My story begins in 1978 before the deregulation of the industry and the decline of the regular route bus service in the United States. Those were the days when both Greyhound and Trailways had a strong presence in bus service throughout the U.S.
I was fortunate to begin my career driving for Trailways and then later for both Greyhound and Jefferson Lines. I consider myself fortunate because I cut my teeth on a manual transmission bus without the aid of power steering.
This prepared me well for being able to drive the automatic transmission with full power steering buses that would come along in the early 1980s when Eagle began building these buses and of course the MC7s and MC9s that were being used by both Greyhound and Jefferson Lines.
The training was a critical part of becoming a professional bus driver. It required six to eight weeks of intense training before you went on the road by yourself. My earliest training involved two weeks of classroom and Behind the Wheel (BTW) to prepare me for the real test that came in the third week of training.
During those first two weeks, we went to an abandoned airfield and had to drive the bus through an obstacle course set up by the instructors. The most difficult challenge was learning to parallel park the bus and driving through a ser-pentine setting that had offset cones.
Not only did you drive through the serpentine, but you then had to back through the course without stopping your bus. You can imagine doing all this with a vehicle that had no power steering and once the bus was stopped you had to practically stand up to turn the wheels. On the final day, you had to complete the course without hitting any obstacles.
If you struck an obstacle you were dropped from the program. After surviving the first two weeks, I thought things would get easier. Boy was I wrong. The third week of training was driving across Kansas with 30 mph crosswinds while you tried to keep an ‘05 Eagle in your lane of traffic. At the end of the day, you felt like you could tie your shoes without bending over because you had stretched out your arms so much.
Things got even more intense in Colorado as we traveled up to Loveland Pass, west of Denver, to learn how to drive and shift in the mountains. Driving on old highway 40 with scary turns and no guardrails was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Assuming of course you survived the experience.
One of the trainees on our bus missed a gear while downshifting and nearly sent us over the edge. Except for the fast thinking of our Instructor, I would not be telling my story. If you made it through training, you knew you could handle just about anything the regular job required.
Those were the days when you did not have to worry much about management disciplining you for not driving safely. Your fellow drivers would be the first to criticize you if you behaved foolishly behind the wheel. Those were the days when you were reminded of what it meant to be a true professional.
A great deal of time was spent being trained on how to properly pre-trip a bus and recognize mechanical issues. One whole day was spent in a maintenance garage learning about the important bus parts and how to check the oil and water, and how to change a 100+ pound bus tire.
You were expected to be able to change a tire on the road, if necessary, and you got paid an extra seven dollars for doing that. Troubleshooting bus problems was part of the job.
Today, much of the glow of professionalism has left the industry. Technology and advancements, along with deregulation, have paved the way for an easier training experience and seeing many more drivers enter the business that would never have done so under the rigors that we experienced.
Today’s technology has made it easier to troubleshoot mechanical problems. You have warning lights and electronic data to tell you when your tire pressure is low and advise mechanics when parts need to be changed out before they fail.
The automatic transmission and power steering have made driving much easier when maneuvering buses in tight spots and dealing with the rigors of city driving.
Having turbos and engine retarders on buses has also made driving in mountainous terrain so much easier for drivers. Better systems for heating and cooling the bus helps to avoid overheating of the bus engine. Fire suppression systems that protect from a catastrophic bus fire. But that has come at a cost.
Drivers nowadays do not have the skills in driving that we had and, in my opinion, has added to an increase in traffic accidents. Today, drivers have electronic logs that record driving and on-duty time and warn you before you violate any hours of service.
Back in my day learning how to do a paper log correctly was a challenge for every driver new to the business. But even that has been made easier for drivers. Now we talk about a bus drivers, back in the day we were Motor Coach Operators (MCO) that identified us as true professionals.
The one thing that has not been made any easier is dealing with passengers, particularly on regular route service. Every passenger on a bus, whether in 1981 or 2022, has a story. Most are either running to something or from something. Running to visit family or attend a wedding or funeral.
Running from an abusive situation or to get away from a past life and start anew somewhere else. There are so many passengers with stories that can intrigue you or sadden you, but also, help you realize that you are really a fellow passenger on life’s journey.
I recall, with fondness, taking a senior class of thirteen students from Mulberry Grove, Illinois to Washington, DC. Seeing the joy on those kids’ faces as they learned about how our government worked and visited the Smithsonian. What a great history lesson that cannot be learned in a book.
Then there are the sad stories too. A young man tried to commit suicide on one of my bus trips and had to be escorted by police and EMS to the local hospital in Rolla, Missouri.
I found out later he had been released from a mental facility and was not taking his medications. Or the one where a mother and her children fled from an abusive environment. She barely had enough money to feed her kids.
As a driver, you get to see firsthand, some of the stark realities of life, and just for a few hours trying to provide a pleasant experience for the people on your bus. One such experience was finding a passenger’s trunk (suitcase) in which he had shipped, on the bus, his entire life’s savings of $250,000, along with his personal items while moving to live with his daughter in Oklahoma.
My years of driving over the road have suited me well. Those were the days that taught me so much about being a professional, safe, and courteous driver while allowing me to spend more than 40 years in a business I love.
This business has seen many changes and continues to evolve. But there is one constant that I hope never changes. That is the love of buses that so many of us have for these 40 and 45-foot behemoths that travel our nation’s highways every day and put a smile on the face of every bus lover.