It’s hard not to like Austin Capital Metro’s president and CEO, Fred Gilliam. He has that Southern charm and a smile as wide as a Texas mile. For Gilliam, transit is about not just getting people on the bus or train, but making sure they have a good enough time while they are there to make them want to keep coming back for more. As for transit industry experience, well, he’s got that in spades.
Gilliam has been in the transit industry for more than 40 years and has worked in more places than most people live in their lifetime, not to mention a stint working with a bus manufacturer. And to think he started out as a traffic checker.
As with many people I have asked about their careers in transit, Gilliam says his began by accident. He wasn’t even looking for a position when his father received a call from one of Gilliam’s friends letting him know about a position open at MATA, the Memphis Area Transit Authority.
While he didn’t know what a traffic checker was, Gilliam was happy to have the job. “I enjoyed the flexibility of the job along with just understanding — it was the nuts and bolts of what the nature of the job was and it had a lot of diversity to it. I mean it was not always checking traffic, which is passengers and on-time performance.”
Gilliam’s job with Memphis would lead him to research why people were not using the system and what they could do as an organization to encourage people to use it. He would put his research to work undertaking the scheduling at MATA until he was offered an opportunity to step into an assistant director’s roll at Tulsa Transit in Oklahoma.
Gilliam flourished in Tulsa, helping the agency grow from a daily ridership of 4,500 people with a 45-bus fleet to 22,000 daily rides and 125 buses in the fleet in three years.
“And it was a lot of fun doing because the person I went to work for at the time was a promoter,” Gilliam says. “Some of that rubbed off on me in a sense and with my operating and scheduling background we were a good team and a good fit together. So I restructured the system and we put into place a system to get the improvements.”
Gilliam’s next step was to a private management company, ATE, the precursor to First Transit, where he would work for quite some time all over the middle of the United States.
Gilliam’s history with ATE reads like a Who’s Who of transit agencies. He worked in Denver as assistant general manager, back to Memphis as assistant general manager and general manager, was the first public general manager at the RTA in New Orleans, served as a regional manager for ATE overseeing 16 states from Minnesota to Texas and from Alabama to Colorado. Despite his background in public transit, Gilliam would soon take a position with Chance Coach, which would go on to become Optima Bus, and helped them develop its Opus bus. “I helped develop a new bus and I was part owner,” Gilliam says, but after a few years there, family matters had him and his wife make a conscientious decision to live near Austin.
“By the time I was in the process of selecting a place to live, an opportunity came available [at Capital Metro] and so I was asked if I had any interest in working here,” Gilliam says. “I was actually hired as the deputy [general manager] and worked about three or four months and the opportunity came available to be head of the organization, so I’ve been here for six years and about five months or somewhere like that.”
Gilliam says with a smile that he thinks he has covered almost every place twice, “It’s always good to be involved in something you know and some of the people. But the different locations, you know, have always been very rewarding to me.”
Public vs. Private
Capital Metro is entirely contracted service. Due to legal restrictions, the agency cannot have its own unionized workforce. This isn’t unheard of in the transit industry, but Capital Metro’s president and CEO, Fred Gilliam, has a unique perspective on the situation since he has worked on both the public and private side when it comes to transit operations.
“I think the benefit of me working for the private side is that I know what it means to bring it to the bottom line,” Gilliam says. “I know that it’s important to make a profit, but also I was taught that you’ve got to make sure you give value for what you’re doing.
“So you’re charging a fee for your services and you don’t get renewals and you don’t get repeat business unless you give value to it.
“So that in itself, I mean, it makes you think a little bit differently. And on the public side it relates to the private side, too. You’re serving the public. And so every taxpayer regardless, every taxpayer is your customer. And whether they are riding or not, they are still your customer.”
Gilliam says it’s this balance between making a profit and providing a valued service to the riders. As he pointed out to me, while not every customer is right, most don’t complain to you unless there’s a reason. But that has to be balanced against maintaining the budget.
“You have to figure out ways to constantly be trying to satisfy the customer but on the other side you’ve got a budget. But many times on the public side that budget can be amended and there is a little bit more flexibility. It’s not like a sin if you go over the budget in many cases,” Gilliam says.
“On the private side it sort of is a sin if you’re going to go over the budget.”
