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Know Your Operator METRO Green Line

Know Your Operator: Alex Abay 

| Wednesday, November 30, 2016 2:59:00 PM

Train Operator Alex Abay at Union Depot Station in St. Paul. Alex Abay wanted to be a part of history.

So as the METRO Green Line approached its 2014 opening, he was among the first train operators to get involved in the light-rail line’s initial test runs. And when opening day arrived in 2014, he made sure to be sitting in the operator’s chair.

While the excitement of that day has subsided, Abay still gets a thrill when he’s on the job.

“It’s just amazing to me, to pull into a platform, see 100 people standing there, and in less than ten seconds  they’re all on board and off you go,” Abay said recently from the Green Line’s Operations & Maintenance Facility, where he and other Green Line operators are based.

Abay didn’t always envision himself working in transit, however.

After growing up in Ethiopia, Abay followed a distant cousin to the Twin Cities to pursue a career in industrial chemistry or finance.

To improve his English, he regularly listened to public radio. He got a job at the Minnesota Science Museum and enrolled at Century College, traveling to and from his St. Paul home on Route 62.

After graduating and landing a job in banking, he looked to transit again, picking up part-time weekend work to help repay his student loans.

“I saw other people driving and just said, ‘Let me try this,’” Abay said. “I was so young and skinny people thought I was a kid. One woman got on, couldn’t believe it, turned around and left.”

Abay stuck with it, though, and after a few years he decided to leave banking behind to go full-time at Metro Transit. He spent the next 14 years as a bus operator.

In 2012, with the region’s light rail system poised for growth, he decided to become a train operator. Abay said he missed interacting with customers but quickly grew to enjoy the different challenges he found at light rail.  

“To be given the trust to operate a train, that’s a big responsibility,” Abay said. “The first time, I was sweating. Your brain is always working and you always have to be ready to react.”

Abay’s focus has served him well, though. Since starting at Metro Transit, he’s received 17 Safe Operator awards. 

As Abay’s career has grown, so too has his family. Today, Abay lives in Farmington with his wife and two children. Outside of work, he spends as much time with them as he can, playing soccer, going to movies and attending church activities.

Looking back at the path that’s brought him here, Abay said he knows he was right to leave banking behind. “This was 100 percent the right decision,” he said. “I have absolutely no regrets.”

Operator at a Glance

  • Name: Alex Abay
  • Hired: April 10, 1999
  • Employee Number: #9975
  • Route: Green Line
  • Hobbies: Abay enjoys spending time with his family, going to movies and attending church activities. He also enjoys exercising – outside of work, he plays soccer and during his downtime at work, he can frequently be found playing ping pong (Abay advocated for the ping pong table so he and his fellow operators could stay active in their time between trips.)

To help you better get to know those getting you around, Metro Transit offers these 'Know Your Operator' profiles of train and bus operators. To suggest an operator for a future profile, please email ridersalmanac@metrotransit.org.

A Line BRT Bus Know Your Operator

Know Your Operator: Theresa Collins 

| Friday, September 09, 2016 2:26:00 PM

Metro Transit operator Theresa Collins.When Theresa Collins applied to be a bus operator, buses didn’t have power steering and the hiring manager thought she’d be too small to capably maneuver the vehicle.

She quickly proved otherwise.

Nearly 20 years later, she’s earned a reputation not just for safely and capably operating a bus but for having an outsized personality that makes passengers feel more like friends than customers.

Collins built particularly strong bonds on routes 21 and 14, where she spent much of her career until moving to the A Line when it opened in June.

The connections are built through simple gestures – greeting everyone with a smile, learning the names of frequent riders, handing out candy on Halloween and Easter and wearing a Santa hat for the holidays.

It also helps that she understands her audience. Collins used transit growing up in Minneapolis, became interested in the profession while commuting by bus in adulthood and frequently uses transit when going out.

“I want people to feel special when they board my bus,” Collins said from South Garage after a recent shift. “It’s all about customer service. That’s such a huge thing in this job.”

One sign that Collins takes pride in her work can be found on her right bicep, where her operator number, #1378, is tattooed and surrounded by roses, a nod to her middle name.

Another, slightly less permanent indication, is that she has printed more than 1,000 postcards with a photo of her at the Bus Rodeo so she can hand them out whenever she’s about to bid a frequent customer farewell.

“They just love it,” Collins said. “I’ve had customers tell me then have my picture on the fridge, which is kind of cool you know?”

Collins has also filled a bin with the cards she’s received, like the handmade card that came from students who rode with her all summer to swimming class.

