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December 01, 2005  |   Comments (0)   |   Post a comment

Keeping Warm in the Dead of Winter

The winter season ushers in some extreme weather conditions that can take a toll on transportation operations. A school bus contractor in Alaska discusses what it takes to keep passengers, staff and equipment safe and warm.

by Albert Neal, Associate Editor

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The buses are also equipped with a solid defrost system to keep the windows frost-free. Door windows are double-paned to prevent fogging and both west-coast mirrors and crossover mirrors are heated. Each of these items come spec’d on Laidlaw buses. Strobe lights, stop-arm strobes and reflective tape are also mandatory equipment.

Another safety item found on the vehicles is the pedestrian lights. These lights shine out from the driver and pedestrian sides of the bus to spot children when it’s dark out.

“We also use a microphone to cross the kids,” Graff says. “The outdoor P.A. system is a requirement here. It’s for the children, to let them know when it’s OK to cross and when it’s not OK to cross.”

Replacement and maintenance
Laidlaw recently received delivery of 25 new 23-passenger Thomas/Ford vehicles with Ricon wheelchair lifts. The order was part of the company’s bus replacement schedule, which requires 60 percent of buses to be less than 12 years old.

The branch’s preventive maintenance program is 3,000 miles or 45 days for oil, lube and filter inspections. The schedule is the same for transmission servicing. There’s also a 12-month or 12,000 mile brake inspection. The branch gets inspected twice a year by state inspectors.

Hazard alert
Alaskan operations have challenges that differ from those at operations in the rest of the United States. For instance, not in many other places does a driver come across a 1,500-pound moose lingering around a bus stop.

“We have moose, black bears and grizzlies,” Graff says. “We’ve had to keep children on the bus and not let them off because of moose.” Drivers call the parents and have them meet their children at the bus. In the past, Laidlaw buses have hit two moose. The creatures, which are often 6 or 7 feet tall, can be aggressive and sometimes charge at people.

Darkness is another challenge for the contractor in the way it affects drivers. With the shortest day clocking in at only two hours and 46 minutes, it’s no wonder that drivers fall into periods of depression. But Laidlaw finds ways to combat the psychological effects of the long nights.

“We’re like a family around here,” Graff says. “If there’s a problem, we ask how we can help.”

Transporting special-needs students when the weather is harsh presents a set of problems for drivers as well. Entering and exiting driveways that haven’t been plowed or well kept is a hazard not only for the monitor and driver but for the special-needs student as well.

“If a driver complains about a driveway, we go out and investigate to see what kind of condition it’s in,” Graff says. Laidlaw then makes clear to the property owner the risks involved in keeping the property in such condition.

Laidlaw drivers use Motorola two-way radios to communicate with other drivers and dispatch. The radios work off a company-owned repeater perched atop Murphy Dome. A common problem is the dead spots experienced when drivers traverse some of the region’s more hilly areas. These spots can spell trouble when there are breakdowns or emergencies.

Then there is the fuel situation. No. 2 diesel is currently $2.77 per gallon. During the winter, Laidlaw runs No. 1, which is about 11 cents more per gallon. The Alaska branch, like many other operations, has taken a huge hit with the inflated fuel costs.

“Nobody saw this coming,” Graff says. “We were hit pretty hard, so it comes off our bottom line.”

The bright side
Graff considers the drivers at his branch to be the best special equipment he could spec on his buses. The starting wage for drivers is $12.25, and the top wage is $16.15. Drivers are guaranteed five hours a day if a route is less than five hours. They receive 50 cents more per hour for difficult routes, meaning those with unruly passengers or rough terrain.

Forty hours of training — 20 classroom and 20 behind-the-wheel — is mandatory for all drivers. Those who must traverse the hilly areas receive special instruction.

Training occasionally includes a game of safety bingo. Participants can win a T-shirt or coat with the company colors and logo. The game can get quite competitive, which highlights the drivers’ pride in their work and their employer.

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