Gilliam says a blend of experience helps, with people switching from either side having trouble on the opposite. A person moving from the public to the private may have trouble hitting that bottom line, while a person moving from the private to the public may attempt to do more with less to be budget conscious, both with less than stellar results for the agency.
“It’s sort of an art in one way, working in both arenas, but it’s ... I mean it’s not that complex, but ... everybody can’t do it,” Gilliam says.
“Everybody can’t be a bus driver either or a mechanic. Some people try and some people decide early on that they’re not cut out for bus driver or mechanic and then you have folks who continue to try and continue to screw up.”
The transit industry is unique from other businesses in a lot of ways. One of them is the relationship between OEMs and agencies. Fred Gilliam has the catbird seat so to speak in this relationship having worked for both in his long transit career. What has that given him? An insight and appreciation into both aspects of the business.
“It made me appreciate as much as anything, what the manufacturers go through in trying to sell,” Gilliam says about his time working for Chance Coach.
“It opened my eyes in the sense that there are times when people are making sales calls, they don’t always get in to see who the key decision makers are. I didn’t experience that but what I was told by some of the same folks I visited, had it not been me, if it had just been someone else, they probably wouldn’t have given me the same courtesy. That made me aware of that and it also told me that I had at least earned the trust and respect of the individuals I was dealing with and I was very grateful for that.
“But it also made me aware of the manufacturing issues. There’s a lot of time, money and effort put into each bid. Just trying to do your homework and trying to understand what the solicitation is.”
Gilliam says there is a tremendous amount of anxiety in making sure a bus manufacturer has a sufficient amount of backlog in orders to keep the plant going, not only in making sure it has the correct amount of raw materials, but also in the number of changes agencies request.
“Each vehicle was sort of custom made if you will for that individual,” Gilliam says.
“When it required engineering changes, our engineering department was very serious about making sure it was properly vetted and calibrated and calculated and whatever, because we were assuming a 12-year life primarily for that and making sure that the liability was not going to increase and therefore causing our insurance to go up and just all kinds of things.
“It costs money for us and time and many times the engineering costs were not ... well the costs probably were not worth what we were doing, but we had made a conscientious effort to not just make the changes, but we wanted to make sure the customer was satisfied on the other side. We felt like we had an obligation to our company so it was done right. So just try to understand how many times in almost every bid somebody wanted something different.”
While agencies are still looking for specific customization for their needs, Gilliam says that he feels the transit industry is embracing standards more, but not always.
“We have the manufacturers coming back to us as individuals saying, hey this specification here, to really get my bus you need to have this widget in there. And so some of that occurs,” Gilliam says.
“I mean its reality, but that salesperson is doing their job. Now from the users’ standpoint, shame on us.”
Gilliam says he understands getting the bus you want, but making changes like this runs up not only bus costs, but also increases your inventory and employee training time.
“So we have a responsibility to make sure that as we are looking at these things that we take those things into consideration and make sure that we don’t buy a vehicle that does not meet our needs.
“But I think that sometimes we are guilty, not always, but sometimes we let some things slip through the crack and don’t realize it until it’s too late.
“Now it’s not ... not to say it’s a manufacturer’s fault as much as it’s the system’s fault for not doing their due diligence.”
So could an agency ever purchase an ‘off-the-rack’ bus? According to Gilliam, in a word — maybe.
“Is it feasible? Yes. Are they doing it that way? No,” Gilliam says.
“I personally don’t have one problem with having a one-page sheet that said what our performance criteria would be and allowing the manufacturer to choose whatever they think, with the understanding that they’ve got to support it.
“And I believe that’s where we need to get to.”
Gilliam says that the agencies aren’t without blame when it comes to the process, however. “We’re choosing engines, we’re choosing the transmission, we’re choosing the differential. Many times we’re choosing the windshield wiper motor. We’re choosing the seats. We’re choosing the destination signs and we can just go on and on.”
But how about the rail side of procurement? Is there as much variation being put into the vehicles on that side?
“I think there’s probably more standardization in the rail side than there [is] on the bus side,” Gilliam says. “But understand that the rail vehicles are primarily influenced more by outside the United States.
“The vehicles we bought were from Switzerland, European design, made in Japan. There is a lot of standardization from that standpoint.
“The manufacturer that we dealt with so far, they have a sort of a standard design, so there are certain things that you can get improvements on. We were able to get stanchions and bicycle racks that we wanted; those kinds of things. And doors the way we wanted them because they had different designs that you could use that were built particular to the car.
