A typical workday for streetcar operator Lester Harris begins at 4:20 a.m., Monday through Friday. Downtown Milwaukee’s new public transportation system, called The Hop, doesn’t start its weekday operations until 5 a.m., but as an operator working first shift, Harris must complete a test loop along the 2.1-mile route before passengers can “hop” on board for the day.
This is just one of the various duties carried out each day by a team of 16 operators and four supervisors who are responsible for making the $128 million system’s five 40-ton, 67-foot-long articulated vehicles move.
Prior to The Hop’s Nov. 2 opening, the group completed an intensive five-week training program that included 80 hours of operating time. They learned the streetcar from top to bottom, from inside to out, Harris said, including important safety procedures and how to properly diagnose mechanical problems.
“If you’re operating something, you should absolutely know everything about it,” he said.
Now, with almost a month of full service under his belt, Harris is settling in to his new role and says he appreciates his daily interactions with passengers onboard.
Harris previously worked as a city bus operator, so when he became a streetcar operator, he was already familiar with certain aspects of public transit, like timing and scheduling.
The cockpit is equipped with buttons that control everything from opening and closing the doors to switching its power source from electrical wire to battery.
A lever controls the vehicle’s acceleration and braking. It usually runs at speeds of approximately 25 to 30 miles per hour.
Harris digitally programs the route so each station stop is shown on the vehicle’s inner and outer displays, and announced over the internal sound system.
Harris uses this microphone to communicate with other operators on the route or supervisors at the maintenance facility on North Fourth Street.
With a cockpit at the front and the back, the streetcar can be driven back and forth along the M-Line. At the end of the route, the operator walks to the opposite end of the vehicle to drive in the other direction.