Especially grateful was a customer who narrowly avoided being hit by an approaching vehicle; Collins jumped out of the bus and got the fast-driving motorist’s attention, leading her to slam on the brakes and miss the customer by inches.

The customer recently boarded Collins bus, gave her a big hug and thanked her for saving her life. 

Similar quick-thinking helped Collins alert two young boys who were also at risk of being hit while moving through a crosswalk in front of her bus. 

“When I sit at a red light, I’m not daydreaming – I’m always looking around,” Collins said.

Another memorable experience was the time she brought a woman in labor to North Memorial Hospital in Robbinsdale.

Because A Line customers buy fares before boarding and can get on through the front or back doors, Collins has fewer interaction than she used to. But she still sees some of her old customers and is getting to know some of the new riders as well.

And after spending years in Minneapolis, she is having fun seeing a different part of the metro. A Line buses run between the Blue Line’s 46th Street Station and Rosedale, largely on Snelling Avenue.

“I know Minneapolis like the back of my hand, so it’s been fun learning a new city,” she said. “Every day is an adventure.”

While Collins’ might have heard doubts when she started, she said the career she’s built has been anything but a surprise to her.

“When I started, I felt like I had hit the jackpot,” she said. “I knew I was going to have this job until I retired – I just knew it.”

Operator at a Glance

  • Name: Theresa Collins
  • Hired: Nov. 19, 1988
  • Employee Number: #1378
  • Route: A Line
  • Garage: South
  • Hobbies: Collins enjoys reading, movies, attending concerts and plays and dining out. She also enjoys decorating her home for the holidays, traveling, collecting foreign currency and attending garage sales. Earlier in her career, Collins rode a unicycle – to work.

To help you better get to know those getting you around, Metro Transit offers these 'Know Your Operator' profiles of train and bus operators. To suggest an operator for a future profile, please email ridersalmanac@metrotransit.org.

Bus Know Your Operator

Know Your Operator: Hector Espinoza 

Posted by Drew Kerr | Thursday, May 05, 2016 9:12:00 AM

Tired of his erratic hours working as a chef, Hector Espinoza went to the DMV picturing a job as an over the road truck driver. But when he ran into a friend there to get a license to become a bus operator, his outlook changed.

A decade later, Espinoza has earned a reputation as a skilled and well-liked bus operator with experience at a number of local transit providers. He’s spent the last five years working full-time at Metro Transit.

“The first time I drove during rush hour, I was nervous,” Espinoza said recently. “But when I got to the end of the route, the trainer got on the microphone and told the passengers it was my first day and I got a round of applause. Since then, everything has been nice and smooth.”

The transformation has indeed been a good one for Espinoza, who works out of Metro Transit’s South Garage in Bloomington.

Working as a bus operator has provided him a better work-life balance that allows more time with his wife, three sons and a daughter, superior pay and benefits and an optimistic outlook on his career.

    > Metro Transit is hiring operators! Learn more about career opportunities

He’s also developed a passion for working with the public, deliberately choosing busy urban routes where there are ample opportunities to interact.

“When I look in the mirror, I see people reading the paper, listening to music, looking at their phone and I think, ‘They’re all counting on me,’” Espinoza said. “I take that responsibility seriously. But I also enjoy the customers, the interaction, being outdoors and having all of the variety.”

Espinoza is sharing his experience as Metro Transit works to recruit more operators needed to support the agency’s growth and respond to a wave of retirements. He recently visited a south Minneapolis church where he spoke in front of the congregation about career opportunities.

A native of Ecuador who speaks Spanish, he’s particularly interested in letting Latinos know about what it means to work at Metro Transit.

“What I told them is that working here, it’s not just about being a bus operator,” Espinoza said. “If you like it, you can stay a bus operator for the rest of your career. But there are always more doors you can open.”

Many of Metro Transit’s managers and supervisors began their careers as operators; Espinoza hopes to follow a similar path.

For now, though, he’s focused on being the best operator he can be. And he’s doing a good job of it, too.

Espinoza has three years of safe driving and has placed in the top ten in each of Metro Transit’s annual Bus Roadeo competitions. Bus Roadeo tests operator’s skills through a series of driving and written tests.

“The first thing I care about is being safe,” Espinoza said. “Traffic is a challenge, but you just have to take it easy and not get too excited.”

Espinoza also takes pride in keeping a neat appearance, wearing a tie whenever he’s working (his co-workers have noticed, giving him the nickname “Hollywood”).

“I really take my job seriously, and try to be as professional as I can for the customers,” Espinoza said. “I look at it as a career at this point.”

