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London calling: Behind the wheel at Unitrans

By From page A1 | January 08, 2012

Training to be a Unitrans conductor on a London double-decker bus, associate editor Tanya Perez rides on the back platform at the Unitrans bus facility. Fred Gladdis/Enterprise photo

Training to be a Unitrans conductor on a London double-decker bus, associate editor Tanya Perez rides on the back platform at the Unitrans bus facility. Fred Gladdis/Enterprise photo

Note: Last fall, associate editor Tanya Perez and photographer Fred Gladdis got to talking about how much fun it would be to drive and conduct an old London double-decker bus around Davis. The conversation developed, and Bob’s your uncle!, a training session was arranged with UC Davis’ Unitrans. On Nov. 20, the duo grabbed their visas and headed out to the Unitrans car park on South Garrod Road for some instruction.

When first approached with the idea of training a couple of Enterprise staffers for a story, Unitrans’ Scott Weintraub said his main goal would be to get the word out about safety. Namely, Unitrans is incredibly safe.

Said Weintraub, assistant general manager for operations, “Compare Unitrans’ safety record with any other public transportation system … we’re head and shoulders above others.”

And with the challenges of driving in Davis — pedestrians who aren’t particularly mindful of the rules of the road combined with bicycles darting through traffic — safety is an especially laudable goal.

As photographer Fred Gladdis and I met Weintraub and two Unitrans employees — Francisco Rodriquez, assistant driver trainer, and Lauren Ginn, conductor manager — at the bus facility for a training session, we were given a brief tour while Weintraub explained features of the London double-decker bus we would learn to command.

Truthfully, I say “brief” because my notes had a big blank spot where Weintraub actually was talking up a storm. He gave many details about the transmission systems of an original London double-decker bus — something about the 1014 that lives in the garage having its original “pre-select” transmission and original engine. “It runs great but has emissions problems,” Weintraub said, noting that a museum in London actually wants the 1014 for its collection, although Unitrans isn’t willing to part with it.

But Weintraub must have noticed I’d stopped taking furious notes because he said, “We’re all bus nerds here (with Ginn and Rodriguez nodding in agreement). What might be interesting to us isn’t to others.” Touché.


As we made our way toward the parking lot, Weintraub got to talking about the bus Fred and I would use for training. Our right-hand drive double-decker, called No. 742 (which denotes that it was the 742nd bus made), is 14 feet 3 inches tall, which explains part of why this vehicle requires extra training. No double-deckers go into South Davis because of the underpasses into that part of town, and Unitrans must work with the city to keep the trees pruned on the double-decker routes.

As the five of us reached No. 742, Rodriguez followed Fred, who was training to be a driver, into the cab of the bus. Well, he followed Fred part-way through the window of the bus, as it is a very small cab.

We weren’t able to leave the Unitrans bus yard for our training session because, among other reasons, drivers need a Class B license. All training is done at the Garrod Road facility; drivers need 100 to 150 hours of training to be able to drive in service. Regarding training time, Weintraub said, “For me, a good way to judge is, if it’s not safe for my own kids, the driver needs more training.”

Additionally, no new drivers are allowed on the right-hand drive double-deckers. Would-be No. 742 drivers must have a record of 500 safe driving hours. “It’s an elite force … you gotta earn it,” Weintraub explained.

Rodriguez went over the controls with Fred, cluing him in on the necessary idiosyncrasies. “It’s really hard to turn,” he warned. “There’s no power steering at all.”

Also good to know is that the brakes are very sensitive. Rodriguez explained, “The moment you press the brake pedal is the moment you’re gonna stop.”

Note: To read more about Fred Gladdis’ experience behind the wheel, see the sidebar at the bottom of this article.


Now was my turn to learn the specifics of conducting No. 742. Said Ginn of the gig, “It’s the coolest job in all of Davis.”

As we headed to the back end of the bus, Ginn said that the job of conductor is in large part to be the communicator between the driver and the passengers. Surprisingly, there is no talking to the driver, who is in a little glassed-off compartment. Unitrans has tried using walkie-talkies between driver and conductor, but it’s been determined that a bell system is best.

From the open platform on the back, Ginn and I checked the bell system with our driver, Fred. One bell means stop at the next stop, two means we are ready to roll and three means stop as soon as you can. When the driver wants to get the conductor’s attention, he pumps the brakes a bit.