“It’s been a challenge from … it’s probably … scope creep has been probably as high as any project I’ve ever been involved in,” Gilliam says.
“Just trying to keep it down because every person we brought in knew … had a different opinion about what we should be doing and wanted more widgets, which in turn creates a budget creep. So to manage that has been a challenge because then that in turn, each time you start changing or whatever also has an effect on the timing.”
For a public transit agency with a rail component to have to share the tracks with freight rail vehicles, it isn’t uncommon. There are agencies that contract out their commuter rail service to those same freight agencies. But for a public transit agency to run a freight line of its own is a little different. Capital Metro has been running its own freight line — another contracted service, this time to Veolia Transportation — since 1998.
Up until recently the track hasn’t been profitable. And up until recently it hasn’t had commuter rail on it. But that is all about to change as Capital Metro is starting up a commuter rail service through downtown Austin. So who makes the final call on when the two services are on the tracks?
Gilliam answers that question with a big smile, “Since we own the line and we’re responsible for freight and passenger, the only person we have to talk to is me.”
Gilliam says the new passenger service will have priority over freight and he knows that there may be conflicts down the road, but they have a plan for that already.
“When that conflict starts materializing, our intent is to build a second track for freight that will move between the two [busiest stops] with the understanding that the need for that would be paid for with the increased freight movement that we will be shipping.”
The agency had two goals when putting the commuter rail into service — stay on budget and be up and running by the fall of 2008. So far, so good.
“We left a little fudge factor in by saying fall of 2008,” Gilliam says. “But it’s certainly been a challenge more so than any other project.”
This isn’t the first time that Capital Metro has attempted to put in rail. In 2000 a light rail initiative was voted down. The public made the statement that they didn’t want light rail, so when the agency went to the polls to get rail, they put together an entirely different package, one using their existing tracks and focusing on moving people from the suburbs to downtown Austin. This time the public agreed and the agency started to put its plan into action.
The original plan was for your standard push pull trains, but upon discussing it with the community, the agency found out the public wanted rail cars that were sleek, modern and stylish.
“We were looking at [the rail line] on the basis of trying to keep it on the cheap and so our original budget was $25 million. [By] understanding more of what the community was telling us it grew into a $60 million and a $30 million [budget],” Gilliam says.
“$60 million for track and stations and $30 million for vehicles because we knew we would have to go to European or Japanese — we would have to go to something outside of the United States, although we had looked at the Colorado Rail car.
“And we’re a region that’s … it’s emerging as a non-attainment, it’s not a nonattainment, but it’s emerging.
“And so with that understanding we need to make sure we have as environmentally friendly vehicles as we possibly can get. So we looked at the various types and decided that the hybrid and a modern looking vehicle was more appropriate. So we did solicitations or whatever and narrowed it down to Stadler as who we finally made the choice on.
“And at this point we have not regretted that.”
Gilliam says the public reaction to the new rail line has been very positive, noting that even the agency’s critics haven’t found fault with the line so far.
“I think if anything people are expecting us to be running more frequent service and that is something we’re going to have to start addressing pretty quickly…” Gilliam says.
But despite the agency’s educational efforts, Gilliam says people still refer to the rail line as light rail, even though it doesn’t have the frequent stops of a light rail line. The 32-mile line will only have nine stops, including those at each end.
“I think the people are expecting 10-minute frequencies where we’re — the first year or two we’re looking at 30-minute frequencies. I think people are expecting midday and weekend [service] and we’re not planning on that for a couple years to run midday or weekend.”
Bus Rapid Transit
Capital Metro’s new MetroRail line with its futuristic cars isn’t the only thing that will be turning heads in Austin in the near future. As part of its All Systems Go long-range transit plan, Capital Metro is planning on implementing bus rapid transit (BRT) routes on several of its corridors. This service will be known as MetroRapid and will run in areas not suitable to rail and others where rail isn’t desirable.
“We have the Congress Corridor on the south, [and] there’s an area there where they don’t want rail. They have not supported rail. If you said we [were] going to have rail there today they’d be organizing themselves to be opposed to it,” Gilliam says.
Although he said they are planning on BRT in that corridor, he hasn’t given up on rail yet. “Realistically not in my lifetime, but realistically they will have rail on that corridor. When; I don’t know. But it will be just an evolution, so it’s better to go ahead and put BRT in there and try to get what we need.”
