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DDOT starts driver training on bendable, longer buses

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

Brian Miller simply couldn’t stop gushing. Words like “stable,” “ease” and “dream” came pouring out — adjectives he never thought he’d say about a bus in the Detroit Department of Transportation fleet.

Miller, 57, who has spent years driving and now training DDOT operators, was describing the new, 60-foot “articulated” buses with a pivoting middle section that bends around corners and provides room for many more passengers seated and standing.

Next month, DDOT plans to unveil the 10 “artics,” in the parlance of transit officials, that are expected to ease overcrowding and long wait times on the jammed Woodward, Gratiot and Grand River routes that have sometimes led to problems on the troubled but improving system. About 100 passengers, seated and standing, can ride the new buses, compared to 60 on a normal bus, officials say.

“It’s one of the finest pieces of equipment I’ve seen this department ever buy,” said Miller, who has worked for DDOT for 26 years and began helping train drivers on the vehicles last Monday. “The platform itself is very stable. The ease of the ergonomics, the driver’s area, a smaller steering wheel and the overall maneuverability of the vehicle just makes it a dream to drive. It floats literally up and down the street. It’s like riding on a cushion of air.”

DDOT officials are hoping the public has the same reaction — and fewer complaints about wait times on the system that serves a half a million riders a week — to the buses that first appeared in Europe and are now mainstays in major American cities such as Chicago, Cleveland and Boston. Well over a decade ago, Detroit had a small fleet of articulated buses, but never replaced them.

“We have the big volume in those three corridors,” said Dan Dirks, the director of DDOT.

Each bus will have 11 cameras and transit police will be on board for safety.

Along with DDOT the suburban transit agency SMART also has begun introducing new buses. Since January, DDOT has brought online 70 new regular 40-foot buses. SMART is using 12 new buses and ordered 59, which are expected in the spring. SMART has only two articulated buses that were bought in 2010 and used on routes such as Gratiot and Woodward, officials say.

At 60 feet, the articulated buses are longer than an average tractor trailer. The middle section has a black turnbuckle floor that turns when the bus takes a corner. The section is divided and protected by a tough gray leather shield that also bends and adjusts with turns.

The total cost for the 10 buses, and parts and tools to fix them was $7.5 million paid for by federal grants, officials said.

DDOT hopes the new buses solve some of its on-time performance issues that have caused problems among riders. Still, the agency has a driver shortage. There are 435 drivers and DDOT officials hope to hire more to reach 490, but as soon as new ones are trained others retire or take better-paying positions.

The sight of one of the articulated buses on a training run last week near the Rosa Parks Transit Center downtown stopped bus patron Tyrone Smith, 35, in his tracks. His first words out of this mouth: “They are like the buses in Chicago.”

After touring the bus, Smith said he was amazed at its size and seems confident the overcrowding he’s seen on the busiest routes will be alleviated.

“I think it’s really nice for the fact that this kind of puts the transportation system on the same level as like maybe Chicago somewhat,” he said, “where you can get people around — a whole lot more people. You don’t have to worry about buses passing you up or what time the second bus is going to come.”

Even with the new buses, the average age of a DDOT bus is around 6 years old, down from 11 years — one of the highest rates in the country, Dirks said.

“We’re looking on a regular basis replacing those vehicles that are old and tired with new ones so that the ideal is having a fleet that averages somewhere between 6 and 8 years old all the time,” Dirks said.

Tremell Rush, 36, of Detroit, who was recently taking the bus because he was having his car repaired, said he remembers many years ago when DDOT had similar articulated buses. He added he’s excited they are bringing them back.

“A lot of time people are waiting on a bus and they get passed up because there’s not enough room so these new buses will alleviate that problem,” Rush said. “It smells good. It looks good. It’s probably fuel efficient, which is good.”

Meanwhile, Miller said he doesn’t foresee the drivers he will be training having any trouble navigating the new artics. They will be glad to drive them, he said.

“It’s what we need this point in time in transportation,” he said. “It’s making a statement. It’s telling people that Detroit is up, they’re mobile and we’re on the move.”

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