Inside the classroom at Oklahoma City's sparkling new streetcar storage and maintenance center, Joel Garcia begins his training class the same way most days, by talking about safety.
As the six operator trainees listen, Garcia talks about the need to manage fatigue. Getting a good night's sleep is a start, he tells them.
"I tell these guys from day one when you think you haven't heard about safety enough, I'm going to find another way to talk about safety," Garcia told The Oklahoman .
Garcia serves as the operations manager for the streetcar system and spends some of his time training its new drivers. He's enthusiastic about mass transit, specifically by rail. Ask him why he thinks being an operator is a good job, he doesn't miss a beat.
"It's always provided for my family," he said. "You wake up every morning and it's like being a big kid. You get to play on a train."
Those in the class are part of the first wave of Oklahoma City's streetcar operators. They come from varied backgrounds, but many have driven professionally in some capacity before. It may not be as glamorous or sexy as flying planes, but it's an important job nonetheless as the Oklahoma City streetcar era inches ever closer to its planned December start date.
There will be 16 streetcar operators when all those hired are fully trained to operate the system's seven Brookville Liberty Modern Streetcars across 6.9 miles of track.
It's not a job for those who don't want much responsibility or interaction with the public. The operators are employed by Herzog Transit Systems, a company that operates similar streetcar systems in Kansas City and heavier commuter rail systems like Texrail in Fort Worth, Texas.
Operators must be able to meet boilerplate criteria like passing a drug screen and criminal background checks, according to the requirements listed by Herzog. But they must also be able to "act as an incident commander until relieved, ... have visual acuity and hearing capability to perform the essential functions of the job ... and ... have the ability to distinguish and separate sound around machinery and tools," according to the job description.
Operators earn a starting salary of $17.15 and more than 300 have applied for the jobs, Embark marketing and customer relations manager Michael Scroggins said.
Herzog declined to make any of the operator trainees available for interviews for this story, but Garcia spoke about the training program's primary objective — to make the line run as efficiently and safely as possibly. If you don't like people, it's not for you, and if driving huge hunks of machinery doesn't sound like fun, you're probably better off in an office.
The training class, similar to those taught in Kansas City, doesn't begin in the cab in front of a dashboard chock full of lights, screens and throttles, but in a nondescript classroom where drivers learn how to open the doors, adjust the air conditioning and troubleshoot basic problems that might come up in the cab.
"We want them to be knowledgeable of the rules and the procedures first," Garcia said. "But then we also want to intermingle the training on the cars so they can get a feel of how to work the vehicles themselves. What some of the buttons do, the various functions of other things. The good stuff on the screen."
"It's pretty comprehensive," Garcia said. "We want them to have a good understanding so they can be prepared."
Operators spend 100 hours in the classroom before ever getting in the streetcar cab, where they receive an additional 120 hours of training. The first group of drivers is now training on the Bricktown loop alongside a supervisor like Garcia. When construction of the downtown loop is completed they will begin training on that section.
Trainees are exposed to a variety of situations, including morning rush hour, afternoons and evening rush hour, with some time driving at night mixed in.
"Some are more comfortable than others," he said. "It's like driving a vehicle. Some people pick it up quicker than others."
While the 120 hours in the cab are set as a benchmark, it may take more than that before some get to solo in the cars.
"I won't put them in a situation where they aren't comfortable," Garcia said. "Just because they hit that mark doesn't mean that's when we say you're done. I want them to be comfortable, and safe. When I feel comfortable with them and the hours are met we'll let them venture out on their own."
Teaching how the entire streetcar system works is also part of the preparation.
"The operators are trained on how to get the streetcar back to the shop ... if something goes wrong. It's more than just moving the train forward," said Jesse Rush, Embark streetcar manager.
Another area of focus is defensive driving. The streetcars don't have steering wheels. Speed is controlled by a throttle that sits to the driver's left. But the idea remains the same as it would be on a road — head on a swivel, situational awareness and attention to detail.
"You're always looking for things going on around you," Rush said. "You're never just driving off the nose of the streetcar. You're watching people cross the tracks down the road, and you're looking for cars. You're always in a defensive mode."
Rail travel of any kind is safer than vehicle travel. A 2014 study by the Journal of Public Transportation found passengers on commuter and intercity rail were 20 times safer than those who drove cars. Riding metro or light rail is 30 times safer.
Last year, the most recent year for which records were available, there were 18 collisions reported involving streetcars with no injuries reported, according to the National Transit Database.
In 2016, the database reported 114 collisions involving streetcars, with 16 people injured and no fatalities.
Garcia said all the selected trainees are expected to complete the program.
When they do, they will find themselves ambassadors for the city. Part of the training centers on customer service. While that may not be as critical as safety awareness, civic advocacy has its place. Many of the streetcar's riders will be visitors to Oklahoma.
"We want them to be enthusiastic and excited about the city, always have a smile on their face and be welcoming to people," Rush said.
A whiteboard inside the offices where operators are trained provides an unofficial countdown of things that need to be done before the system opens for the public.
It isn't known which operator will carry passengers on the "first loop."
Garcia remembers what it was like when he stepped inside a streetcar for the first time to start his career. Three decades later, now a certified engineer in three states, he knows what the operators will be going through.
"There were a lot of nerves," he recalled. "You start double checking everything. You've got the sense of being 16 and behind the wheel for the first time."
Information from: The Oklahoman, http://www.newsok.com
An AP Member Exchange shared by The Oklahoman.