Pat O’Donnell, our Senior Sales Executive, based in Omaha Nebraska, drove up the road and dropped in to see how things were going. In short, fantastically. So proud of our team and what we do for them. Here's Nick Love in the middle with CJ on the right.
“Our buses provide transportation all over the Lincoln area,” Denise from Customer Service smiled as she explained to the lady’s voice coming from her headset at the StarTran Headquarters in Nebraska’s Capitol City…. “Unfortunately, we do not have a route that goes to LaVista.” The caller wanted to go to the Dance Hall later in the week.
Denise handles all customer service activity – lost and found, schedule questions, just about anything. She has that headset in her ear, taking calls no matter where she is in the office. Nodding her head with a smile, she greeted me with a wave– while showing kindness and patience, giving this caller three different alternatives for rides – (Lavista is 50 miles away from Lincoln). I was here to see Nick – Assistant Manager of Operations.
So, I am relatively new to Connexionz, but I’ve been in the Transit world for 10 years. Over time, I’ve visited many transit maintenance shops, operation centers – I’ve served on various transit committees, and worked with all kinds of other vendors from bus manufacturers to floor makers. So, to be able to have the opportunity to spend some time at StarTran in Lincoln was absolutely golden for me.
The audio/video technology I provided in the past mainly involved the specific interest of maintenance and safety officers. Each time that I toured the transit centers, I would see the dispatch center –but never going in. Though I worked with Connexionz as a partner for all these years, I never had the opportunity to see the Connexionz IT software in action. Thanks to the folks at StarTran, that opportunity came on a Sunday, Thursday in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Nick told me when we were making arrangements for my trip, “you can come anytime – my dispatcher starts at 4 AM.” A bit earlier than expected, my first thoughts were, “well, that would make the most sense but 4 AM is even a little early for me.”
Upon arrival, Denise took me down to the dispatch area – where first I was able to meet some of the maintenance staff who let me know that Marcos had just left the night before. Marcos Mendez is one of our Connexionz colleagues, who was there for several days, putting added equipment into the vehicles. The maintenance people directed me over to Operations and I was able to see that hallowed window, bustling with activity – Dispatch.
Several drivers milling about, sipping coffee or completing forms. One at a time, they would go up to the window to talk with CJ. With quiet confidence, working the desk with two radios, two telephones, two computer monitors, and a cell phone, CJ would smile and say, “Hello Tony……Hello Bob…..Hello Cindi, where are we going today?”
Each Driver would say something like, “I’m on block 74,” or “19 again today.” CJ would swing over to the Connexionz Dispatch Monitor, push a button or two – then say, “you’re on bus 343.” Of course, this was after he checked the manifest to ensure the 323 was available and ready to go.
CJ has been with StarTran for 8 1/2 years. Originally from Los Angeles, like so many on the StarTran administrative staff, CJ started as a driver. I’ll say as a sidenote, in my years in Transit, I have met so many senior leadership people in transit properties and transit organizations who started their careers in that organization as drivers. Understanding this really makes me smile because it matches up with my mindset about how to be a good representative at Connexionz.
To have the ability to understand the entire organization, and every facet by which it runs has unbelievable value. “You can’t manage what you don’t know,” CJ notes, as he calls a driver on the Overtime List. Between assignments, he calls to see if drivers want some extra hours or takes a call from another driver asking about a training class set for tomorrow – the driver’s day off. “You can come in if you want, and just take a different day off – your call.”
Meeting other colleagues at StarTran, the same holds true. Starting out as a Driver, starting out as a Mechanic, or an entry-level position, then moving up and moving along, bringing their value and growing their value in the organization.
StarTran has a fleet of about 60 Fixed Route buses incorporating electric, compressed, natural gas, and diesel powered vehicles. Plus, several minivans and cutaway vehicles for demand response work. Of course, CJ has responsibility for both demand response dispatch, and fixed route. He was pretty busy this day.
Not yet 10 AM, CJ had already sent out 15 drivers. This was after his first driver assignment, starting at 4:30. At one point a new driver came up to the window, handing a completed report to CJ. I found out the driver was new because, although I thought he was handing in a maintenance form showing the buses are available to drive, what he had turned in was his “Training Evaluation Form.” He was now about to go on his first run solo.
StarTran does a great job evaluating their drivers in training, ensuring they’re going to give their customers the very best service. It was kind of fun to be a part of this guy’s first voyage. Bus 370. Diesel.
Next, another driver walked behind the counter, and asked CJ for a moment. An Incident Report needed to be completed. Earlier that morning, one of his patrons stumbled while walking down the bus steps on his trip to a doctor’s appointment. CJ reassured the driver that the patron would be fine, and the driver did a great job managing the situation. CJ worked through all the facets of the reporting that this driver had to do because the driver was very concerned about the customer.
Again, I was quite impressed with CJ‘s ability to go from pushing a couple buttons on the Connexionz Dispatch Platform, to smiling and greeting a new driver, to managing a challenge with another driver and an important patron.
