Great Fleets Across America (Part IV)

Posted on October 1, 2005

Exceeding Expectations Is Expected in This Yard

Monroe-Woodbury Central School District
Monroe, N.Y.

In the rolling foothills of the Catskill Mountains, about 45 miles north of New York City, the towns of Monroe, Woodbury, Chester, Blooming Grove and Tuxedo have experienced a real estate boom in recent years. “McMansion” developments have sprung up to accommodate the needs of commuters who want nicer, larger houses than can be found closer to the city.

The impact on the local school system — Monroe-Woodbury Central School District — has been dramatic. “This place is just booming,” says Cliff Berchtold, the district’s transportation director. “Our schools keep growing; busing keeps growing. Our challenge has been to keep up with busing.”

That’s a big challenge, especially when local voters keep defeating measures that would provide funding for new buses. “We’re scratching our heads through the spring and summer trying to figure out how to get things done without buying new buses,” Berchtold says.

Reshuffling the deck
Even though his transported population grows by 180 to 200 students each year, Berchtold is able to get by without expanding his fleet by taking full advantage of the annual shifting of the student population.

It helps that the Monroe-Woodbury operation uses only transit-style buses with forward engines. “We tried rear engines,” Berchtold says, “But they’re too long and cumbersome.” The 13-row buses have three-two seating, which allows each vehicle to carry up to 64 students of almost any size, he says.

The enterprising district is also planning to operate an electric bus that was found languishing in a weed-choked lot in Brooklyn. The New York Power Authority agreed to provide a new battery pack if it could find a good home for the bus, which was abandoned by a contractor. “We’re waiting for an electrician to install the bus-charging circuit to our shop,” he says. “Once it’s on a route, it will free up one of our diesel buses.”

Buses in the blood
Berchtold is skilled in transportation logistics, having grown up in the school bus business and having served for three years in the U.S. Army’s transportation corps, including a one-year tour in Vietnam during the war.

Berchtold’s family started a school bus contracting business in Paramus, N.J., in 1952 and operated it successfully for 25 years before selling it to another contractor that wanted to increase its market share. “When I was a little kid, I was wandering around the buses,” he recalls. “By the time I was in junior high school, I was backing up buses, bringing bolts to the mechanics and helping to wash the vehicles.” When he was 19, he started driving buses during his breaks from college.

{+PAGEBREAK+} After the family sold the business in 1977, Berchtold wasn’t sure what to do. He had his pilot’s license to fly multi-engine aircraft and considered a career in aviation, possibly as an airport manager.

But destiny intervened. The position of transportation director at Monroe-Woodbury opened up, and he happened to live right down the road and also happened to have a pregnant wife. He applied for the job, got it and planned to stay for a few years until he decided what he really wanted to do with the rest of his life. Twenty-eight years later, he’s still in the same position and is happy that he’s stayed.

“The challenges have grown enough that it’s remained interesting,” Berchtold says. As mentioned earlier, one of the key challenges has been keeping up with the growth. The fleet has approximately tripled in size since the mid-1970s. It currently transports about 8,100 students with 150 buses. Because of its location, the district provides transportation to special-needs schools in five states.

Exceeding expectations
In addition to keeping up with population growth, another key challenge is keeping the district’s parents happy. “I want them to feel like their expectation of safe bus service is being exceeded,” Berchtold says. “We want to provide the extra touches, such as calling a parent if there’s a problem. If we can’t provide service beyond expectation, we shouldn’t be in the bus business.”

Berchtold says the students in Monroe-Woodbury behave well enough on the buses that video surveillance hasn’t been necessary. The approach that the drivers take is to focus on motivation; teaching the rules of safe riding isn’t enough.

Incentives for riders
To keep the students motivated, the transportation department uses incentive programs such as “Bus of the Month” and “Rider of the Week.” “We have consequences for poor behavior, but we find that incentives work better,” Berchtold says. “Even if it’s only a free ice cream at lunch or getting their picture published in the community newspaper, kids respond to positive motivation.”

The district’s reputation for having well-behaved passengers makes it easier to recruit new bus drivers, but Berchtold says he still struggles with recruitment and retention. “We’re never really flush,” he says. “We’re able to get just enough.”

Although it could use more drivers, the department is very selective about whom it hires. Berchtold says the interview process typically lasts close to an hour. During that time, the interviewer will try to break the candidate out of “the interview mode” and might use role-playing scenarios to determine if he or she is truly suited for the job. “We want to see if the candidate really likes children or is just looking for a job,” Berchtold says.

Power of humanity
The reason that the hiring process is so critical is that it’s the employees who provide the transportation department with its backbone, spirit and success. “It’s not a matter of hardware, it’s the people that count,” Berchtold says.



Buses - 152
Students transported daily - 8,100
Total students in district - 8,300
Schools served - 50
Transportation staff - 200
Area of service - 100 square miles
Average driver wages - $20/hour {+PAGEBREAK+}

60 Years of Safe Service

Murphy Bus Lines
Arva, Ontario

It’s hard to believe that a company that now runs 300 buses started with just one bus that the owners built themselves. But indeed, Murphy Bus Lines, which celebrates its 60th anniversary in 2006, has built an outstanding operation with a strong reputation out of its humble beginnings.

The Murphy family business is run by Mike (secretary/treasurer), Pat (president), Rob (vice president — operations), Kyle (vice president — maintenance), Michelle Murphy Bukala (supervisor of business operations) and JoAnne Trudgen (payroll supervisor).

