Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2007

A daily driving excursion of earthly proportions

County school buses travel more than 100,000 miles a day

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J. Adam Fenster⁄The Gazette
Gene Harley, a 30-year mechanic, of Boonsboro, begins a two-day repair of a county school bus engine with a bad oil leak.
What travels a distance equal to four times around the equator every day but rarely leaves Montgomery County?

The school buses, of course!

Each day, the 1,275 county public school buses travel more than 100,000 miles. One trip around the Earth at the equator is 24,901 miles.

Along the way, the buses pick up 96,000 school children.

It’s a big job and it takes a big fleet of buses to do it. Montgomery County Public Schools has the sixth largest publicly owned fleet of school buses in the nation. Getting those buses ready for opening day takes a staff of 110 workers and mechanics, working around the clock in three shifts.

‘‘They don’t work on weekends,” said John Matthews, MCPS’s director of transportation.

However, Matthews sometimes works on Saturday and Sunday, and he gets up at 3 a.m. when snow is predicted to check if the roads are safe.

‘‘We have a team that goes out to assess road conditions and report to me,” Matthews said. ‘‘We keep in touch with other school systems and are equipped with satellite weather so we can watch the advance of a storm,”

That part of his job only comes well after the start of school, though, after all the bus routes are planned and operating smoothly and bus drivers and attendants have been hired, trained and certified.

‘‘We hire and train about 120 new bus drivers for the beginning of each school year and 200 or so during the year,” said Matthews, who added the county is always looking for new bus drivers.

‘‘We have 1,150 routes and between 200 and 300 substitute drivers,” he said. ‘‘We have a good percentage of turnover — it’s a long day. Most drivers start at 6 [a.m.] or so and go to 9 or 10 [a.m.] and then come back. Typically, you put in 11 or 12 hours to get an eight-hour day.”

Matthews drove a bus for Montgomery County while in college.

‘‘It’s a great job for a college student, but you have to be 21 to drive a bus,” he said.

There is no maximum age restriction, but drivers have to pass a state physical.

County school buses travel 19.5 million miles each year, the equivalent to 43 trips to the moon and back.

Each school bus route is designed for maximum efficiency, meaning full buses, and safety, meaning limiting the number of students crossing roads.

‘‘Everything we do is with the intent to enhance our operations and for safety,” Matthews said.

‘‘The buses are equipped with two-way radios so drivers can get in touch with the bus depot and inside camera systems for discipline and control,” he added. ‘‘It’s a matter of safety for the students and drivers.”

Buses also have AM⁄FM radios and tape players so drivers and students can listen to music.

‘‘Students enjoy listening to music and it helps keep them calm, especially on long rides,” Matthews said.

And he assures parents that it is safer to let their children ride the bus.

‘‘Parents bringing their students to school is so widespread that it clogs the roads around the schools and creates a situation that is less than safe,” Matthews said.