After guiding his nearly 20-ton GoTriangle bus to a flawless stop, driver Harold Swann is ready, greeting the 16 riders climbing up from the Patterson Place park-and-ride stop in Durham with a smile, a slew of “good mornings!” and a measure of mercy.

One young woman, heavy backpack in hand, has forgotten her bus pass.

“Just swipe it twice tomorrow,” Swann says kindly, then he waits until everyone is seated before heading about 7:15 a.m. toward the fourth stop of Route 400, which mostly connects workers to their jobs and students to their schools between Durham Station and UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill.

These are Swann’s people. He loves taking care of them.

“They make my day,” says Swann, a former IBM financial analyst who has been driving for GoTriangle since 1999. “I love saying, ‘Good morning. How you doing? Are you having a good day?’ You never know how that impacts someone.”

Those enjoyable interactions paired with freedom from a desk job and a dedication to good customer service and safety bring a sense of satisfaction to Swann (pictured above) and other drivers.

“If you’re a person who likes meeting people, you’ll do that here,” says Joe Smith (pictured below), who also has been driving for GoTriangle since 1999 and who, 13 years ago, married one of his passengers. “If you’re a person who feels like you’re in a rut sitting in one place all day, this is the type of job you’ll love. I never thought I’d be driving a bus this long. It wasn’t my interest, but I love it.”

GoTriangle is looking for other people like Swann, Smith and Wes Eason, another GoTriangle driver who runs the evening bus routes that start about 3 p.m.

“The reason I chose to do it is it got me out and about driving places that maybe I didn’t know anything about,” says Eason (pictured below), who worked in emergency services in Durham before starting at GoTriangle in 1999. “I grew up in Durham, and I didn’t know much about Raleigh or Chapel Hill. I learned some valuable things in those two cities. It gives you an appreciation of where we live.”

Currently, GoTriangle needs about 20 more drivers to cover its routes that run between Raleigh and Durham and between Durham and Chapel Hill, not to mention several express routes that traverse RTP. With money from the half-cent sales tax that Wake County voters approved in November, GoTriangle plans even more frequent routes this summer, which will mean needing to hire yet 10 more drivers.

Bus operators currently start at about $13 an hour, but GoTriangle is undergoing a salary study to examine the possibility of increasing pay. The benefits are considered exceptional, with minimal deductions for health insurance and an $800 bonus every six months if a driver remains accident-free. That doesn’t include GoTriangle’s putting 8 percent of an employee’s salary into a 401(a) and offering $1,000 a year in tuition assistance and $300 toward gym memberships.

“If you want to be a bus operator, you have the freedom to be your own boss,” says Tellis Chandler, who started as a bus driver at GoTriangle in 1998 and now is director of bus operations. “You have the opportunity to interact with all types of people, from different nations, different socioeconomic backgrounds. You’ve got everybody, from those who rely on transit to those who choose to leave their cars behind, and you get to meet them and provide a service that’s vital to the community.”

Because many routes run more frequently during morning and afternoon rush hours, some bus operators work split shifts with a break in the middle. With bus service increasing in frequency this summer, there likely will be more straight shifts to offer, Chandler says.

“Some people like that split,” he says. “They take a big lunch break or they can make appointments, go pay bills. You can go work out. Get their laundry done. They go do house work, go cut the grass, go read. Some people go to school during that split. That’s what I did.”

Drivers also like that they get a chance to change routes every three or four months if they want to. And they especially appreciate the camaraderie at GoTriangle.

“We have that here, the people who help each other out, who look out for you,” says Smith, who also has worked as a teacher assistant and bus driver at a Durham charter school. “I like the people I’m working with here.”

Back on Route 400, Chante Deese climbs onto Harold Swann’s bus at the UNC Hospitals stop in Chapel Hill. An N.C. Central University student, she has worked all night as a front-desk coordinator at the hospital and is heading to her home in Durham.

At the next stop headed back toward the Bull City, Bill Conley boards and then sits chatting amicably with Deese and Swann, whom he calls his friends. Conley has worked in the mail room at Blue Cross in Durham for nearly three decades and has taken a public bus there nearly every day.

“Will I see you tomorrow morning?” he asks Deese as he rises to disembark.

“I’m always here for you,” she says.

“That’s what friends do,” Conley says, then he gives Swann a fist bump and heads out the door.

—Written by Burgetta Eplin Wheeler, GoTriangle public relations specialist

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