Operator at a Glance

Name: Hector Espinoza

Hired: Feb. 6, 2010

Employee Number: 71095

Routes: Espinoza primarily drives urban local routes, including the 5, 4 and 6.

Garage: South Garage

Hobbies: Espinoza is active in his community, Apple Valley, and serves as a community soccer coach. He also enjoys playing volleyball and soccer and cooking.

To help you better get to know those getting you around, Metro Transit offers these 'Know Your Operator' profiles of train and bus operators. To suggest an operator for a future profile, please email ridersalmanac@metrotransit.org.

Know Your Operator Light Rail Safety

Operators put their skills to the test in Rail Rodeo 

Posted by Drew Kerr | Tuesday, April 05, 2016 11:37:00 AM

As the lead singer for the band Capital Sons, Karl Obermeyer is comfortable performing in front of a crowd.

On Saturday, he put on a different kind of show – joining 13 rail operators competing in front of judges as part of Metro Transit’s Rail Rodeo. During the event, operators were closely watched as they went through a series of tests and a written exam.

After the points were tallied, Obermeyer was declared the top-performing operator. And in retrospect, he said, his on-stage experience probably helped him overcome the nerves associated with operating a light-rail vehicle as judges looked over his shoulder. 

“This is something you do on a day-to-day basis, but to have somebody monitoring everything you do brings it to another level,” said Obermeyer, an extraboard operator who has worked on both the METRO Blue and Green lines over the last 2.5 years. “I suppose my experience as a performer did come into play, since I’m used to having people observing me.”

But it takes more than a cool demeanor to safely operate a light-rail vehicle, as Obermeyer and the other competitors displayed throughout the Rail Rodeo.

Walking through a light rail vehicle, operators were given 15 minutes to identify five defects that would need to be addressed before going into service. Moving a train around the storage area at the Hiawatha Operations & Maintenance Facility, judges listened for proper radio communication.

Operating between the Fort Snelling and Franklin Avenue stations, judges assigned scores based on the smoothness of the train movements, adherence to speed limits and station announcements. There was also a written test and a uniform inspection.

The second-leading scorer, Peter Mooers, said the competition was a great way to build his skills and remember why safety is such an important part of his job. Mooers is currently a Green Line operator who spent two years as a bus operator and moved to rail in early 2014. 

“It was a great way to build skills and make you want to improve as an operator,” he said after the competition.

Obermeyer and Mooers will have another chance to test their skills when they represent Metro Transit in the American Public Transit Association’s International Bus Rodeo. The competition will be held in Phoenix, Ariz. in June, and include a similar set of challenges.

“It’s an honor to represent the company I work for on an international level, and I’ll certainly put my best foot forward,” Obermeyer said. “Between now and then, I’ll be doing my homework.”

This is the first time Metro Transit has hosted a Rail Rodeo since 2008; the hope is to make it an annual event. Other operators who competed this year are: Hugo FuentesBill Morris, Lobsang Choephel, Jeremiah Collins, Andy Dolan, Dale Reak, Mohamud Ibrahim, Berhanu Mengistu, Nasreddine Yahiani, Mohamud Ahmed and Bob Tapper. The event was judged by Rail and Safety staff. Metro Transit's annual Bus Roadeo will be held Sept. 17-22. 

Know Your Operator

Know Your Operator: Renee Stafford 

| Friday, March 11, 2016 2:03:00 PM

Needing money to put herself through school, Renee Stafford taught swim lessons and worked as a lifeguard. But traveling between the University of Minnesota and her Mounds View home on Route 25, she was inspired to pursue a different line of work: driving a bus.

At 19-years-old, she submitted an application but was told she was too young. Within a month of her 21st birthday, after reaching the minimum age requirement, she tried again. And so began a career that has spanned nearly four decades, hundreds of thousands of miles and countless passengers. 

Stafford’s career choice still raises eyebrows among some family and friends. But no one is perhaps more astonished than Stafford that, after four decades of driving, she has become Metro Transit’s longest-tenured female operator.                                         

“I’m still pretty amazed by the fact that I get to move this 40-foot, 20-ton vehicle through heavy traffic, ice, snow or whatever,” she said. “I really get a kick out of the fact that this is what I’m doing.”

Surprising people has been a part of the job from the very beginning. When Stafford began in June 1976 she was among a handful of women driving buses. “We (women) were kind of an oddity when I started,” Stafford remembered. “Even now, people I meet away from work are shocked that I drive a city bus.”

