A living time machine of service excellence

Edmonton Transit Service (ETS) has been taking riders to their destinations for 115 years, and no one has played a longer role in its history than operator David Tiedemann.

This summer, David became the first and only operator to reach 50 years of service with ETS. He was 22 years old when he started on August 27, 1973, after a three-year stint as a sous-chef at the Chateau Lacombe. He made $4.60/hour as a driver—$1.60 more than his kitchen gig. David knew he was on the right path with ETS.

“I didn’t want to do anything else,” he said. “People used to ask, ’Isn’t this boring?’ How can it be boring? It’s a different scene all the time.”

David with his Certificate of Appreciation for 25 years in 1995.

Badge No. 1

In his five decades with ETS, he’s seen countless innovations in transit and throughout the city—from the launch of the LRT to the introduction of women in the workforce to the removal of ashtrays from transit vehicles. David has a wealth of experience. He proudly holds badge No. 1, which is reserved for the most senior operator with the longest tenure in the organization.

Through the last half-century, David has been committed to safety and professionalism. He takes tremendous pride in his work, and his colleagues know they can always count on him to be helpful, fair and exceedingly safe. In fact, he has an esteemed driving record with 39 years of safe driving experience, a feat no other ETS driver has accomplished.

 A Swiss Wittnauer watch given to David after achieving 25 years of safe driving.

Women bring change to ETS

David’s career as an operator frequently crossed paths with significant events in the history of ETS. He worked alongside Kathleen Andrews who became the City’s first female bus operator in June 1975. One night, during her first winter as an operator, David and Kathleen were returning their buses to the garage when they encountered a difficult passenger who was harassing Kathleen. This was a time when operators did not have shields, telephones or video cameras to provide an extra layer of security. David promptly intervened and removed the passenger from the bus, while Kathleen quickly shut the door behind them.

David credits women for driving a lot of transformations at ETS during the mid-to late-1970s, including spurring labour improvements—like shortened shifts—that resulted from having a collective voice and strength. “Changes came because women drove the bus,” he reminisced.

Kathleen Andrews, the first woman in a non-conventional City of Edmonton job and the first female ETS driver.

A rebel with a cause

When looking back at the early parts of his career, David describes himself as “a bit of a rebel”—and for good reason. In 1975, David and other colleagues protested against what they thought was an unfair ETS policy—their hair couldn’t be longer than collar length.

Drivers risked possible firing for not adhering to a strict dress code but that didn’t stop David from speaking out. (He was inspired by his dad, a World War II veteran and barber, who told him: “I went to war so that you would have a choice; so people wouldn’t tell you what to do.”)

David, a 24-year-old Beatles fan, liked to wear his hair below his ears. “You should see the bus drivers in Vancouver, their hair is down to their backs,” he told a reporter from The Edmonton Journal. “I don’t see what hair length has to do with driving!”

David in Edmonton Journal article on September 8, 1975.

In the end, the policies were revised. Long hair could be in a ponytail, and trimmed beards and moustaches were permitted. The questions David raised effectively led to employees’ increased freedom to express their individuality.

Smoking was also removed in November of 1978. Before then, passengers could smoke in transit vehicles, leading to overflowing ashtrays in the driver’s seat, at the fare box, or at the back of the bus. David, who was not a smoker, was elated with the new rules.

An ETS lighter from 1977.

Improvements at ETS

Through the 1980s, significant change continued. At the time, bus fare was only $1. When the Canadian government introduced the loonie in 1987, the coins weren’t just handier for people—they were also easier on bus fare boxes. (Dollar bills, which are weightless, would tend to stick in the boxes and then overfill, so no more bills could fit.) Sometimes, ETS staff would have to remove the boxes.

Of course, the cost of transit has increased over the years, as well. When David began in 1973, bus fares were 25 cents. Senior bus passes were free, courtesy of William Hawrelak, Edmonton’s longest-serving mayor. However, seniors couldn’t use their passes during peak hours because the buses were “packed to the rafters,” said David. “You just couldn’t squeeze anybody else in.”

Telephones and trolleys

Throughout his five decades with ETS, David has seen many improvements that have impacted riders and operators alike. His favourite? When telephones were installed in the 1980s. Bus cameras were introduced in the 1990s, followed by the addition of bus shields in 2019.

David has also seen significant technological evolution. When he started, he remembers Edmonton having five trolley routes that ran exclusively on electricity. The top of each trolley was outfitted with poles that attached to electrical lines overhead. When frost covered the poles on cold mornings, David said buses “would have three feet of fire coming off the line.” While there was no risk of fire or electrocution, people would honk down the street at the operators who had these flames hovering above them. The trolleys were decommissioned in 2009.

David shows three feet of fire erupting from frosted poles connected to the electric trolley buses. The trolleys were decommissioned in 2009.
ETS electric trolleys with the poles extending above the buses to electrical lines overhead.

Respect and dedication

David’s colleagues and supervisors continue to show David a lot of respect—and spending any time with him demonstrates why. His seniority has never before been reached in ETS. He has a contagious, youthful energy. He is animated when he talks. He laughs a lot. You can see why people gravitate to him easily.

Family members and colleagues, including former ETS driver Mayor Amarjeet Sohi, gathered in City Hall on September 13, 2023 to celebrate David’s milestone.

“Fifty years of service to the City of Edmonton is remarkable,” said Sohi. “Half a century of service—that requires dedication, that requires commitment and that requires passion for people.”

David and Mayor Amarjeet Sohi in City Hall on September 13, 2023.

Over the last 50 years, one thing has never changed: David’s dedication to his passengers and his commitment to safety. He is a true professional in every sense of the word. The tears come easily when he speaks of everyone behind the scenes—dispatchers, control centre staff, cleaners and mechanics, to name a few. David’s last day of work will be October 20, 2023.

“I’m the guy behind the wheel, but there are hundreds of people,” he said. “It makes me weepy.”

He is grateful for everyone else but also deserves much gratitude in return.

David, centre, acknowledges the applause of friends, family members and colleagues in City Hall on September 13, 2023.

By the numbers

Name: David Lynn Tiedemann
Age: 72
First day at ETS: August 27, 1973
First ETS route: University
First badge number: 596
Current route: 747 Airport
Last day: October 20, 2023
Current badge number: 1
Kilometres driven: countless
Time employed with ETS: 18,317 days
Years of safe driving: 39
Uniform Changes: 7
Favourite Bus: Flyer

Editor’s note: The pic at the top of the post shows David Tiedemann in an ETS bus at Ferrier Garage in August 2023.