Smile Politely

A day in the life: Sarorn Chan, MTD bus operator and trainer

There isn’t a service that is much more essential than public transportation, and we are fortunate to have a well established and reliable system here in Champaign-Urbana. MTD busses have continued to operate throughout the pandemic, even relaxing fare enforcement during these difficult times and helping community members get to vaccination clinics. MTD is the 24th largest employer in Champaign County, and they serve C-U, Savoy, and U of I as well as provide bus service for Unit 4 and District 116 middle and high school students. 

As you may have heard, there’s a bit of a workforce struggle happening right now throughout the country and in our own community as we navigate this strange transition phase of the pandemic. Like many employers, MTD has positions to fill. As they look ahead to a return to full service in the fall, they are looking for more bus operators to join their team, and hope that their competative wages and benefits, flexibility, and positive work environment will entice those looking for a new career to consider joining the team.

I had the opportunity to speak with veteran bus operator Sarorn Chan about her work. Chan has been with MTD more than 12 years, and is also a Class and Road instructor. 

Smile Politely: Can you tell me a little about yourself?

Sarorn Chan: My parents are originally from Cambodia. During the war, they went to Thailand and I was born in Thailand. I came to the United States in 1989, I was about seven years old. I have three kids: a teenager, a preteen, and an infant.

SP: How long have you lived in Champaign-Urbana?

Chan: I moved here in 1997, so I’ve been here awhile.

SP: When did you start working at MTD?

Chan: November 10, 2008…so a little bit over 12 years.

SP: What brought you here?

I got a Class A [license] from Heartland [College], in Bloomington, and was thinking about doing on the road stuff, then once I got the Class A I decided “eh…not for me.” We moved here because my family lived here. While riding the bus we heard stories about working at MTD from the driver, so I thought “Okay, maybe I should try.” I got hired…and I’ve been here ever since.

SP: What does your typical day as an operator look like?

Chan: It depends on the routes that I’m doing that day…I go to the control area, pick up our master, check on reroutes, and then after that go to the bus storage area. We do our pre-trip, make sure everything is good with the busses, then pull out and go on our run.

SP: About how long are you out on a run?

Chan: It depends on the run I pick. I’m full time so I do eight hours (total). Sometimes I do five hours and then split and do the other three hours. It all depends.

SP: How do you select routes?

Chan: We pick three times a year. We also go by seniority. We have 100-something picks on there. A lot of people pick by the runs they want, but I pick by the time. It all depends on your situation.

SP: What do you enjoy most when you’re on your route?

Chan: The passengers. We have a lot of passengers that like to come on my bus, and they like to talk, and I listen to them. That’s the best part. They keep my days going faster and it’s good to hear their stories.

SP: Do you have regular riders on your routes?

Chan: I have passengers who sometimes just like to get on the bus to talk to you. Sometimes they get to your destination but they stay on past that just to talk.

SP: Do you have any interesting stories from being out on your routes?

Chan: I was doing driver shadows, and I pulled into 1101 (University) here, and there were a lot of people across the street at the park. A lady with two kids, they were walking towards the bus stop on the side. I didn’t know if they wanted to hop on, but I wasn’t on a route to pick them up. They waved and stopped me. I opened the door and asked what was going on and they wanted me to help them. I guess her boyfriend was hitting her and she didn’t feel safe. I said “oh, okay just hop on the van. If he crosses the street to come over we’ll just move.” She stayed on and he just kept walking on so I called my supervisor and then we called the cops.

SP: What is the most challenging thing about your work?

Chan: I would say angry passengers. But after driving for so many years, I’ve learned to just say what I have to say and then no more. Just let them say what they want to say. That’s the hardest part. They have their own lives that they have to deal with…you don’t know what they’re dealing with…and you’re trying to just do your job at the same time.

SP: I know that you are also involved in training new operators. What are you teaching?

Chan: To become an operator, you have to go through training that takes about two months. That includes a week of class training where you meet the staff and (Executive Director) Amy Snyder. They come in to meet the new drivers and talk about the rules and policies. The next three weeks is road training, learning the rules and regulations about being a bus driver on the road [this is also how new operators earn their CDL license]. The last three weeks are line training. Line training is where they go out with a line trainer on their routes, actually picking up people.

SP: What is it like learning to control the bus for the first time?

Chan: I was nervous, but once you learn it, once you drive it, to me it’s like driving a car. It actually helped me to be a better driver. Being a bus driver, you have to pay attention to a lot of stuff. We’ve got passengers, traffic, we have to deal with schedules. Road training is where we go in and teach to be safe. That’s our number one goal, to be safe.


To learn more about MTD, and their available positions, check out their website. This month, they’ve increased the top wage available to operators to $34.72. Operators move towards this end of the wage scale based on the number of hours they work each year. Since they are a workforce that interacts with the public on a daily basis, MTD is utilizing CARES Act funding for a monthly $5000 lottery drawing for employees who show proof of COVID vaccination. New hires can participate as well, if their hiring date and vaccination date are before the drawing. The first drawing will be today at 4 p.m.

Top photo provided by MTD.

Staff writer

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