TransLink Podcast: What’s the T on operating a bus

TransLink Podcast: What’s the T on operating a bus

The 160 Kootenay Loop bus pulls into a bus stop as the SkyTrain passes by in the background

Host Jawn Jang goes behind the scenes at our training centre. Derrick Bayer, chief instructor at Coast Mountain Bus Company, puts him through the paces as Jawn takes a spin at the wheel of our bus simulator for a taste of what it’s like to operate a bus.


HOST JAWN JANG:  Hey, welcome to What’s the T, the TransLink podcast. I’m your host, Jawn Jang. And on this episode, we answer this question:

JAWN: Ooh! Oh, dear. Oh, man. Oh, that’s a little bit of black ice there!

DERRICK BAYER: Yeah, yeah.

JAWN: What is it really like to operate a bus? Let’s get behind the wheel and behind the scenes. We’re tapping into What’s the T.


VOICEOVER 1: The next station is…

VOICEOVER 2: Welcome to What’s the T, the TransLink Podcast.

JAWN: The Coast Mountain Bus Company is everywhere in Metro Vancouver. With 2200 bus routes served by over 1600 busses in its fleet, CMBC is the workhorse in our transportation system. I mean, you know this already because you’ve done your part in this equation – you’ve been a customer on a bus before. Maybe you do this every day, but we have to ask, what about the other crucial individual in this scenario? What is it like to operate a bus?

Now, before I joined TransLink in November of last year, I spent the previous ten years working in radio and I got to do some pretty interesting things, but one thing I’ve never done before is driving a bus. Full transparency, I’m not even that great a parallel parking my own car, so the idea of operating a 60-foot articulated bus is more than just a little intimidating, especially since there’s a lot of other people on the roads.

And, by that, I mean there is a lot of other people on the roads! But, good news for me, the Coast Mountain Bus Company has a bus simulator located at the Vancouver Transit Center in Marpole. So, I got the chance to get behind the virtual wheel, here is how that went.

DERRICK: Right. Okay. Okay, and when you’re comfortable, I’m going to get you to take a break on, push it in drive. Good. Now, you going to release your parking brake. Okay.

JAWN: This is Derrick Bayer, the Chief Instructor of Operator and Technical Training at CMBC. There’s no better person to show me how to do this correctly than Derrick, who has spent over a decade behind the wheel of real busses.

DERRICK: Okay. Alright, so let’s have a little bit of fun now. Okay, since we’ve moved forward, okay, let’s go and put it backwards and let’s use our mirrors. Okay, so what you’re going to do is you’re going to put it into neutral and then put it into reverse. Okay? And before you put it into it, you actually take your foot off the brake.

I want you to give the horn three toots. [Horn sounds three times] Good stuff. Okay, now, can you see a pylon in your left and your right side mirror?

JAWN: I can.

DERRICK: Okay, so what I’m going to get you to do is I’m going to get you to use the mirrors and move backwards and see if you can put the bus back to where we started from. Nicely done!

JAWN: Yeah.

DERRICK: Are you sure you have never done, driven one of these buses before?

JAWN: First time!

DERRICK: All right. Well, I think you’re doing pretty good so far. Way to go!

JAWN: I got to admit, I was starting to feel pretty good about my performance, and that’s exactly when Derrick decided to throw me a curve ball.

DERRICK: Whoa. Okay, so we have a little bit of an obstacle course that we’re going to go through.

JAWN: Oh, dear.

DERRICK: This is going to be fun.

JAWN: It’s going to be a disaster.

DERRICK: No, it’s not, no it’s not. You’re going to have fun with this one. Okay, alright, so a couple of things that I want you to think about.

JAWN: Sure.

DERRICK: Do you know what a pivot point is?

JAWN: A pivot point?

DERRICK: Mm hmm.

JAWN: If I had to guess, like, maybe the, the point of your bus in which it like, it, it actually starts to turn, like, a little.

DERRICK: Yeah, you got it. Bang on. Okay, so the pivot point, right, is going to be the rear axle.

JAWN: The rear axle?

DERRICK: The rear axle. Okay, so because we steer with our front axle on the steering wheels turn, the rear axle is where the actual bus would pivot on. Does that make sense?