That pressure was only compounded by the fact that Stafford had little experience in the urban environment she was now a part of. She remembers being “terrified” the first time she drove the bus alone in heavy traffic during rush hour – a Route 17A that ran from downtown Minneapolis to Uptown. 

The fear didn’t linger long, though. With each customer she met and each mile she drove, Stafford’s confidence grew. Today, she is widely recognized as a bright and cheerful presence both on the bus and with her peers at Nicollet Garage. (She also has a reputation for generosity: she and her husband have served as caretakers for three fellow bus operators stricken with cancer.)

“This job has helped me in a lot of ways, but in particular it’s taught me how to talk to people, because I was really forced to,” Stafford said. “I talk to everybody now, even if they don’t look particularly happy. I don’t want to say it’s a game, but I definitely take it as a challenge to get people to smile.”

Her eventual ease in the driver’s seat is part of the reason Stafford continued driving after graduating college. (A poor job market – combined with decisions to purchase a home and car – also provided some motivation.)

Not that her education hasn’t been useful. Stafford said she routinely applies the lessons she learned while studying to become a teacher, primarily when it comes to interacting with and helping customers.

“I have my degree and I think I use it every day, just maybe not in the way my parents thought I would,” she said.

In addition to her warm personality, Stafford prides herself on being a safe and reliable operator. She has 35 years of safe driving, which she credits largely to a commitment to the techniques taught in the Safety Keys training program.

“The Safety Keys are a big part of what I do,” Stafford said. “But I also always expect people to do the dumbest, most dangerous thing they could do.”

Her customers notice and appreciate her work. Driving Route 9 for the last six years, Stafford has become endeared to many longtime customers, including Minneapolis resident John Murphy. In a recent letter, Murphy thanked Stafford for being on time so he could catch his connecting bus and for always greeting him with a smile.

“Renee is not only an excellent bus driver, but very friendly and willing to chat,” he wrote. “I have been riding the bus for over 35 years and Renee is without a doubt the best driver I've ever had.”

As a Project Mobility operator, driving customers who could not use regular route bus service, Stafford became so beloved by a few of her customers that they even asked her to provide transportation on their wedding days.

The relationships Stafford has developed driving and among her fellow operators are what keeps her coming back.

“This job has allowed me to meet so many wonderful people, both passengers and co-workers,” she said. “I’m a better person for knowing them and that’s why I continue to love what I do, even after all these years.”

Name: Renee Stafford

Hired: June 1, 1976

Employee Number: 603

Garage: Nicollet

Hobbies: Renee regularly plays golf and also enjoys scuba diving, reading, gardening and traveling. She also has a small collection of holiday-themed and year-round snow globes. 

To better get to know those getting you around, Metro Transit offers these Know Your Operator profiles. If you'd like to suggest an operator for a future profile, please email ridersalmanac@metrotransit.org.

Bus Community Know Your Operator

Know Your Operator: Hussein Mohamed 

| Monday, November 23, 2015 12:29:00 PM

Hussein Mohamed had just graduated from high school when he was driven from Somali amid a violent civil war.

As a refugee in Kenya, he spent six years selling gasoline and other provisions so he could earn a modest income. In 1996, seeking a better future for himself and his family, he boarded a plane, flew 16 hours across the Atlantic Ocean, and set out to create a new life in the Twin Cities.

Nearly two decades later, the father of seven has become an active and enthusiastic leader for other Somalis who have made their homes here. He’s also become a home owner and gone back to school, studying business management at a local community college.

Getting to this point wasn’t easy. Mohamed held several jobs, as a dishwasher, janitor and taxi cab driver, before realizing that he had a calling for customer service. He’d taken the bus to work and knew a friend who was a bus driver at Metro Transit. So he applied and called until he got hired. At the time, he was one of just a few Somali-born operators.

After 14 years of driving, his message to others looking for a rewarding career is simple and unequivocal: working at Metro Transit is the opportunity of a lifetime.

“This is a job that brings hope to people from all over the world, including myself,” Mohamed said. “I send a lot of people here, telling them that the best company in the world is right at their doorsteps.”

Indeed, Mohamed has played a leading role in Metro Transit’s efforts to recruit drivers and to encourage ridership among the local Somali community. He does so both as a representative for Metro Transit and as community organizer who takes it upon himself to help Somali youth and to keep his peers informed.                                                                                            

“My father was a chief back in Somali so we always had people around and it taught me how to be a leader,” he said. “Helping people is my life.”

Mohamed offers a helping hand to those he works with as well. After being trained through Metro Transit’s peer support program, he is often called upon to work with operators who have gone through a traumatic event or are facing challenges.

