Could you handle a day as a GO Transit bus driver? Here’s what life is like behind that big wheel

Meet GO bus driver, Frances Vasiliou-Dykstra, who started her career with Metrolinx, 22 years ago. Although, a recent injury has temporarily taken her out of the driver’s seat, to mark International Women’s Day, we asked Vasiliou-Dykstra to recount what a typical day driving on Route 47, running between Hamilton and Vaughan, is usually like. As well as exactly which bus she prefers to drive.

A day behind the wheel of a GO Transit bus, would usually start at 4:15 a.m. for Frances Vasiliou-Dykstra – more than three hours before the sun rises over Ontario.

For the veteran driver, that early rise is as much part of the job as adjusting her seat at the start of each shift.

We recently asked Vasiliou-Dykstra to construct a diary of a normal day carrying GO passengers on Route 47 between Hamilton and Vaughan. We thought it would be interesting to virtually ride along with her during the ongoing pandemic, at a time when more and more customers are looking down the road to a day when they’ll return to their more normal GO Transit trips.

“In the beginning of my driving career, more people were surprised to see a woman behind the wheel, whereas nowadays, it is pretty much commonplace.”

GO Transit bus driver, Frances Vasiliou-Dykstra

Her breakdown of a typical shift also comes as the world marks International Women’s Day (March 8), which draws focus on the women’s rights movement. That includes those females who have paved the way into traditionally male dominated careers.

Driving a bus was, not so many years ago, considered something only a man was somehow qualified to do.

Image shows the driver in front of lockers.
A flashback to Vasiliou-Dykstra’s early days at Metrolinx, which would have been around 2001 in this photo. (Submitted photo)

Vasiliou-Dykstra originally started with Metrolinx in Transit Enforcement, but was ready for a change. That was nine years ago. She says getting customers to their destinations safely – as well as interactions along the way – are the most fulfilling part of her job.

Being in the driver’s seat of a massive transit vehicle, on some of the most congested roads in the country, once caught customers off guard.

“In the beginning of my driving career, more people were surprised to see a woman behind the wheel, whereas nowadays, it is pretty much commonplace,” says Vasiliou-Dykstra.

While temporarily out of the driver’s seat, due to an injury, Vasiliou-Dykstra says it’s the brief encounters with customers and moments on the road that she appreciates – and now longs to return to.

Here’s how she sees most days, when she is in that front seat of a GO bus:

3:30 a.m. –  By the time Vasiliou-Dykstra starts her early morning drive on the QEW, from her home in Grimsby to the Hamilton Bus Garage, she has had her morning shower and some needed coffee.

4:15 a.m. – Even with a mask on, Vasiliou-Dykstra’s upbeat personality comes through as she takes a few minutes to check her email and catch-up with co-workers before clocking in for her shift at 4:30 a.m.

Most of the province is still sound asleep.

4:30 a.m.  – Vasiliou-Dykstra checks which bus she’ll be taking out on her route. Her favourite, and the one with the smoothest engine, is #8452. Customers will know it as the Metrolinx wrapped PRIDE bus, but that one moves around regions frequently.

She stands pointing to a bus.
It may not be the Metrolinx wrapped PRIDE bus, but GO vehicle 2552 still drives like a dream for Vasiliou-Dykstra. This image was taken in 2019, prior to COVID-19. (Submitted photo)

A thorough safety check and now COVID-19 cleaning procedure must be completed first before Vasiliou-Dykstra can start her bus’s engine. It’s a bit of a laundry list that includes everything from checking the brakes to ensuring no punctures on the bus tires and even checking the first aid kit is onboard, including a fire extinguisher. The entire routine typically takes more than 15 minutes as Vasiliou-Dykstra doesn’t like to rush.

Once the seat and mirrors have been adjusted, Vasiliou-Dykstra will sanitize everything in the driver’s area before heading out of the bus garage.