JAWN: That makes sense.

DERRICK: Okay, so go ahead and hit the drive. [Engine starts] Alright, ok, and when you’re comfortable, I’m going to get you to keep your brake on and push it in drive. [Clicks] Good, now you’re going to release your parking brake. Okay.

JAWN: Oh dear…

DERRICK: Alright. So tell you what, let’s just go up towards this, this billboard in front of us, and you tell me when you believe that you’re at that pivot point and you can start steering. Okay?

DERRICK: Okay. And remember, your mirror use is important here. I just want you to stop at the point that you think that you’re at your pivot point.

JAWN: Think it would be… about here?

DERRICK: Okay, well let’s just stop there. Hold it. Tell you what, let’s use the camera angle and we’ll have a look over your head. What do you think?

DERRICK: If you started turning right here, do you think that we would make it?


DERRICK: No, we’re not. Okay, so what I’m going to get you to do is go a little bit further forward.

JAWN: About that…feels right.

DERRICK: Okay, let’s have a look. That’s looking pretty good. Okay, so now you’re going to have to do a little bit of a steer here.

JAWN: Yeah

DERRICK: So hard steering. Good. Okay, good.

JAWN: Oh, yeah. Wow. Okay. [Inaudible]

DERRICK: Now use your right side mirror and see where you’re at.

JAWN: Oh, woah!

DERRICK: So you’re steering with one hand.

JAWN: Yeah. [Error horn sound effect]

DERRICK: And that’s part of the problem. [Failure sound effect] Two hands on that steering.

JAWN: Okay.

DERRICK: Okay, keep on going. Okay, alright, good.

JAWN: We’re “O” for one so far, baby.

DERRICK: Okay, we’re doing pretty good. Okay, now we’ve got a police officer that’s directing our control here. Now, once again, on the right hand side, you’re going to use that same thing. Okay, so use hand over hand steering when you get to that pivot point.

JAWN: Ooh, not yet.

DERRICK: There you go. And use both your mirrors. There you go.

JAWN: It’s okay!

DERRICK: Alright.

JAWN: Alright!

DERRICK: Alright, let’s go on and check out this, uh, bus stop here.

JAWN: Oh, we have passengers!

DERRICK: [Inaudible]

JAWN: After picking up some of these passengers, Derrick and I cleared out of the obstacle course and hit the city streets, but the simulator had changed from sunny, summer skies to snowy winter weather – another challenge for me to take on. And that’s when this happened.

JAWN: Oh, dear. Oh, man.

DERRICK: Oh, that’s a little bit of black ice there.

JAWN: Yeah. Yeah.

DERRICK: So, yeah, absolutely. You can have these situations where it can affect the, uh, traction and the ability of the vehicle to handle, even though there isn’t snow or ice piling up on the road here.

JAWN: The dreaded ice. Now, thankfully, no virtual person was hurt and the bus did eventually come to a full stop…in the middle of the intersection. All in all, my simulator experience went about as expected. As a complete rookie, I failed pretty spectacularly. But this short experience did provide some valuable insight – a Costco sized sample of what life was like for operators.

Yeah, that was that’s a good learning experience because again, like trying to understand the turning radius, your pivot point, it’s so much more like it’s just very different now what I’m used to and then the amount of mirrors, side checking, speed control, looking and making sure the angles are right. You’re also keeping an eye out for pedestrians on those on the on the streets, making sure that I mean, in this scenario they’re not moving.

But in real life, you know, kids are playing. They’re running around.

DERRICK: Yeah. Absolutely.

JAWN: There’s so many things that are happening.


JAWN: And I don’t think when you’re a passenger in the bus that you really think about those things, you just kind of get on the bus, you put your headphones on and off you go.

DERRICK: And you trust that the person that’s operating the bus is a professional.

JAWN: Exactly.

DERRICK: And they are.

JAWN: And they are. Yeah. And to now kind of get a better understanding of the things they deal with, minute to minute. It’s, yeah, eye opening.

DERRICK: It’s, it’s one of the most amazingly challenging and multitasking jobs that there are out there, because you know, what we’re talking about right now is about space management and, and navigating through the obstacle course, which is that the traffic that we deal with on a day to day basis.

