Behind the wheel: My travels with B.C. Transit

Note: No passengers or B.C. Transit employees were injured in my driving attempt

Victoria News reporter Erin McCracken receives a crash course in operating a B.C Transit bus from B.C. Transit safety and training officer Phil Thornton-Joe Thursday before competing in the company's Bus Rodeo media challenge. McCracken earned a second-place finish.

I hesitantly slide into the driver’s seat of a B.C. Transit bus, not at all ready to steer the massive beast through five daunting obstacles set up around the company’s Langford yard.

I am about to get a crash course in appreciating transit bus drivers, who shuttle us to all ends of the Capital Region and beyond.

“I can direct you or you can try it on your own,” B.C. Transit safety and training officer Phil Thornton-Joe says graciously. There is no hint of panic or reluctance in his voice at being assigned to coach my rookie self through the next seven heart-pounding minutes.

“Just tell me what to do, and I’ll do it,” I choke out, hands gripping the enormous steering wheel. “And before we start, I just want to say, I’m sorry for everything I’m about to say and do.”

Six journalists, including CTV reporter Louise Hartland, CTV anchor Hudson Mack, Shaw TV’s Dan Kahan, CFAX radio host Ryan Price and Jack Knox, columnist for the Times Colonist, were vying for serious bragging rights in a B.C. Transit Roadeo Thursday.

Ten professional transit drivers are also competing amongst themselves (March 29 and 31) for the best time and point-based score for skill. The winner will go on to the 2012 International Bus Roadeo in Long Beach, Calif., May 4 to 8.

I glance quickly back at my judge and jury, B.C. Transit safety and training officer Sal Ruffolo. He’s doing a good job of fighting the urge, I suspect, of screaming his way off the bus.

After an all too brief lesson in changing signals and the difference between the gas and brake pedals, we’re off at the break-neck speed of two kilometres an hour.

The next thing I know, I’ve parked my bus – albeit on an unflattering angle – next to a curb. Still, the judge standing outside is unharmed.

Then we’re off to the obstacle that forces us into a turn. The entrance pylons remain upright, but I haven’t banked hard enough. I’m now in a face-off with four pylons inches away from the nose of my bus.

“I can’t make this turn without killing those ‘people,’ can I, Phil?” I ask, looking forlornly at the pylons. Reversing would result in further point reductions.

“Just nail them. Take them out,” he says. “It’s okay.”

Pylons scatter and we’re off to navigate my right wheels between two lines of tennis balls, mounted on washers.

“How do you know where the wheels are, Phil? I can’t see a thing,” I say as the bus creeps forward.

“I just know. It takes practice,” he says, eyes glued to the bus mirrors.

With Phil’s expert eye – there are just three inches of clearance between the balls and either side of my wheels – we scrape through. One ball wiggles, but stays put.

We set up for a manoeuvre in reverse, only to have to abandon the obstacle. We head for the finish line. Phil instructs me to step on the gas and stop just before our bumper touches the final pylon.

“Just feather the break when I tell you to stop,” Phil says.

Little does he realize I’d given up on lightly touching down on the brake four obstacles back. Several jarring stops later, we finish the course.

Still, Phil and Sal allow me to drive the bus to where CTV’s Hudson Mack and his coach, seven-time Roadeo competitor Ron Brown, are waiting.

I clamber off my seat and stand on shaky legs. Phil, who refuses to admit he is the reason we’re still alive, hasn’t broken a sweat.

“You’re trainable. You listen to instruction,” Sal tells me, glancing at his clipboard.

I spent mere minutes toddling around pylons and tennis balls from the cockpit of a near-empty bus, while the true transit heroes spend their days up to their steering wheels in traffic, coping with busy customers, dodging bad tempers and, all too often, riders who assault them with spit.

Those found guilty of assaulting a bus driver should be sentenced, in part, to hard time at the Langford yard, where they must drive the obstacle course until they nail it perfectly.

Only then will they come away singing the praises of the region’s transit operators, much like six journalists are now doing.


Erin McCracken, who earned second place in the B.C. Transit Roadeo, is a reporter with The Victoria News.

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