After a bit, I decided to take a quick walk – from the dispatch center, about two blocks away to the closest bus stop where I was able to pick up one of the StarTran buses to see it in action, and to see the Connexionz Passenger Experience in action on the bus.
Picking up the Downtown Loop is where I met driver Joel Wall. After years in the construction business, Joel’s been a driver for StarTran a little over two years. He said he’s never had so much fun in his life. The specific route that he was driving, on a Hometown trolley, runs the downtown loop to State office buildings, restaurants, and the Haymarket districts of Lincoln, which includes the University basketball arena and the baseball park.
As we circled the loop, Joe was amazed at all the new buildings and construction going up around the Transit Center, and around downtown. With a sense of pride, Joel exclaimed, “Wow, around downtown – Lincoln has completely changed over the last few years. Very vibrant and bustling.”
And StarTran is right in the center of the City’s growth. The Loop takes patrons on this specific route all around downtown for only a quarter – quite a bargain. And Connexionz is part of that growth. Our Video Monitors inform patrons of each upcoming stop – future upcoming stops, plus weather and commercial information about businesses around the area. After taking the run for a while, I said goodbye to Joel, and got off the trolley about a block or two from the transit center.
By the time I got back to the bus barn, Nick had finished his early morning meetings, and was visiting outside with a couple drivers and some maintenance folks. Certainly, Transit Management has plenty of internal meetings with city officials – plus lots of operations management happens just by chatting and interacting with colleagues. Nick has been with StarTran over 12 years. Like CJ, Nick started as a driver, working in that role for years, then going into Dispatch.
His recent promotion to Assistant Manager of Operations involved key responsibilities with the installation and transition to the Connexionz Route Manager and Dispatch Software Platforms. Nick worked extensively on Route installations along with Charlie, (pictured below with CJ and Nick), and was very involved in the Connexionz transition he worked a lot on routes along with Charlie. All of them worked from the beginning with the Connexionz Customer Success Team in Christchurch and Santa Clarita. From Connexionz, Nune Asalanan, Pam Heser, and the other members worked tirelessly to put StarTran Operations in a position to help build the growth at StarTran and in the City of Lincoln.
While we were visiting outside, Nick surveyed the transit operation facilities. StarTran’s has three “closely aligned” bus storage barns, (yards), and they’ve been around for a long time. They’re going to be doing work this summer to upgrade a couple of the garages so that the CNG buses and the electric buses can easily clear entry.
All the folks in Operations are very excited about what Connexionz is developing for the data warehouse upgrade so that they can automate the locations to the bus, without the need to review paper reports.
Looking over the facility with a smile, Nick was very excited about the new Transit Center that will be built over the next couple years just a few blocks away from their current location. “There’s a whole lotta growth going on, a whole lot of excitement,” said Nick. “And the City of Lincoln has been very cooperative in making this happen”.
Nick has been part of StarTran’s growth through good times and tough times. “During Covid there were a lot of challenges with driver availability and maintenance short staffed, but we are right about where we were pre-pandemic and we’re very happy about that.” StarTran’s ridership now charts at about the same level as pre-Covid. This fact cannot be said about lots of other agencies around the country.
So, Lincoln has a lot to be proud of. And Connexionz has much to be proud of as well. When Marcos left the day before, he had just finalized the installation of all Connexionz equipment in the StarTran’s buses, providing route management, dispatch, real time passenger information with video monitors, accurate, passenger information and passenger counting tools that provide reports to the senior management of Lincoln Transit.
Nick says these tools have been invaluable to the agency, right out of the gate. “It’s amazing in such a short time with the Connexionz system, what it has done in terms of operations flow and reporting to our senior management,” said Nick. “There’s lots of things that we have to report, and the Connexionz Platform makes it so easy for us. We’re also looking forward to more passenger signage and additional project work from the Connexionz people out in California”. Nick stopped and smiled, “Nune and Hugo and their staff have been so wonderful overall this time. And we look forward to seeing how that continues on”.
I have to say, my original objective when driving from my home fifty miles away in Omaha to StarTran was just to see firsthand how the Connexionz platform worked in their bus operation. Mission Accomplished – Certainly! As said earlier, CJ was consistently working through the Connexionz platform – managing his drivers, and his routes through the course of the morning.
Candidly, and with great pride, I was able to witness so much more as I met so many good folks in the organization – the drivers, the mechanics, CJ and Charlie in Dispatch. Over so many years, I have been in countless meetings with several transit managers, who consistently tell me that Transit is the lifeblood of a city, the lifeblood of the marketplace, and provides mission critical services to the community.
All that is true. I was fortunate to be able to experience all those things in a real personal way during my time at StarTran’s dispatch. It’s true, Transit provides a lifeline to a broad community for our cities, and our rural areas.
But thinking further, it really all comes down to personal relationships. Those are of the most value – what I love best about Transit, and certainly one of the things that I loved about my opportunity to visit with our friends at StarTran.