NJ Transit riders log 25,000 complaints against drivers the past 2 years

Submitted by ragnarok on Tue, 07/20/2010 - 01:04
NJ Transit


One bus driver talked on his cellphone the entire 40-minute ride from Wayne to New York. Another got lost on the way to Giants Stadium, while a third slammed the bus doors on a little girl's head.

Still another smoked aboard her bus, then sprayed excessive amounts of air freshener to mask the odor. And yet another shouted "start walking" to an amputee when a wheelchair lift failed to work.

NJ Transit logged more than 25,000 complaints about bus drivers in 2008 and 2009, records show, the majority describing encounters with drivers who berated passengers, bypassed them at bus stops or drove recklessly — striking garbage cans, cars and, according to one complaint, a woman's dog.

Hackensack commuter Donald Rouse complained to NJ Transit last September when a bus sped passed him at his Vreeland Avenue and Hudson Street stop in Hackensack.

"I began to wave my arms up and down while screaming, 'Hey, hey, hey,' " Rouse, 61, recalled. "I don't know how you can't see me. I'm a big black man. I weigh 285 pounds. And that day, I had a red Rutgers hat on.

"If you're a driver, how can you miss me?"

Rouse said NJ Transit officials later contacted him and apologized.

Other complaints were about drivers who let an elderly passenger out on a slick mud patch, refused to operate chair lifts for a disabled passenger who later fell on the stairs, or made racial or gay slurs.

One complaint came last November from a member of U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg's staff. The staff member said he was driving in Newark when an NJ Transit bus operator pulled out in front of him without looking.

When the senator's staff member got out of his car, "the driver gave him the finger, then two fingers, then repeated several times an obscenity " 'blank' you," according to a letter sent to NJ Transit.

One passenger reported her driver after she witnessed him hitting a parked Mercedes-Benz while leaving the Port Authority Bus Terminal. Another customer used the phrase, "The Fast and the Furious" to describe her bus ride, while another told NJ Transit, "It felt like we were in that movie 'Speed.' "

NJ Transit officials note that in 2008 and 2009, the agency carried roughly 338,562,000 passengers on 8,326,968 bus trips — roughly one complaint per 13,700 passenger trips.

The agency has 3,773 bus operators, most of whom don't get complaints, said Jim Gigantino, vice president and general manager of bus operations at NJ Transit.

More than 750 comments logged by NJ Transit in 2008 and 2009 were to praise drivers for consistent, timely and pleasant service. One customer simply wrote: "Bus driver saw me running to the stop and waited for me."

Another passenger told NJ Transit her driver "was smiling and you could tell he likes what he does and he was very professional."

Spokeswoman Penny Bassett Hackett said one alert driver in South Jersey helped find an Alzheimer's patient who had been reported lost and was wandering on a street. Another found and returned a lost briefcase to an attorney who left important merger documents in the case.

Another driver returned $2,700 that had been left on a bus to its owner.

However, Gigantino said, "Ten percent of your people cause 90 percent of your problems," and that 10 percent is not only wearing on customers, it is costing an agency that has recently had to make service cuts and raise fares.

"Rudeness is an area we've invested so much money in the last several years at trying to change," Gigantino said.

NJ Transit spends more than $500,000 each year on customer service refresher courses for drivers who have received multiple complaints, he said.

The agency will spend about $1 million this year for training to enhance overall operator skills. That includes defensive driving and safety refresher training and courses on using "a customer-first approach," and working with Americans with Disabilities Act riders.

Gigantino said operating a bus is "among the five most stressful jobs.

"You have so much diversity in what you need to do. It's basically piloting the bus. … You have to understand all of the fares. You have to be able to do it from Point A to Point B. ... If you're late, everybody getting on the bus is upset."

John Costa, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union's New Jersey State Council, which represents NJ Transit bus operators, said bus operators are under heavy pressure, and passengers aren't always pleasant.

"It's not easy being an operator out there with the public. A lot of [drivers] are afraid. A lot of them are abused" or threatened by passengers, he said. "If somebody gets on and doesn't want to pay a fare and he questions it, he can be killed or spit on or hit or cursed at."

Costa also questioned how many of the drivers who get complaints actually work for NJ Transit. Bassett Hackett said 1,451 of the bus operators cited in the complaints were contracted carriers who do their own hiring and training.

Costa said he talks to drivers who behave inappropriately on their routes or mistreat passengers. "We tell them, 'You're going to lose your job,' " he said.

Bus operator Andrew Fredericks, who has been driving for NJ Transit for 15 years, said he doesn't bypass people, but many commuters don't signal clearly when they need the bus, particularly at stops where several buses pull up.

"If you're driving down on the street and there are several buses at a stop, how do you know unless they flag you down," he said. "We can't read minds."

Bus operator Mike Satffield has been driving the 712 from Hackensack to Willowbrook the last two of his 24 years as a driver. He said the public doesn't seem as friendly as they used to.