James Hilliard vividly recalls his first day as a TriMet bus operator in 2006.
“It snowed. It was scary,” says Hilliard, who grew up near Los Angeles. “I remember going downhill toward Highway 30 and there were big rigs at the bottom of the hill flying through at 50 miles per hour. I was able to safely stop the bus on the snow. I was the happiest person ever.”
Since that first day, Hilliard has won seven National Safe Driving Awards and nine Superior Performance Awards. To get that award, he had to work 1,960 hours with no preventable accidents, warnings, reprimands or instructions. He moved up to operate light-rail trains in 2008. This past spring, his TriMet colleagues voted him as the 2015 MAX Operator of the Year.
“I was really surprised to get the award,” says Hilliard, who drove the first Orange Line train September 12 with Oregon Governor Kate Brown and other dignitaries on board. “I was going up against some well-known, high-seniority people. It was unexpected.”
Love at first sight
It also was unexpected that Hilliard ended up in Portland. While living in California, he had worked for a telecommunications company which had a big project in Oregon in 1998. He flew his wife, Shawnese, and kids to Portland to visit.
“My wife got off the airplane and just fell in love with Portland,” he says.
The next year, the family sold their house in Los Angeles and moved north. His wife now works at TriMet as a road supervisor.
“I like it here,” Hilliard says. “People here are much nicer. You get seasons. It’s a much slower pace.”
And thanks to his good friend, A.K. Rucker, a long-time TriMet bus driver, he’s found a home.
Hilliard, who played college football for legendary coach Eddie Robinson at Grambling State University, was also a defensive lineman and linebacker for the Oregon Thunderbolts, a semi-pro team coached by Rucker.
He knew Hilliard sought a career change, and Rucker quickly sold him on TriMet.
Hilliard gets up early to begin his shift at 5:23 a.m. and ends a little after 5 p.m. He works four 10-hour days each week.
“I love being able to operate a train—I get to lock myself up in the cab and roll,” Hilliard says. “I always wanted to come to rail when I first came to TriMet. It feels like I’m doing my own thing. And when I’m done with work for the day, I’m done.”
Although Hilliard enjoys his career, there are on-the-job challenges. Notably, he must stay vigilant about safety.
“The people standing on the platforms with headphones on, walking on the tactile strips, concern me the most,” he says.
He also says when it first rains, it makes the tracks slippery. He combats that by using extra traction sand dispersed from the train that helps with both braking and propulsion.
If he’s not at work, it’s family time. He lives in the Montavilla neighborhood with Shawnese and their three kids. On his weekdays off, he takes his son, a junior at Central Catholic, to school and attends his football practices.
And whenever he gets a chance, he’ll head off to go salmon fishing (although halibut’s his favorite).
When he’s not enjoying family or fishing, the service he brings to TriMet and his passengers is invaluable.
“His approach to safety and customer service is top notch,” says Don Allison, his supervisor. “James is one of the kindest, most professional employees we could hope to have.”
Interested in a career with TriMet? We’re hiring bus operators!