A conductor also is like a concierge for the passengers. She stops by every person on the bus asking where he or she wants to get off. And she remembers it! That’s right; if there are 22 passengers on the bus, the conductor remembers all 22 stops that have been requested.

Ginn gave me a cheat sheet, listing all stops the B-Line, E-Line, F-Line and G-Line make, and she says it’s perfectly acceptable to take notes on where to stop. The cheat sheet also has possible nicknames that people may refer to the stops by; i.e., “I need to go to Silver Dragon” which is the corner of F and Fourth streets.

The next order of business was to learn how to use the bright orange flag that a conductor is never seen without. In a nutshell, drivers need to know that when the flag is out, it means “do not pass.” The bus could be changing lanes or dodging a tree.

Further, the conductor will hold the flag at waist-level until the bus stops, to let passengers know it’s not time to get on/off yet. Ginn showed me how you make an L shape with the flag and your body to guide the passengers where you want them to go.

One thing cars need to be aware of is that because passengers exit from the left side — aka driver’s side — of the London double-decker buses, drivers often “kick out the bus nose into traffic so the platform is closer to the sidewalk.” The buses aren’t rudely taking up two lanes to be annoying.

Ginn pointed out that conductors and drivers are required to know a lot about when and where it’s safe to stop. Rodriguez said, “Yeah, we don’t just let passengers chase the bus while laughing, even if that’s what passengers think they see!”

We were finally ready to roll, and I gave Fred the two-bell signal. We eased forward and did a couple of laps around the bus training yard. Fred practiced kicking out the nose, while Ginn explained the landmarks she would be on the lookout for as conductor, giving her a sense of how far along the route they were.

She also wanted me to test the three-bell signal, in case something happened, such as a dropped flag … at which point Ginn proceeded to chuck my flag off the back of the bus.

I frantically rang the bell three times, Fred pulled over, and I ran back to retrieve my flag, laughing all the way back.


Since the day was quite cold and Fred and I knew we had taken up enough of our gracious hosts’ time, we decided to park No. 742 and call it a day.

Before we left, though, Weintraub shared a few more very interesting tidbits.

With 225 student employees, Unitrans has its own metal shop, wood shop and a fleet of mechanics. “We can machine things” to make up for the unavailable parts a 1960s London double-decker bus might require.

The four full-time mechanics oversee 15 to 20 student mechanics, some of which have no mechanical training prior to working for Unitrans. Weintraub compared the career mechanics to doctors in a teaching hospital. You can’t just know mechanics, you have to be able to teach it, too.

If this all sounds like the coolest campus job you could ever have, well, it just might be. Positions within Unitrans are very sought after. For example, 80 applications were received for just three openings in the fall. Aside from being fun, jobs with Unitrans pays well and offer an extremely flexible schedule. Students love working there.

Summing it all up, Weintraub said, “Unitrans runs incredibly well because the students care about it so much.”

— Reach Tanya Perez at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter at @enterprisetanya

Behind the wheel

“You’re going to get a workout,” said Francisco Rodriquez despite the cold, windy day. He explains that the lack of power steering and the need for a heavy foot on the brakes would soon warm me up in the exposed “cockpit” of the bus.

A few decades back when I first got behind the wheel of my mom’s Dodge pickup, I had to calibrate my sense of position on the city street. To do so, I learned to line up the hood ornament with the street curb.

Now, as I hover over the position where that truck’s carburetor might have been, I have to make an adjustment to find my happy space within the lane. Luckily for now, I’m just driving around the Unitrans parking lot with no challenging obstacles.

Sure enough, my upper body warms up on the turns and my thigh feels the heat as I hold down the brake pedal after receiving a sudden signal to stop. Someone has apparently dropped her flag.

As I reflect on this tremendously unique piece of machinery, I realize there’s not much need for it here. Since there’s a difference in population density between the U.S. and England, there is greater need for vertical space in Britain.

I also am transfixed by this vehicle because it pulls me to the English half of my life. Like an asymmetrical painting — a small red dot in a vast white space — it has a mighty presence.

There’s a pure concentration of England in that bright red vehicle. As it draws my attention, it carries me to my youth — to the first time I can remember riding any bus — as I rode a London double-decker bus with my father in the late ’70s.

It pulls me back to him, to my family there, my cousins, my brother, to a place that is familiar yet still asymmetrically foreign to me.

— By Fred Gladdis, Enterprise photographer

Tanya Perez

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