The company has made a significant impact on its community by keeping pupil safety its priority. And its influence has spread throughout the province by working with legislators and other school bus operators through the Ontario School Bus Association.

Origins of greatness
Joe and Tom Murphy (the latter being Mike and Pat’s father) started the company as a service station in Clinton, Ontario, in 1945. Both had just come out of military service in World War II.

Mike explains that in that era, the provincial government was recognizing that rural students needed access to a higher level of education than just elementary school. Many school boards in the mid-‘40s began transporting rural students to high schools, which were located in cities such as Clinton.

So in 1946, the Murphys began transporting students to and from the local high school, starting with just one bus.

“Because of the war, new buses were not available,” Mike says. “So they bought a used truck, built their own body on the back of it and operated it until a bus became available.” The Murphys ran a garage, a car dealership and a school bus operation for many years. Today, Murphy Bus Lines’ main operation is student transportation, as it shuttles about 15,000 pupils to and from school with a fleet of 300 school buses. The company also provides group charter service with activity buses and other vehicles.

Great Lakes, Great Fleet
Murphy Bus covers area in and around the city of London, Ontario, which has a population of about 350,000. The region is known as the Great Lakes Basin, with Lake Huron to the west, Lake Erie to the south and Lake Ontario to the east. The proximity of all that water strongly influences the local weather, especially in making for high annual snowfall. Other factors, such as fog and freezing rain, often come into play as well.

“We live virtually every morning by the weather,” Rob says “We’re expected to have a decision by 6 a.m. as to whether the buses are going to go at all or whether there’s going to be a delay.”

The company has six full-fledged facilities with bus yards and active offices where customers can order bus service. Two additional sites function as service yards for storing, maintaining and fueling buses.

The proximity of the facilities works to the company’s advantage. “We have the ability to move equipment to where it’s required rather than duplicating a lot of spare equipment,” Pat says.

Certain types of repair work are centralized. For instance, warranty issues are handled through one office.

Other elements of the business, such as payroll, are centralized at the company’s main operating site in Arva. “This gives us the ability to treat each driver on payroll the same, whether they’re located here or in London,” Mike says.

{+PAGEBREAK+} Fleet efficiency
The Murphy fleet is composed of buses on International chassis. Kyle says that this consistency leads to efficiency in several ways.

One is that since the buses are similar, the parts inventory is universal and not as many parts need to be kept in stock. Another is that the technicians get used to working on that type of vehicle.

Mike notes the importance and the challenge of making sure the buses are in top shape but at the same time keeping maintenance costs under control. “That takes a lot of management — making the right purchases at the right time and keeping the buses operating efficiently,” he says.

The Murphy buses are inspected every 2,000 kilometers (about 1,200 miles). At that time, the technicians perform a thorough safety check that includes measuring the pad and rotor on the buses’ hydraulic disc brakes. Oil is changed according to the schedule of the manufacturer, and any issues are addressed before the buses get back on the road.

“If there’s a light out, it doesn’t go. If there’s any type of concern, it’s taken care of before that vehicle leaves and starts loading children,” Kyle says. “We’re very proud of our maintenance and safety records.”

Provincial inspectors, who can show up any day for surprise examinations, rate bus yards on a scale of A, B or C. Certain problems, such as a warning light being out, can drop an operation down to a C. All of Murphy Bus’ yards are As.

Maintaining ties
Turnover in the driver staff has not been low lately, a predicament that many school bus operators are familiar with. Mike attributes this in part to the growing list of regulations and responsibilities being placed on school bus drivers. Another factor, he says, is the current availability of full-time work.

But Mike says that one of the company’s strengths is the longevity of key staff members who manage some of the yards.

“They’ve been with us for a significant amount of time and are able to operate in the fashion we expect them to on an ongoing basis,” Mike says.

That it’s a family operation helps as well, since everyone takes a keen interest in the well being of the company.

Murphy Bus also has strong connections with the schools and school boards it services, which is vital for such matters as route changes and discipline problems.

“We are contractors, but the way it works is more of a partnership with the school boards,” Rob says. “It has to be an open and hard-working relationship.”

The company has been working with a group called the London Anti-Bullying Coalition to alleviate some community members’ concerns about discipline problems. Michelle took part in a press conference just before the start of the school year to spread information on bullying and how to stop it on school buses. “There was a bit of confusion from the public as to who the students on the school buses were responsible to,” Michelle says. “We made it clear that the principal of the school is responsible for the behavior of the students on the bus.”

Murphy Bus’ service to the community has been recognized in many ways. There have been honors from provincial police for being proactive in safety. There have been awards from the local workman’s compensation board for having a low loss ratio.

Sometimes, the recognition is less formal. Rob relates an anecdote in which a parent approached him about booking a charter trip at one of the local schools.

“They said they know that Murphy Bus Lines is a family operation that has been in business for years and that they would only think to call us,” Rob says.

“When you’re out in the community and you hear things like that, it really makes you feel good.”



Buses - 300
Students transported daily - 15,000
Total students in districts - 45,000
Districts served – 6
Schools served – 75
Transportation staff – 401
Average driver wages - $44/day (double route)

Click here for Part V of Great Fleets

Related Topics: behavior management, driver recruitment/retention, Great Fleets

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