How do they do that? Hire and train rail operators

A train operator navigates the Expo Line through the Exposition Park area during testing in 2011. Photo by Steve Hymon/Metro.

A train operator navigates the Expo Line through the Exposition Park area during testing in 2011. Photo by Steve Hymon/Metro.

How do they do that? is a series for The Source that explores the technology that helps keep Metro running and passengers and other commuters moving. Some of it applies directly to the trains, buses and freeways and some of it runs in the background — invisible to nearly everyone but essential to mobility in our region.

There’s not much traffic to deal with on the Metro Red and Purple line subways but there are customers who do the craziest things. From pulling the red ball emergency handle to open the doors on a departing train to jumping down on to the tracks to retrieve a lost hat, there’s plenty for Metro Rail subway operators to handle from the cab of a train.

Above ground on L.A. streets, where the light-rail Gold, Blue and Expo trains run, there are unpredictable cars and pedestrians and bicyclists and running pets. One line passes a skateboard park and you never can tell what kids on skateboards are going to do so the train operators must be hyper vigilant when they approach the park.

A bus can swerve (although it would rather not need to) but a six-car train weighing 80,000 pounds per car — not including passengers — can take quite a while to come to a stop. And it can never ever swerve away from a problem, no matter what.

Those are a few of the reasons rail operators live by dozens of what-to-do-if rules and work closely with voices constantly streaming into the train cab from the Rail Operations Center (ROC), where men and women carefully monitor what’s going on at all times on all parts of the rail system, both above ground and below.

Metro’s rail fleet is driven by a team of about 250 men and women, all of whom are former bus operators, so they understand the joys and challenges of working with the public. But learning to drive a massive train filled with hundreds of passengers during rush hour is a huge responsibility.

Potential train operators must pass a work history qualifications review, a physical agility test and a vision test to be considered for a position in rail. They then may be accepted for seven weeks of classroom and practical (operating trains) time.

Light rail and subway (heavy rail) operators begin with the same training and then branch out into knowledge needed for the type of rail they will operate and the line. New operators are assigned to lines when and where openings occur. The pay is the same for bus, light rail and subway and it is based on seniority.

There are some similarities between bus and train operation. There’s interaction with the public on both, although much less on trains. Bus and train operators must learn the controls of their respective vehicles. And like airline pilots, all begin their shifts with vehicle inspection. For the trains it includes checking two types of brakes: full service brakes used to bring the train to a normal stop at a station, and the emergency braking system that locks all the wheels to bring the train to a screeching halt. (The customer fetching a hat off the Red Line tracks could prompt this.)

Rail operators must learn to operate a train using a dashboard that includes a master controller that acts like a gas pedal. Subway trains run at a maximum speed of 70 mph in the tunnel between Hollywood/Highland and UniversalCity stations but generally move at 40-50 mph between stations. Light rail observes the same speed limits as the cars it shares the street with. An automatic train protection system tells an operator if he or she is driving faster than the prescribed speed limit. It can also automatically slow a train that is not following orders or coming close to another train ahead of it.

During training, operators also must learn a whole raft of rules meant to help them quickly troubleshoot when problems occur. They learn how to single-track: to share one track with all other trains on their line — going both directions — to get around an inoperable train or station closed for police activity. They learn what to do in case of a customer illness or altercation. They learn what to do in case of an earthquake. Yet most major decisions about what to do when problems occur are made by the men and women at the ROC in downtown L.A. Passenger safety is the driving force of every decision.

The lessons are important because decisions have to be made quickly, both for safety reasons and to keep the lines running. When one train stops it affects the rest of the line it is on as well as the entire system, since a late train will disrupt connections with other lines. During rush hour there can be 64 trains running simultaneously throughout the system. It’s like a giant jigsaw puzzle that is constantly in motion.

Few train operators leave service to return to buses, although some do … maybe one or two a year. Sometimes they are discomforted by the responsibility of piloting a huge machine like a train. Sometimes they don’t care for the solitude of the train cab. Sometimes they just miss the day-to-day interaction with customers and the friendships earned through years of daily interaction.

4 replies

  1. This article is interesting about rail operators, who would go after a hat that has dropped onto the subway tracks??

  2. How do I apply to become a Metro Rail Operator?? I love the New Expo Line in Culver City I just wished that it went a bit faster i.e. cut travel time from 30mins to just 15 minutes between DTLA 7th St Metro Center and Culver City Express Service(with limited stop service) should also be considered on the new Expo Line!!!

  3. Interesting. I want to know how the shifts work: I see trains ‘going out of service’ at Union Station all the time. Do the operators do one or two round trips, then get a break? Where do they hang out when a train is out of service? How many hours is a shift? And who does the mathematics to keep all the trains going without hitting each other?

  4. Great and interesting article. It’s a shame the trains can’t go faster than the speed limit for cars. On a related note, I hate the new toll roads or (HOT) Express Lanes. Especially the $3 monthly maintenance fee if you don’t use them. It’s like Bank of America charging a fee.