From the comfort of my air conditioned office, I’m reflecting on some of the most essential and demanding roles at Valley Metro: the men and women who work outdoors to help keep buses and light rail trains running smoothly, even in the midst of record-setting heat.
Of course, I decided I wanted to learn about these crucial team members during a string of brutally hot days when temperatures hit 115 degrees and the Valley was under excessive heat warnings.
What I learned is their work isn’t for the faint of heart. It likely goes unappreciated by many who don’t see them executing their behind-the-scenes jobs, day in and day out. I spent an hour each with a light rail maintenance team and a bus fleet care team. After seeing what they do to keep our transit system moving, I left sweaty, drained from the oven-like heat and full of respect.
It was an intensely hot Friday when I met a pair of light rail track maintainers and a team of bus re-fuelers to learn about their daily responsibilities, which are completed entirely outdoors. No retreating to an air-conditioned office like me.
Each team of track maintainers actually walks an average of four miles a day along the light rail line, inspecting the track for any safety issues that must be addressed. Following the inspection, they conduct the necessary maintenance to make sure the tracks are in proper working order for the trains to travel across the 20 mile system.
“We play a critical role, doing all sorts of maintenance to keep the tracks clear for trains and to keep riders safe,” said Brian Wisner, who has experienced several summers of triple digit temperatures on the light rail maintenance team.
When I met with Wisner and fellow track maintainer Herman De La Torre at 10 a.m., it was already 101 degrees outside. We decided to test the actual rail track, which can get smoking hot in the searing sun. A temperature gun showed the surface temperature at 117 degrees at that time. I don’t want to imagine how hot the rail gets during the peak of the afternoon, surrounded by concrete and asphalt.
For both Wisner and De La Torre, covering up is key. Light rail maintenance teams who work outdoors dress head to toe with hats and light-weight clothing, such as long-sleeve shirts and pants, to protect their skin from the sun’s burning rays. In addition, sunscreen is provided along with thermos containers filled with plenty of water and Gatorade. Crews are also instructed to listen to their bodies and take breaks when needed.
“When it gets humid, and is still sunny and hot, that’s when it gets terrible,” admitted Wisner. “Staying safe is our top priority. The biggest challenge is staying hydrated.”
It’s challenging to say the least when the Valley has experienced the first string of blistering days before we’ve even had a chance to fully adapt to the increasing summer temperatures.
Refueling Valley Metro’s bus fleet is another critical job that’s even more challenging in the summertime. Service technicians spend their eight hour shift outdoors fueling and cleaning hundreds of buses each evening.
“You can feel the heat. When you start moving around and feel the heat of the engines, it gets really hot,” said Ronne McLarrin. “In the summer, I just can’t get enough water.”
Large coolers of water and Gatorade are stationed at the fuel island for convenient access to liquids.
“If you don’t stay hydrated, you feel it quickly. Safety first. Everybody watches everybody. It’s like a family,” said McLarrin. “It’s a necessary job to serve the public. Despite the heat, we have to make sure certain tasks are completed so that the buses are fueled and ready for riders the next day.”
While the Valley endures another long, hot summer, crews like these will continue to keep their cool behind-the-scenes to help get riders to their destinations safely and efficiently.
To learn more about Valley Metro please visit their website: ValleyMetro.org