What is TriMet bus operator training like?

In case you haven’t heard or noticed, TriMet is hiring. In fact, they are desperate. TriMet is so desperate they offered hiring bonuses of $2,500, bumped its initial pay, and even recently cut back service because they are so short of drivers.

So while the need is definitely there, you may be asking yourself what is it like, and more specifically what is training like? Is it hard? Can I pass it?

The first bus I ever drove, in TriMet’s beautiful old livery. These 2200s are long gone though, I was probably among the last to drive them.

TriMet initial bus operator training is seven weeks long, and you’ll be paid 40 hours a week for the time during training. Training is not impossible, but if you’ve never driven a large vehicle before, it’s challenging learning a new way to drive around the city. Once in the seat, you realize there is a lot going on, both on the bus and in the streets, that you need to be constantly aware of in order to operate your bus safely.

However, to even get to training, you need to get through the hiring process. There are some tests on how you handle people, an interview, and a drug test. Here’s the catch about the drug tests: you can’t use marijuana or cannabanoid products or any other drugs while you are TriMet bus driver; it’s federal law and drivers get randomly tested the entire time they are employed by TriMet. So don’t take that first drug test and then go out and celebrate or whatever thinking you got a job, because you’ll probably have another random urinanalysis in your future at some point. Bottom line, drugs and bus driving don’t mix, so if that is something that is part of your life, give it up or don’t expect to last long at TriMet. Think about it this way, do you want to ride on a bus driven by a person under the influence?

After the hiring process, which can last a couple of weeks between getting all your paperwork in line and passing your DMV tests, you’ll get a start date to begin training. The first few days of training are easy and dull — a lot of HR paperwork and welcome to TriMet presentations. You’ll find out who you’ll be teamed up with as your partner for training, and which garage you’ll be training out of.

The interior of these old buses were AMAZING! You want to get people back on the bus? Have seats that look like this.

A couple of days of powerpoints later, and you’ll finally get your chance to drive the bus. Buses are not like cars, and there a lot of switches, dials, knobs, and gauges on the dashboard, but most importantly the mirrors and the brakes. If you never gave much though to the mirrors in your car before, they will soon be your best friend on the bus. Buses are huge beasts, and there are plenty of bits and pieces that block your vision as you drive through the city. You’ll learn how you have to move your body around to see around those barriers, because, if you hadn’t already figured out, moving a bus through a crowded city is a big responsibility.

You will spend a few days just driving around the yard. Turning the bus, stopping the bus, moving the bus, parking the bus. You will drive the bus through your own slow speed slalom course with cones and everything. It’s harder than it looks and not at all like driving a car. Buses are LOOOONG, and when you turn the wheel, you need to remember there is 40 feet of bus behind you.

After getting a handle moving around the yard, the instructor might take you out on the road. My first trip out of the yard was a slow trip down TV Highway in Washington County, me white knuckling the steering wheel afraid of hitting something. It’s scary at first, but with every trip, I got a little more confidence in moving the bus. The instructors are good, slowly building you up from easy situations to the more difficult streets you have to navigate buses down.

If you’ve never driven a large vehicle before, the trainers do a good job of getting you ready for it. I had never driven anything larger than a pickup truck before, so I was nervous at first, but you can handle it. Go slow, listen to your instructors, and don’t hit anything.

In the background of PowerPoints, on the road driving, and working through scenarios in the classroom, you are learning the different things you need to do in order to pass your commercial drivers license test. You have to memorize how to do a pretrip check per the DMV requirements in order to pass your commercial drivers license test. The pretrip is a long list of items on the bus you need to memorize verbatim and say out loud in order to pass the test. I’m not good at memorizing random things only to regurgitate them at a random date, and for me this was the most stressful part of training. You also have to learn how to park the bus in a couple of different ways, and then there is the on the road drivers test.