“It’s all about making someone love their job when they’re down,” said Mohamed, whose warm demeanor and outgoing personality has earned him the nickname “King.”

While the job has its challenges, Mohamed said his best advice to himself and other operators is to simply take it one day at a time and to let things go easily. “When I leave home, I put my job number one so I have a fresh mind,” he said. “When I sit in the seat and press the gas, it’s a new day and it’s exciting.”

A ten-year safe driver, Mohamed has worked several routes throughout his career. Lately, he’s been driving Route 16, which continues to provide local service on University Avenue.

His hope for the future is to earn his degree, continue building his career and to expose more of his fellow Somalis to the opportunities available at Metro Transit. 

“You can tell just from my face that I’m happy and grateful,” Mohamed said. “I call myself a Minnesotan now and I look forward to raising my family here. This is my final destination.”

Operator at a Glance

Name: Hussein Mohamed

Hired: Oct. 8, 2001

Employee Number: 2406

Routes: Mohamed has driven several local and express routes, usually in Minneapolis and its immediate suburbs. Most recently, he has been on Route 16 with local service on University Avenue.

GarageHeywood Garage (previously spent time at the Martin J. Ruter and South garages)

Hobbies: Mohamed used to play soccer, but today he dedicates much of his time to his family, school and community. “My hobby is moving – constantly moving and talking to people,” he said.

To help you better get to know those getting you around, Metro Transit offers these 'Know Your Operator' profiles of train and bus operators. To suggest an operator for a future profile, please email ridersalmanac@metrotransit.org.

Bus Know Your Operator Safety

Celebrating four decades of service, safety 

| Wednesday, July 08, 2015 1:11:00 PM

When Jerry Olson was sent out to drive a bus alone for the first time, the then 21-year-old operator couldn’t help but feel a little anxious. After all, he’d had just four weeks of training and had gotten into enough trouble with his own vehicles that he’d earned the nickname “Crash.”

“The passengers must have been really nervous, because my leg was shaking the whole time,” Olson said of his maiden voyage on Route 19, taken back in 1972.

Olson quickly settled in, though, and spent the next four decades building a legacy as a model Metro Transit bus operator. Olson, #1504, is retiring this week after nearly 43 years of service.

The length of service is itself unique – at retirement, Olson had become the longest-tenured current operator at Metro Transit – but his record is made all the more impressive by the fact that his career also includes more than 41 consecutive years of safe driving.

“What he has achieved, less than 1 percent of operators are probably going to be able to do that,” said Doug Looyen, a Safety Specialist at South Garage, where Olson has worked since 1981.

Olson said it took a few years to get fully comfortable behind the wheel, but that a commitment to the Safety Keys helped him anticipate and react to whatever came his way. He spent 18 years as a trainer and mentored operators throughout his career, helping others successfully adopt the same approach.

In 2014, Olson was recognized for his contributions and named the Minnesota Bus Operator of the Year by the Minnesota Public Transit Association. Olson also received multiple Metro Transit awards during his career.

Taking his final trip Wednesday morning, Olson navigated through residential areas of Richfield and south Minneapolis, up Interstate 35W and through downtown Minneapolis with the same cool confidence that carried him throughout the years.

Along for the ride were several colleagues and family members, including fellow operator and wife Lynnette. General Manager Brian Lamb also rode along, sharing a few words and doughnuts to mark the occasion.

As an on-call operator, Olson carried millions of customers on multiple express and local routes throughout the metro. Passengers riding with him on Route 558 on Wednesday morning were impressed to learn about his safe driving record and humbled by his decades of service.

“This is one of those underappreciated jobs but, 42 years of service and doing what you love, that’s just beautiful,” said Tamara Rogers “He’s responsible for a lot of lives and to know he’s been accident-free for so long, that’s great.”

Pulling the empty bus into the garage for the final time, Olson said his final trip was bittersweet and a bit overwhelming. Now 63, he looks forward to spending more time with family and friends. But he will also miss his co-workers and time behind the wheel.

“I’ve spent more than two-thirds of my life here, so it wasn’t an easy decision to retire,” Olson said. “But there comes a time when you just have to say goodbye.”

    > MPR: Bus driver retires after 41 accident-free years

    > WCCO: Driver retires after years of safe driving

    > Star Tribune: Long-tenured Metro Transit operator retires

    > Saluting Jerry Olson, Minnesota’s Operator of the Year

    > Fond memories on a final ride

    > Using ‘Keys’ to put safety first

Learn more about Metro Transit staff who have retired with more than 30 years of service here

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