Staten Island, N.Y.
Atlantic Express Transportation Group Inc. had only 16 vans providing special-needs transportation in Staten Island, N.Y., beginning in 1972. Hands-on management and exemplary customer service helped the company grow to be the fourth-largest school transportation contractor in North America, operating more than 6,500 buses and transporting over 200,000 students daily in nine densely populated states. The company operates in three major markets — the East Coast, West Coast and Midwest.
Its ride to becoming one of the largest contractors in the school bus industry has been navigated by its founder, president and CEO Domenic Gatto, who upon returning home from Vietnam started as a school bus driver for Staten Island Bus Inc. Since acquiring the small company in 1972, he grew it to a company with more than 200 school transportation contracts.
The company has been able to do more than just acquire contracts. Since 1979, it has maintained a high contract renewal rate, to which Gatto credits customer satisfaction, reliable on-time performance and high safety standards. More than 95 percent of its customers has been contracting with the company for more than five years, and more than 60 percent of its customers has been contracting with the company for more than 15 years. Atlantic Express has been operating one of the largest school transportation contracts in the country for more than 25 years. Its stable customer base and revenue stream have allowed it to grow and expand nationwide.
Atlantic Express employees have a “can-do” attitude. Drivers and escorts wear uniforms to promote a professional image to passengers and the general public. The company uses field supervisors, often retired police officers with extensive experience in driver-performance evaluation and accident investigation, to stay on top of driver performance on the road. These supervisors initiate accident prevention programs and respond to any school complaint, accident or incident. They also serve as ambassadors of the company in ensuring customer satisfaction with its services.
The company embraces safety as its mission by also emphasizing the importance of training. In-house training for drivers, escorts and mechanics is extensive. Refresher courses and safety workshops are integral parts of the overall training program. The company also provides school bus safety training to student riders.
Besides school transportation, Atlantic Express operates one of the largest paratransit contracts in the country and also provides charter and commuter services with its fleet of vans and coaches. With its belief in providing safe, reliable, on-time transportation, the company has succeeded in maintaining its customer base and growing its contract base.
School buses in fleet: 6,500
Students transported daily: 200,000+
School district contracts: 200+
Company head: Domenic Gatto, president/CEO
Getting its start as a three-bus special-needs school transportation provider in southern California, Durham School Services in Austin, Texas, has grown significantly in size and geographic spread over the past 50 years.
The company, a division of the National Express Group, now operates more than 8,400 school buses for 275 districts in 20 states and transports more than 175,000 children daily.
According to SCHOOL BUS FLEET’s 2004 Top 50 Contractor survey, this makes Durham the third-largest contractor in North America.
Despite its size, Durham has managed to maintain a small-business customer relations attitude. To ensure that the company is providing solid service, it regularly surveys its customers. The feedback provides information that can be integrated into the service delivery package.
On the maintenance side, Durham has a strict preventive maintenance program. Mechanics keep buses in a condition that meets or exceeds state and federal inspection requirements.
Bus drivers share some of the maintenance responsibility, following through twice daily on an 86-point safety inspection. Fueling stops also are used to doublecheck the condition of belts, hoses and fluid levels.
The result of this close attention to maintenance detail is optimal bus operation and a minimized chance of road breakdowns, both of which save money and reduce overhead.
Safety is also a key component of Durham’s operational philosophy. To emphasize the importance of safety, every employee signs a Commitment to Safety agreement. It also sponsors an awards program for accident- and injury-free job performance.
Another important part of the commitment to safety is the comprehensive training for K-3 children offered by the company. Durham uses live demonstrations, videos and games to teach their riders how to enjoy a safe trip to and from school.
Partnering with community-centered organizations is one way that Durham extends its reach beyond the traditional transportation services role. It is the official transportation sponsor for the Special Olympics Summer Games in California and Texas and sponsor gold medals in those states as well as in Washington.
School buses in fleet: 8,400
States operating in: 20
Students transported: More than 175,000
Company head: John Elliott, president and chief executive officer
Phone: (800) 950-0485
Transporting more than a million of our nation’s pupils each school day, First Student clearly has a lot riding on its buses. The contractor fulfills its mission through a three-tiered approach with the fields of safety, maintenance and operations.
The company, which is an operating unit of worldwide transportation company First Group plc, offers an array of services — including full turnkey contracting, special-needs transportation, management contracting and bus leasing and maintenance — to meet the needs of school systems.
First Student touts safety as its highest priority and bolsters it through a combination of training, incentives, programs, tools and personnel. Employees make a commitment to act safely both inside and outside of the workplace.
Last year, the company initiated a program in which its employees are required to wear reflective vests while walking in the bus yards. The company distributed about 27,000 of the vests in an effort to prevent pedestrian-vs.-bus accidents.
These sorts of bright ideas don’t just appear on the national level, though. In Vermont, for instance, First Student bus operators devised a creative way to make up for their lack of paved lots. Since school bus mirror clinics are traditionally painted on asphalt or concrete, staff members rigged up two portable devices to use in all First Student locations in the state. One part of the mirror clinic was made on a large sheet of polyethylene, while the other part was made with red, yellow and white plastic plates joined by twine.
