Work ethic rewards MAX driver of the year
by: Vern Uyetake, Lake Oswego resident Al Sztejter has been named TriMet Rail Operator of the Year.

A good work record is what Al Sztejter thinks earned him the recent honor of being named TriMet Rail Operator of the Year.

Sztejter (pronounced Stater), who moved to Lake Oswego nine months ago after living in West Linn for seven years, began his career in the food business where he worked for hotels and country clubs. After that he drove a truck for two years.

'I was a nut for driving ever since I was a kid,' says Sztejter. But then being on the road all the time became too much, and he saw an ad that TriMet was hiring. That was 14 years ago.

Typically, a new driver for TriMet starts out as a mini-runner, or part-time driver, with lots of peak hour runs. After 20 months of this schedule, Sztejter was able to go full time. In order to get to his job and to save money on gas, he would park his car in Gresham and take MAX in.

'Operators started talking to me because they saw me in uniform,' he recalls. They told me, 'the rail system is going to expand in a couple of years and we'll add operators.''

Ten years ago in May he got his rail operator's license.

Getting that license requires knowledge of not only the ODOT rules that govern buses but also railroad rules.

'We are a railroad - light rail, yes - we carry people instead of freight,' says Sztejter, 'but we still must follow the same rules.'

Once MAX gets away from the downtown area, there are signals which keep the trains from coming together.

The important thing is to keep the trains moving.

'If a bus is stuck, you just move it to the side of the road, and they send another bus out' says Sztejter. 'But if a train can't move, there's no way to get another train through. Got to keep them moving.'

That's why MAX operators have to understand the workings of the trains they operate.

'We are trained to know if it is a door problem, braking problem, issues we can deal with to try to get the train operating.'

Although the operator is physically removed from passengers, he or she still can remain in contact through the intercom.

'Just letting passengers know the reason a train is stopped, such as for the bridges during Rose Festival, makes passengers happier,' says Sztejter, who has never had a complaint filed against him. 'They don't want to sit there for a long time without knowing why.'

Good public relations, along with a good work record, safe driving record and excellent attendance, all contributed to his being selected Rail Operator of the Year by his peers. Along with that comes a plaque with his picture, a cash award, a gift certificate and free parking space for the year - a fine way to end his last year with Tri-Met.

In 2007 he will retire and move to Panama where he has property and will begin building a house. His father was stationed in Panama before World War II, and when Sztejter saw pictures of the country, he was drawn to its beauty and, now, also to its weather and lack of taxes.

But for the rest of the year, he'll be focused on keeping those trains moving.

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