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Q and A with Al Sztejter

by: JIM CLARK, Al Sztejter is king of the tracks as TriMet’s MAX Operator of the Year. He drives the Red Line between Beaverton and the airport.

Every Friday, the Portland Tribune puts questions to a prominent - or not so prominent - local person.

Let's get this straight from the start: The TriMet MAX Operator of the Year award isn't one of those upper-management 'let's make everybody feel good' motivational ploys. The award is voted on by the 160 or so MAX operators.

Al Sztejter was up for operator of the year five years ago and didn't land the prize. This year he won it, and the $500 award and plaque that go with it. And just in case you're wondering, he admits he voted for himself.

Sztejter, 59, has been operating MAX trains for 10 years. Before that he drove a bus. Before that he drove a truck, and before that he worked as a chef.

Portland Tribune: From chef to trucker to TriMet?

Al Sztejter: I got burned out of the food business. I needed to do something. I hadn't had my midlife crisis, and I had always been a car nut. Drive, drive, drive. I drove a long-haul truck for two years, and I can count on one hand the number of times I was at home in those two years. It got to be too much.

Tribune: You don't drive a train. You don't steer. Is it easier than driving a bus?

Sztejter: We tell a lot of people rail isn't for everybody because we don't have a steering wheel, and if we see something happening the only thing we can do is hit the emergency brake and hope the train stops in time, or the obstacle, the pedestrian or car or truck gets out of the way. So we have to look so much farther ahead, to anticipate.

Tribune: That sounds like a horrible feeling, seeing something but not being able to turn a wheel to avoid it?

Sztejter: That's why it isn't for everybody. Some people, it's devastating for them. They go to buses and say, 'I can't do this anymore.' Because they weren't able to swerve out of the way.

Tribune: Is that what makes a driver of the year, being able to look farther down ahead?

Sztejter: Just being vigilant, being constantly aware of your surroundings. Expecting the unexpected, and if something does happen, don't fall apart. You have to have a certain amount of guts and stamina.

Tribune: So what was the most difficult thing you've had to do as a MAX operator?

Sztejter: Actually, it was a report that I hit a pedestrian. It was in your paper. This happened four years ago November. I was going down Yamhill Street and I hit a 15-year-old girl, just before Thanksgiving.

Tribune: What happened?

Sztejter: I met the girl that I hit, and they invited me over to their place for Thanksgiving dinner.

Tribune: Did you go?

Sztejter: Absolutely. I had a great time. The girl, I dragged her underneath the train across Fifth Avenue, and all she got was three stitches out of it, and she was banged up with bruises.

- Peter Korn