Image shows her cleaning her seat area.
As well as a complete cleaning by specialized teams, GO drivers re-sanitize every GO vehicle before buses leave to pick up a first customer. (Metrolinx photo)

5:05 a.m. – Vasiliou-Dykstra arrives at her first stop of the morning – the Hamilton GO Centre. It’s rare to have any passenger pick-ups along the King Street portion of her route at this early in the morning.

5:17 a.m. – Arrive to a very quiet McMaster University. With school restrictions for COVID-19 still in place, students aren’t often travelling to school in-person. There are a few regulars who ride between St. Catharines and other areas. Surprisingly, most customers are chatty and awake at this early-morning hour, but it’s harder for Vasiliou-Dykstra to have conversations with passengers these days – there is an increased distance between all the seats as part of Metrolinx’s COVID-19 safety procedures.

5:36 a.m. – She crosses the city boarder into Burlington, arriving at the Dundas St at Hwy 407 stop. One of her first customers boards here to travel to Mississauga for work. Just a week before last Christmas, Vasiliou-Dykstra went beyond the duties of a typical bus driver.

“I noticed this regular passenger at the shelter, but she wasn’t approaching to board the bus which I thought was odd,” recalls Vasiliou-Dykstra. “So I went out to check on her and asked if she was okay and boarding the bus to Square One today.”

That’s when the passenger told Vasiliou-Dykstra that there was a death in her family, but the woman still had to go to work. Vasiliou-Dykstra provided comfort as she drove the customer to her regular stop.

Image shows her standing by her bus.
Vasiliou-Dykstra stands next to a GO bus. (Metrolinx photo))

6:15 a.m.  – The driver sees one of her regulars at the Square One bus terminal. It’s also a good time for a washroom break as she’s usually a few minutes ahead of schedule with light traffic in the early morning.

6:50 a.m. –   She arrives at the Highway 407 Bus Terminal in Vaughan, which is the last stop of the route. Once all the passengers have disembarked, Vasiliou-Dykstra checks both upper and lower decks on the double decker GO bus for any sleepers, as well as personal belongings left behind.

7:10 a.m. By this time, Vasiliou-Dykstra has already travelled on three different highways and through six cities or towns. With the bus at the departing platform, Vasiliou-Dykstra alerts passengers to start boarding. Within minutes, its back on the highway headed east to complete the #47 route all over again. Vasiliou-Dykstra will repeat the journey throughout the day.

“When a passenger gets to their destination, gets off the bus and turns to you and says you’re a phenomenal driver, or you handle this bus like your own car,” Vasiliou-Dykstra says, adding that can be the most rewarding part of her day. “I’m grateful for all who ride our system. Without them, we wouldn’t have a job.”

There will be time for a 30-minute break, which Vasiliou-Dykstra will use to stretch her legs and walk to a nearby Tim Hortons. It’s another opportunity to grab a coffee before heading back out on the road.

2:15 p.m. – Vasiliou-Dykstra ends her shift at the Hamilton GO Transit garage, where she has clocked more than 407 kilometres of stop-and-go driving in her day, not including the 30 kilometres needed to her back to her community of Grimsby.

Driving a bus for 10 hours isn’t for everyone. Most people don’t look forward to driving around urban areas.

Image shows her behind the wheel.
Vasiliou-Dykstra’s enthusiasm for GO customer’s remains just as high as it was her first year driving for GO in 2013, when this photo was taken. (Submitted photo)

But Vasiliou-Dykstra says it’s a stress-free environment.

“Metrolinx is big on safety first, so if you’re running late passengers are – for the most part – lenient as they understand traffic and weather play a huge part in our daily trips,” She notes.

Vasiliou-Dykstra says the biggest change she’s seen over the years involves diversity.

“As well as the fact that there are more women, there is also a full spectrum of races, religions and sexuality,” she says of those who take up the responsibility of being a GO Transit driver. “No matter the race or gender of a person, if someone is qualified to do a job, then everyone should be treated equally across the board.”

While out of the driver’s seat for the moment, Vasiliou-Dykstra can’t wait to get back to her typical days behind the transit wheel.

Story by Heather Glicksman, Metrolinx communications coordinator.