First Student has made employee satisfaction another focus of its strategy for success. Programs such as effective passenger management training, employee recognition, tuition reimbursement and community outreach are key elements of that effort. So is a benefits bundle that includes medical, life and dental insurance, a 401(k) plan, various savings and retirement packages and company holidays and vacations.
First Student also highlights maintenance as one of its strong points. The company has an ongoing policy to continually improve its preventive maintenance practices, and it strives for perfection on vehicle inspections.
In 2003, SCHOOL BUS FLEET selected the First Student terminal in Augusta, Maine, as one of the Top 10 Maintenance Programs of the year. The Augusta operation had scored 100 percent on each of the twice-a-year state inspections since 2001. In SBF’s 2004 Top 50 Contractors survey, First Student was ranked as the second-largest pupil transportation company in North America. The company experienced an 8 percent growth in fleet size from the previous year’s tally, expanding from 15,600 to 16,867 vehicles. FLEET FACTS
School buses in fleet: 18,319
States operating in: 34
Students transported: 1.2 million
Company head: Carey Paster, chief operating officer
Phone: (800) 844-5588
Transporting close to 2 million students on more than 39,200 school buses daily is an enormous logistical challenge, but Laidlaw Education Services does just that.
As North America’s largest school bus contractor, Laidlaw’s influence spreads inward from the far corners of the United States and Canada, touching home at the company’s Naperville, Ill., headquarters.
Although size is the most salient feature of Laidlaw’s school bus operation, company officials point to its emphasis on safety, efficiency and innovation as its hallmarks of success.
Safety is heralded by all who transport the nation’s schoolchildren on yellow buses, but Laidlaw has made significant investments in training and equipment to buttress its claim of superiority.
“We call it our unwavering commitment to safety,” says Hugh MacDiarmid, president and CEO of Laidlaw Education Services. To that end, the company not only provides top-grade training to its new and experienced drivers, it also screen its new hires with a full array of tools, including the Avatar Selection System, to find the most promising candidates.
Laidlaw also has taken up the challenge of not stranding passengers on buses. It has installed child reminder systems on all of its buses, requiring the driver to walk to the back of the bus and look for any remaining children after every run.
To provide school systems with a menu of transportation options, Laidlaw offers what it calls “unbundled” services. Instead of simply offering turnkey contracting, the company offers stand-alone services such as safety training, computerized routing through its LPS technology consulting firm and maintenance services. In addition to home-to-school transportation, it also offers contracting for field, athletic and extracurricular trips. “This concept of unbundled services focuses greater attention on the true needs of customers and positions us to fulfill their unmet needs,” MacDiarmid says.
Keeping such a large, geographically diverse fleet running smoothly is an unenviable task, but Laidlaw’s maintenance staff is up to the challenge. Many of its mechanics are certified by the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence. They’re also aided by VTrak, a proprietary software system. Once a week, every VTrak branch location sends full maintenance data — including inspection status, repair costs, licensing warranties, mileage and other information — to the central management system.
Comprehensive vehicle maintenance and compliance histories are then generated and monitored by regional management to ensure that Laidlaw meets all state and national compliance requirements.
School buses in fleet: 39,287
States operating in: 36
Students transported: 2 million
Company head: Hugh McDiarmid, president and CEO
Phone: (800) LAIDLAW
Founded in 1997, Student Transportation of America (STA) is the fifth-largest school transportation and management services company in the United States. Since its inception, the Wall, N.J.-based company has grown its fleet to 3,000 school vehicles.
Its latest acquisitions, completed last year, were Krise Bus Service in Pennsylvania and Ledgemere Transportation in Wells, Maine. Krise operates more than 370 vehicles from 10 locations. The acquisition of Ledgemere became the company’s second location in Maine. Earlier in 2004, STA won a 17-bus contract in York, Maine — its first in the state.
With these additions, STA now operates in 11 states and transports more than 200,000 students daily.
Denis J. Gallagher, STA’s chairman and CEO, says the company provides diversified student transportation services. In addition to owning and operating fleets for public school systems, STA also has a Managed Services Group, its fastest-growing segment, that provides a continuum of services.
For example, school districts that prefer to own their fleets and facilities can contract with STA to provide drivers, training, insurance and vehicle maintenance. The company also offers a new Municipal Tax Leasing Program in cooperation with world-class financial institutions for a “no capital” solution. STA also performs a route optimization review for increased efficiencies.
Along with an emphasis on efficiency, STA also highlights safety. To that end, the company offers what it calls its Signature Program, which is designed to serve four basic purposes:
Gallagher is an industry veteran with strong family ties to pupil transportation. He got started in the business in 1976 at Coast Cities Bus Co., which was launched by his grandfather in 1922 and later operated by his father.
In 1997, Gallagher formed STA and has since assembled a top-flight management team with over 200 years of experience in the school transportation industry. STA’s Website is located at www.ridesta.com.
School buses in fleet: 3,000
States operating in: 11
Students transported: 200,000
Company head: Dennis J. Gallagher, chairman and CEO
Phone: (888) 942-2250