Under Pressure

This entry has been sitting around over at my Myspace blog for over a year. I decided to re-post it so other people could see it, because it’s such a fun story. It comes from a typical day working as a bus driver in Skagway, Alaska (as a side note, I’ve re-posted all of the blogs that I posted on Myspace here, but instead of posting them here in October 2007, I’ve post-dated them to when they were originally posted in 2006):

Yesterday was so eventful, I just had to write something. We have been short one mechanic for the past week or so, and I think the buses can tell, because they have been having problems left and right. Bridget’s brakes caught fire last week (though no passengers were on board). Jake and Sarah both had flat tires this week. And yesterday, this is what happened to me:

I was taking a group of passengers to the Yukon, and they rode part of the way up on the train in the morning. So I dropped them off at the depot in Skagway, then drove up the pass to pick them up at Canadian Customs in Fraser, B.C., by myself. I arrived at Fraser, read for a little bit, then the train arrived and we were on our way. I noticed when I pulled out of the parking lot that the air pressure gauge in the bus was reading a little low, but I didn’t think that it was a problem, since the bus had passed its brake tests that morning. Normal air pressure operating range for these buses is 90-120 p.s.i. (pounds per square inch), and my gauge was reading about 60. There was a low air warning signal buzzing, but it was faint, and I thought that it would turn off any second.

It didn’t. And the bus wasn’t building any air pressure. So, instead of launching into the tour, I was quiet for a moment, deciding what to do. I knew that I was one of the last buses, if not the last bus, on its way up to Carcross, where we would eat lunch. If I stopped the bus, I would have had to call other buses back down and figure out how to split my passengers among several buses. All of us would have been late for lunch, and it would have been a logistical nightmare (if not an impossibility) to figure out everything over the radio. I had only an hour or so to get to lunch, and it takes about an hour to get from Fraser up to Carcross, so I knew that I would not have to slow the bus down to take any picture stops.

So, I decided to keep going with my 60 p.s.i. or so. I knew that there were not any steep, prolonged hills on the way that I couldn’t handle by downshifting and turning on the engine brake. And I only had to stop once one the way, when I crossed railroad tracks at Log Cabin. When I left Log Cabin, I still had about 45 minutes to go, and the bus was down around 30 p.s.i. From then on, I stepped on the brakes less than 5 times, just kept my speed down and downshifted going into turns or down any kind of hill at all. Since lots of things on these buses work on air pressure, various things stopped working, like the air conditioning and the windshield wipers (thankfully, it only sprinkled briefly).

We arrived in Carcross right on time, and I pulled into our lunch stop to drop off passengers. Pulling into the parking lot, I had about 20 p.s.i. left. When I dropped off the passengers (who I decided not to tell that there was a problem with the bus that might affect the brakes — I thought that it would agitate them unduly), even the step that sticks out under the door would not work any more. Then I pulled off to park the bus, and when I had it parked, there were 12 p.s.i. left. That is not even enough air to hit the shut-off switch, and so it ran for a little while until I went to the back and turned off the emergency switch. I talked to the home office and the mechanic, Brett, on the phone. He told me to try a few things, like listening for air leaks, checking out the air compressor, trying to put it in gear (it would not go into gear again), and we decided to switch into another bus. Severin and Melissa were on the same tour, and they both had about half-full buses. so they combined into Severin’s bus, and I took Melissa’s. When the passengers came back from lunch, I told them that the bus was having some problems, and that we were going to switch buses. They were a great group: nobody was upset, everyone just walked calmly over to the new bus. A couple of people asked me more specific questions about what was wrong, and I told them some of what was wrong. But again, I didn’t tell them that we had driven for about an hour with low air pressure. That would have upset them unnecessarily, I thought.

Now it’s the next day, and the bus is still parked up in the Yukon. The mechanic will probably go get it today, blow up the air bellows manually, and take it back to Skagway. I hope, for his sake, that nothing else goes wrong mechanically for at least a week.