But not only that, you know, after the first couple of weeks of the training program.

We then put them into trolley busses. So, they have to do all that with trolley pulls up, and switches that they have to navigate and all sorts of things.

So in terms of, you know, the things that, you know, a really good transit operator does is they’re they’re incredible multi-taskers.

JAWN: With my simulator experience finished Derrick and I went into his office at the Vancouver Transit Center and spoke more in-depth about what the operator experience was really like. What is it like being a CMBC operator?

DERRICK: It’s, it’s a dynamic job. It’s a neat job. It’s fun. And I think it’s a job that has a tremendous amount of independence and flexibility. So, people that are looking for a job where you’re running your own show and doing your own thing in terms of how you operate and how you do your job, but at the same time, knowing that there’s really essentially an army of people that are there to support you when things go sideways and at the same time that you have the flexibility to, to change shifts and work different schedules. This, this is a pretty cool job.

JAWN: Yeah, absolutely. Maybe you can explain to the customer what is happening when let’s say you’re running up to the bus, you know that it’s just about to pull off and you’re yelling, you’re screaming, you’re trying to get noticed. And unfortunately, the bus starts to pull out and drives away what is happening that the operator maybe doesn’t see the customer and is it that the operator just wants you to be miserable?

I can’t imagine it comes down to that.

DERRICK: No, it doesn’t. It doesn’t. None of our operators want to intentionally leave a customer behind. What does happen, however, is there are certain situations in which the operator may not have seen a customer that’s coming for a bus and is trying to get to the bus and has started to move the bus into traffic. And what we do teach the operators is that once you start to move into traffic, you now have to be conscious of the fact that any other motorists that are yielding for you or are making way for you are part of the game now and you need to be aware of what’s going on.

Now let’s be clear that if you know somebody is running after a bus and they’re putting their selves in a in a in a position of danger, I would want any one of the operators in that situation to stop the bus and take care of the customer. Okay. Because we want to make sure that nobody has a bad experience or is injured while trying to board one of our busses.

That being said, you know, one of the things might be worthwhile for any of our listeners to think about is, generally speaking, when the operators are pulling away from a curb and they’ll put their left turn signal on, indicating to the traffic that’s around them that they’re trying to pull into traffic. If you see a bus that’s got their left turn signal on as you’re running towards it, understand that operators are now thinking about how they can move into traffic, whether they’ve seen you or not.

Okay. And that’s one of the things to always remember as well to is that there’s instantaneous decisions that operators would be making at certain times. For example, on the 99 B-Line, we would have a headway in certain times of maybe four, five, or six minutes in those situations. It’s not really, it’s not a catastrophic thing for a customer to have to wait for the next boss and right situation.

However, at, let’s say at midnight on a Saturday night, you probably find that the frequency of the bus in this situation is different. So we would want the operators to think differently in those situations because those customers would be impacted differently in those situations.

JAWN: I am a different man. I’m a changed man. Having gone through what that experience was like because, you know, I drive an SUV and I thought that was big with blind spots sometimes. But the bus, you know, there’s so many side mirrors and things you have to be aware of. And of course, you can’t forget to pick up passengers.

DERRICK: Yeah, you gotta pull in and open the door.

JAWN: Yeah, exactly. You don’t want to just drive by because you’re so focused on everything else. So there’s so much to learn. For those who are seriously considering a career in becoming an operator, is there one trait that maybe is like the most desirable or maybe the most like commonly found within operators? Or is it kind of come on in, see if you have what it takes, but it does require a specific X factor, if you will?

DERRICK: I think the first thing is the ability to deal with customers in a variety of different situations. Generally speaking, we can teach almost anybody how to drive a bus, a commercial vehicle. Right. Some people can’t. Right. And that’s part of the training process. So and we do we do, you know, have people that aren’t successful in our training program simply because their ability to adapt to driving a commercial vehicle is just not substantial. They can’t do it in six weeks.

JAWN: Fair enough, right.

DERRICK: But, if I said you know there’s, there’s a, there’s a range of customer service that transit operators are going to see that are different from what most customers come to us are going to experience. So, for example, you know, if you worked in a bank, you would see a certain type of customer that’s looking for customer service for banking related means or needs.