If you don’t pass the CDL test, you will get dropped from training and it will be bye bye TriMet for you, which for me at least added to to the stress of the situation. The test itself isn’t impossible, it happens a couple of weeks into your training, by which time you’ve probably gone over the pretrip so many times you’re repeating it in your sleep, and you can almost do an alley dock backup without sweating a ton.

Just some buses hanging out at Merlo in December 2018.

Once you pass the CDL test, training delves more into the specifics of driving the bus and working at TriMet. How to read a paddle (the schedule with timepoints that will rule your life on the job), how to decipher the turn-by-turn directions and combine that with the paddle’s information to make sure you are where you’re supposed to be on your route at any given time. How to service a bus stop. How to handle bus stops in places that aren’t great for stopping a bus. How to provide good customer service and help customers with special needs.

Combined with all of these PowerPoints, there is plenty of on the road driving, which was my favorite part of training. Trainers take you to all the different transit centers around the district, show you where all the secret TriMet bathrooms are around town. They will show you some of the weird routes and turns and situations you will have to deal with driving the bus in the system.

One week will be devoted to night driving. Driving a bus at night is a little bit different than during the day. The dark makes things harder to see; tree branches, poorly parked cars, where the rear end of the bus is while making a sharp turn, a passenger standing at a bus stop. If you’re lucky to do training in winter time, like I was, most of your night training will actually happen during darkness and you’ll be well prepared to handle driving at night. If you’re trained during the summer time, well, you have to wait for that sun to set before you get any darkness, which means your night training might be a little different.

After night training, there is a week of line training. You are paired up with a real TriMet bus operator and work a shift together. Line Training was invaluable to me. It’s one thing getting told how to do something in the classroom, it’s another working a 8 hour (or more) shift, picking up passengers, and learning how to handle the bus in real world operations. My line trainers were nice, and provided a bit of the “this is what operating a bus in the real world is like.”

On one of our final days of training, we drove all the way out to Estacada, where the 30 goes. The 30 is unlike most routes in TriMet’s system, as it goes down a twisty, turn-y, rural highway in Clackamas County.

By the final week of your training, you probably have your new work schedule ready to go and are asking any final questions of your trainers before they release you and your bus into the big world of Portland, Oregon. Make sure you ask as many questions as you can. Once you are out in the city on your own in the real world, you are in charge of the bus and you will be the one making decisions, and being responsible for those decisions. However, by this time in training, you will be ready.

Operating a bus is like many things, the more you do it, the more you get better at it, and the more all those little things they were telling you to do in training just become second nature and do not require conscious thinking to do them all the time. You’ll get more confidence and learn how the bus feels and moves more.

Driving a bus in Portland is both a hard job and an easy job, it just depends on what kind of day it is. By the end of training you will have the skills necessary to do it if this is the job for you. That being said, here are some things I’d make sure you go over with your trainer before you get the magical key and are released on your own:

Overall, training was just challenging enough for me without ever feeling overwhelming. The trainers do a good job of ramping up your skills, giving you progressively more challenging situations as you continue to learn. I had a great time, and my training partner and I got a long really well.

Downsides to training are the inflexible schedule with no opportunity to take time off if you get sick. To pass training, you need to be there every single day and you need to be on time, because at TriMet if you are one second late, you are late and have an oversleep. Three oversleeps during probation and you’ll need to find a new job.

And then there is probation at TriMet. Your first six months at TriMet is your probationary period where it is a lot easier for them to fire you than afterward. You can make it through probation, just go slow, be nice to people, and don’t feel rushed. It can feel like a weight during those six months, but once its over, you’ll feel a lot better.

The bottom line is, if you like people, the city, public transportation, and have a safety focused mindset, driving for TriMet is a good career. Like any job, it’s not perfect, has its ups and downs, and its challenges, which given the way the city is these days, has been frequent. But honestly, most days, I love driving the bus, I love dealing with all the characters and I always get the best views of the city.

This is a personal blog, the views expressed in this blog are solely mine and do not necessarily reflect the views of TriMet.

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Don Iler

I’m a public transit enthusiast in Portland, Oregon. I love public transportation, history and writing.