Silas Smith sat ramrod straight in the front of the classroom. He adjusted his black-framed glasses and leaned forward, taking notes as he listened to the lesson.
Leave your personal life at home.
Don’t take it personally.
It’s the kind of advice that could apply to almost any office worker in the D.C. region’s go-go-go work environment. But Smith’s office is a 15-ton Metrobus, and he and his fellow drivers know their decisions — and distractions — can have life-altering consequences as they maneuver the 40-foot-long vehicles through the region’s notorious traffic congestion.
Each day, Metro pulls about a dozen of its bus operators off their routes for an eight-hour course on dealing with the particular stresses of the bus workplace. They role-play how to deal with unruly schoolkids or a passenger smoking a cigarette. They get refreshers on how to help disabled passengers and how to report an emergency.
And they vent.
Smith, who has been driving for 14 years, was one of the students in a recent class, and he said he’s never had such an intense customer service training session.
“It’s very helpful,” he said. “We’re out there dealing with people, and without some structure and guidance, it is a guessing game.”
Bus service can be more readily expanded, but to win over riders, Metro’s bus division must win a public relations battle.
One of the most frequent complaints from riders is rude and uncooperative drivers. In the past four years, the transit agency said it has received more than 7,500 complaints in that category alone from the nearly half a million riders a day who board its buses.
A look at the challenges of the job helps explain what’s happening.
Besides the difficulty of driving a massive vehicle for hours, there’s bumper-to-bumper traffic, argumentative passengers and rowdy teenagers.
Since October, Metro has trained more than 600 of its roughly 2,500 bus operators and plans to put the rest through the class by 2014.
The class also comes as Metro’s bus operators have seen a rash of attacks in recent months. Buses are struck by rocks and bricks. Bus operators have been beaten up and spit on by customers. And in one case, a Metrobus operator said he was grazed in the leg after a man shot and killed his girlfriend and wounded their small child as she tried to get aboard a bus in Southeast.
Assaulting a bus operator is a misdemeanor in Maryland, Virginia and the District, according to Metro Transit Police officials. The District has beefed up the penalties for assaulting a transit operator, and Maryland’s legislature is trying to do something similar.
Michael Taborn, Metro’s Transit Police chief, recently called bus operators’ jobs “the toughest” in the transit system in testimony before the board on the spate of violence.
Metro does give drivers some customer service training when they start, but the latest training is meant to serve as a refresher and deal with the daily realities of driving.
Anne Carey, director of administration and training, said a previous customer service class, for which Metro had hired an outside consulting firm, was “horrible” because consultants “didn’t know the business.”
She and a colleague spent six months designing the newest class in-house, and she picked a charismatic former driver to teach the course. With a booming voice, a sense of humor and 20 years as a driver, supervisor and trainer Roger Langston commands ample respect from his students.
After riders in wheelchairs complained about nearly empty buses blowing past them at stops, some operators said they drove past disabled passengers because they had forgotten how to properly secure wheelchairs. The new class includes a hands-on demonstration of how to do so.
Drivers also shared tales of being spit on for no reason, yelled at for directing passengers to fold their baby strollers and fussed at for arriving late when there’s traffic.
“It used to be a rider might say some words to you if they were mad, but now they come on with knives, bricks, bottles and frozen eggs,” said Angela Milhouse, who has driven a Metro bus for 11 years. “No matter how positive you are or how nice, it can make you bitter.”
Jeffrey Jay, a psychologist who has worked for decades counseling Metro bus and train operators, said bus operators are often seen as symbols of government-type agencies at which people are angry.
“They’re in uniform,” he said. “They can’t fight back to defend themselves. They’re the face of the authority. They become targets for people’s sense of everything that is wrong with the world.”
Metrobus operators know the feeling all too well.
Shawn Jones, who has worked for Metro for eight years, said he’s reluctant sometimes to even greet customers.
“I’ve gotten cussed out for saying good morning to people driving the 90 line,” he said, referring to a bus route that runs in part through Congress Heights and Anacostia. Now, he said, he prefers to simply nod at customers when they get on his bus.
Langston challenged him.
“Don’t let them get to you,” he said.
While most of the operators said they found many of the tips in the class useful, many said morale was low and that not enough support was being provided by Metro supervisors.
Drivers reported not being able to get quick responses from Metro’s command center when they call in with a problem.
Others told of instances where Metro Transit Police officers showed up 30 minutes after they’d called for help.
Carey and Langston assured the bus operators that the bosses will be receiving training, too.