If you were in a grocery store or they would be those types of interactions or in a real estate office, people have a generic sort…we’re not necessarily generic, but a specific need. When you’re traveling by public transit, there’s very little generic needs. And what we have is, you know, in in Vancouver and anywhere really, quite frankly, is we have a wide range of people who will have interesting challenges going on in their lives. If they’ve got mental health issues that are that are making it difficult for them to, to, to, simply cope with everyday, everyday life.

They’re our customers, right? If we have people who are going through challenges in their personal lives and maybe their jobs or their job is, is, a challenge, we’re taking those customers on or others who are simply there are no challenges going on in their lives currently. So, I think one of the things that I always say to people, if you’re going to be thinking about becoming a transit operator, the range of customer service that you’re going to be the demographic of the people that you’re going to be dealing with is as big as anything that you’ve ever seen before in in, in any job that you’ve had, probably even bigger. And you should be prepared to deal with those things.

JAWN: I think that’s an excellent point because it’s not like transit is just for able bodied, healthy and happy people. It serves everybody. And so all different walks of life, all different backgrounds and people that might be struggling and you just can’t tell. So as an operator, you kind of have to just be ready for everything. That’s a big ask, but that is the reality of the job.

DERRICK: Absolutely. Absolutely. I think that, you know, most people who come to us usually have a friend or a family member who has recommended the job to them and has described it to them. But I don’t think that it’s until you actually go out and you start driving into into certain situations and understand that, this is, there’s a different set of of skills and customer service skills that you’re going to need to use in that situation.

So until you actually see it, until you actually are put in a situation where people are now asking customers service of you is difficult to explain and really actually grasp until you’re you’re right in the middle of it.

JAWN: We’ve talked about what the job entails and maybe some of the more challenging things about the job. But what are the great clear benefits? Because I mean, you’ve been with the company for a few decades, so clearly there’s a reason you’ve stuck around, Derrick. What is it like?

DERRICK: Well, I think I think some of the benefits are that I think the people are great. You know, I, I originally stuck around for the job just because I wanted to pay off a student loan. Fair enough. You know, and that’s one thing.

JAWN: Are you still paying it off?

DERRICK: I’m done with that loan, I’ve paid that one off, but you know, I think that you know there were so many really cool things about the job that I really appreciated.

You know, the steady work, the opportunity to be outside, but not necessarily outside, kind of in a little bit of a fishbowl, doing, doing your job. I like the people. I like transit operators because we’re task-oriented. We want to, we want to solve problems. We want to do, we want to do our jobs. We want to interact with people and get to know people and in many situations, in terms of how their lives are going. And, and the one common thread I think you would find with any transit operator who really truly enjoys the job, is they like the people. They’re people… “people people” and they enjoy it, and they generally have an outgoing disposition towards the people in even difficult situations that they deal with.

So, I like that, I, I like the fact that it’s a job has… I don’t have any ethical concerns with it as well too. I mean what we do is we, we take care of customers that, that may not be able to drive on their own, people who, who, who shouldn’t be behind the wheel of a vehicle if they’ve been out drinking and celebrating and all that sort of thing. We want to take care of those people. And, there’s no ethical argument in terms of what we’re doing for the environment, we’re taking care of, of our carbon footprint, if you want to call it that.

You know, and, and it’s a great group of people. I have many friendships that I’ve cultivated over the years, and it’s been, it’s been a great career.

JAWN: After speaking with Derrick and going behind the virtual wheel of the bus simulator, I can tell you that being a bus operator is not easy. But, it is an important job. And, there’s a need for more skilled operators as we continue to see more people moving into the region every single year.

Interested candidates will have a lot more success than I did because we have a robust training program that run six weeks to get you road ready. All you need is a Class 5 license, and a passion for delivering the best for our customers to get started. And if that sounds like something you’re interested in, you can find more information at

My thanks to Derrick Bayer, Chief Instructor of Operator and Technical Training at CMBC, and all of the fine folks at the Coast Mountain Bus Company that made this episode possible. My name is Jawn Jang, I’ve been your host, and on behalf of producer Allen, and entire Digital Content Team at TransLink, thank you so much for listening to What’s the T, the TransLink Podcast. Until next time, have a safe trip!