Gilliam says that due to Austin’s layout the agency doesn’t have a single dedicated bus lane. To offset this on the agency’s MetroRapid line, the city is allowing Capital Metro to use traffic signal preemption.
“We’ll hold the light green as we approach or change it to green with the exception of emergency,” Gilliam says.
“And so that will give us a 20 percent advantage on the speed. We believe that is sufficient enough to make it attractive. In fact, we are currently in the process of restructuring some of our service because we have on this same corridor, we have limited stop and regular stop.
“And we’re at looking at changing that to more frequency on the limited stop and on the regular service we will change it a little bit more infrequent and make the other real frequent. What we would encourage you to do is if you are in between, take a local up to the stop and then catch the express if you are going very far. We believe that will change people’s habits and also increase ridership.”
Gilliam says the agency plans to mark specific stops as BRT stops and will also identify the vehicles as BRT with level boarding.
“Our intent is to have special vehicles that you’ll identify. We want it to be as close to a rail concept as you possibly can get,” Gilliam says.
“And we have 10 of those planned. And we’re … the first one we are going to do with local money. And the next three we’re looking at Small Starts [to] see if we can get some federal money.
“[The Federal Transit Administration (FTA)] has been working with us. They have not been discouraging at all from that standpoint. I believe we’ll get sufficient consideration for that.
“The community has embraced BRT, too. It’s not like everything we do has to be rail. We’ve got some folks here that would like just only rail. But this city is laid out in a way in topography-wise and everything else that some areas of the city we couldn’t put rail if we wanted to. There are some areas of the city that the density would not support it for the investment,” Gilliam says.
For BRT to work, Gilliam says that managed lanes will be a critical component. The agency has looked at using highway shoulders as passing lanes and that option passed through the Texas Senate and the agency hopes to get it passed by the House in the next legislative session.
Fred Gilliam says that at Capital Metro, “We like to delight you on every trip.” While even he says you can’t do that every time, it does show the agency’s dedication toward not just customer service, but to bringing great service to the customers.
“That means that [the] operator needs to look out for you a little,” Gilliam says.
“Make sure you get on the bus. We want to make sure they welcome you on the bus. And make sure you are treated with respect.”
Gilliam says that right now Capital Metro does its best to test potential drivers and make sure that they are hired for their attitude and not their driving skills.
“If you don’t have some public involvement type experience, you don’t have as good of a chance to get hired as an operator as you would be compared to a truck driver,” he says.
“We’ve determined we cannot train your attitude, but we can train you for skill. So we hire you for attitude and train you for skill.
“I talk about the seriousness of what the work is and say it’s OK if you’ve decided this is not for you, that’s OK. But just understand this, we expect you to treat our passenger with respect and dignity. We expect you to treat your fellow man with respect and dignity.
“And that shouldn’t be a surprise to [our employees] because we’re a people business. We exist because people have a need to go from point A to point B and we’re the provider then.”
Gilliam tells new employees that the safety of the driver and the passengers comes before anything else, but beyond that, operators need to treat people the way they want to be treated themselves and to always look for one more passenger.
“But also, don’t allow somebody to screw up their day simply because their day is screwed up,” Gilliam says.
“If you lower your standard to their standard you’re less than professional.”
All Systems Go
Fred Gilliam says Capital Metro’s future looks very good, and who can argue with him? The system is implementing its first commuter rail line and is on the verge of putting in BRT, but Gilliam doesn’t feel that is enough.
Gilliam has thrown down the challenge for the agency. He wants to double its ridership of 35 million by 2025. That’s a big statement for an agency that only has 40 percent of its ridership that is dependent on its service. How are they going to do it? By keeping what they have.
“Market research tells you also you lose about 20 to 25 percent of riders every year. Most every system does this. And if you are lucky you replace it,” Gilliam says.
“And so what we have to do is figure out why we are losing it. Because that is the biggest difference you can make on the increase in ridership, is quit losing it.
“And so if you are able to attract riders by whatever you are doing, then the other is understanding where the other factors are. And that’s what we are trying to do with this market research.
“I have a focus on quality for [this] system,” Gilliam says.
“My goal is that we will be recognized as the best transit system in the world, not because we say it is, but because you experience it.”