, not Jared). Most people never notice them when they do a good job but will show their worse side when things aren’t on schedule. But in unappreciated jobs, that’s pretty common. But things are worse. Their job is to get people to places on schedule. That’s really 2 jobs. One, pick up people, and two, be on schedule. Unfortunately, these happen to work against each other far too often.

Just yesterday, I went in to San Francisco to meet my sister and hang out. To get there, I planned to take the Caltrain (a train) from Palo Alto to Millbrae, switch to the BART (a subway), get off at Embarcadero, meet my sister, then take the MUNI (a bus) to Fisherman’s Wharf. I arrived at the Caltrain station around 11:20 for the 11:31 train and had plenty of time to get my ticket and wait for it to come. The train arrived and pulled up a little farther than where the cluster of people were standing, so we walked up forward along the station. As I got closer, I saw the last car was the luggage car, and a lot of people were trying to get on it. I figured I would walk up the station to the next car and get on there. Just as I stepped up, the door closed. I looked back and saw the luggage car still loading, so I figured they would re-open the doors. They didn’t. As I started to move back towards the luggage car, they finished loading, the door closed, and the train started to pull away. Looks like I would be an hour late.

Contrast to the BART. When I finally arrived at Millbrae, I got on the subway with plenty of time. Since Millbrae is at the end of the line, the subways typically sit for awhile to catch everyone. To warn when it’s about to leave, they usually close the doors about 30 seconds before it actually leaves, then re-opens and closes as it pulls away. I saw the warning, but it looked like a couple people were just getting through the turnstiles and wouldn’t make it. But the driver saw them, and waited. As the doors closed again, another couple was running towards the train. Instead of going, the driver waited again, let them on, and then left.

The drivers seem to have some leeway with how they run their schedule, and in both of these situations, it seems like the right thing to do is to wait for the couple stragglers. The problem with this is that it throws off the schedule. Take the BART/Caltrain interchange. Coming back from the airport to campus, I have to take the BART to the Caltrain, again at Millbrae. Once, the BART was just a little behind, and as I got off the BART, I saw the Caltrain pull away. Given the schedule, I had to wait an hour for the next one.

So the costs seems obvious here. If the drivers keep the schedule, they’ll strand a couple people. If they don’t, the minute or even seconds might matter behind switches. In either case, passengers who suffer the consequences will likely be cross with the driver. I certainly was (until I walked to the Borders and looked around instead of waiting at the station). What seems really unfair about this is that they’re the scapegoat for our failures as passengers. If we could all arrive on time, know the schedules, and load quickly, none of this would be a problem. I guess it’s just easier sometimes to not take responsibility for it.

One thought on “Unappreciated Jobs”

  1. Your story about bus and train schedules reminds me of a story by Russell Ackoff. It’s written in “Creating the Corporate Future” (which is a page available at http://books.google.com/books?id=8EEO2L4cApsC&pg=PA179 ).

    Here’s the text.

    >> A large European city used double-decker buses as its principal means of public transportation. Each bus had a crew of two: a driver who occu pied a cab separated from the rest of the bus, and a conductor who had three functions. The conductor signaled the driver when there were passengers who wanted to get off at the next stop, signaled again when to start, and collected fares from those who had boarded. Fares were norrnally collected when the bus was in motion to make the stops as short as possible. During peak hours this often required the conductor to force his or her way through the crowd on both levels in order to collect fares. Frequently the conductor failed to return to the entrance in time to signal the driver not to stop. (The driver was required to stop unless a signal not to was received.) Therefore, the driver often stopped when there were no passengers to discharge or take on board. Such unnecessary stops bred hostility between drivers and conductors, the drivers being on a meet-the-schedule incentive system, and the conductor being penalized for failure to collect fares if spotted by an unidentified inspector.

    >> The hostility became overt and culminated in a “war” between the two relevant unions. A number of efforts to solve the problem by bringing drivers and conductors together into group discussion failed. Most of these meetings ended in violence.

    >> An outsider was brought in to help. He broadened the problem to include the stops as well as the buses. When this was done it was discovered that at peak hours there were more buses operating than there were stops. This led to a solution in which conductors were located at the stops during peak hours, not on the buses. Then they could collect fares from passengers while they were waiting for a bus. Conductors could signal drivers when to start by using a button located at the rear entrance to the bus, and passengers could signal the driver when they wanted to get off by pulling a cord placed around the sides of the bus. Not only did this reduce delays. but it made fare collection easier. When the number of buses in operation was less than the number of stops, at oft-peak hours, the conductor could return to the bus.

    This is a classic Russell Ackoff story (which provides some context for any visit that I make to Philadelphia.

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