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17 December 2001

Life between the bollards

Driving a bus used to be a much-prized job. Now recruits are in chronically short supply. Andrew Mar

By Andrew Martin

It’s cars, obviously, that have been forcing the bus industry to operate in such straitened circumstances. The passing of the Man on the Clapham Omnibus, and his replacement by the Man in the Clapped-out Mondeo, is the essential factor behind a little-remarked-on phenomenon: a drastic shortage of bus drivers. This nationwide deficit is manifest in recruiting adverts on almost any bus you board.

On the London buses run by a company called Metroline, the ads read “You could be driving this bus”, which is somehow disturbing. Imagine climbing aboard a 747 and reading a sign saying: “How do you fancy flying this plane yourself?”

On the other hand, there is an appeal in driving a bus, especially a double-decker. The drivers look admirable: awesomely alone at the prow of these urban galleons. Certainly the profession has a distinguished pedigree. At the turn of the century, men actually paid to become drivers and conductors. The attraction was twofold. First, there was the independence: there were no bus stops, so drivers stopped exactly where and when they wanted – a tradition that is arguably continued in many areas today. Second, the money was good – better than a clerk’s wages.

According to George Wright of the Lambeth Public Transport Campaign: “Before the Second World War, bus drivers earned the same as policemen, and the job was very prestigious. Even in the early Eighties, the ones in London were still earning the same as Tube train drivers, but now Tube drivers are on thirty grand, and bus drivers are getting . . . what, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen?”

Neil Colston, the recruitment manager at Metroline, and a bus driver himself 30 years ago, says: “It was seen as something good to get into – solid, respectable, a good job for a family man. In fact, there were lots of husband-and-wife driver/conductor teams.”

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Today, Neil Colston is engaged full-time in trying to find bus drivers, and I suggested that, in order to publicise his cause, he might let me drive a Metroline bus. Neil looked me up and down, and emphatically stated: “We will not let you take one of our vehicles on the road.” But he agreed to let me drive one around Wembley Stadium car park, where many bus drivers learn the job.

Neil and I were driven to the car park from a Metroline bus garage by a young trainee called Sean, who was being guided by his instructor. The instructor kept muttering to Sean: “Steady speed, driver, steady speed.”

The tension was high, not because Sean was a bad trainee, but because driving a bus is extremely hard. When a new bus route is created, an ace bus driver will test it out. If he can’t turn the bus around a certain corner, the kerb will be shaved back by the council, but all those involved are reluctant to admit that kerbs need changing (the driver for reasons of pride, the council for reasons of meanness), with the result that most routes leave no margin for error.

“The trouble is that the driver’s front wheels are six feet behind him,” says Neil, “so the bus must be turned late.” The other trouble, he explained, is the length and height of the bus. “This double-decker is 31ft 4in long, and 14ft 6in high, and the trainee has got to be able to keep that in his head at all times.”

In an effort to hammer this home, Sean will, at some point in his training, be invited to drive his 14ft 6in bus under a 14ft bridge. This invitation he will be expected to decline.

As we approached Wembley, I was feeling increasingly nervous, and I came over all queasy when Neil called out the potentially fatal words: “Right, Andrew, the bus is yours.”

Neil turned on the ignition for me, and I eased my foot down on the accelerator. All buses have automatic gearboxes, so they’re disturbingly easy to propel, if not to control. Neil required me to drive the bus between two bollards which were a distance apart barely wider than the bus itself. “Can you see both bollards in your wing mirrors?” shouted Neil as I inched forwards.

“Yes, no problem!” I yelled back, although in fact I could not. I just didn’t want to look a twit.

We were now in front of a very long line of bollards and Neil was saying: “I’d like you to drive in between them slalom-wise.”

“What planet is this guy on?” I thought to myself as I pulled up to the first bollard. I was two inches away from destroying the second bollard when Neil intervened, ordering me to reverse the bus and realign it. He then talked me through the steering, dictating precisely my every movement of the wheel. I spent a while longer dodging the bollards, but by now I was not my own man – just a proxy for the instructions of Neil. After 20 minutes, I sulkily obeyed his instruction to stop the bus, and pretended I wasn’t bothered when he said my steering was “here, there and everywhere”.

I climbed out of the cab with enhanced respect for all bus drivers, and ex-bus drivers, such as the late crooner Matt Monro, Cliff Richard (a better bus driver than actor, possibly, in Summer Holiday?) and the writer Magnus Mills, whose novel The Restraint of Beasts was shortlisted for the Booker. Across the country, young people who work in supermarkets tend to earn more than bus drivers: having tried to drive a bus myself, I think that’s sick.

Yet “bus driver” has become a bathetic conjunction. You could see early signs of this in the Seventies sitcom On the Buses. Sure, Reg the driver and Jack the conductor were a jaunty pair, but they were down at heel, endlessly looking for extra-curricular revenue, and persecuted by the Hitler-like inspector, Blakey.

In 1975, the lead singer of Typically Tropical (whoever they were) perpetuated this note of disillusionment by singing “Don’t want to be a bus driver in Brixton town all my life” on the number-one record “Barbados”. And in the Eighties . . . well, the Eighties saw the final days of the famous skid patch at Chiswick Bus Depot, where trainee drivers learnt to control double-deckers on slippery surfaces – a skill supposedly made redundant by improved bus design.

Neil Colston told me a story regarding the skid patch. “A bus manager at Chiswick had his office right at the end of it, and he just worked on through the training sessions. Over the years, no trainee driver ever lost control of a skid and smashed into his office, but then, sometime in the late Eighties, the office was hit.” Neil paused before adding: “The person who hit it was a woman.”

I studied his face carefully for any hint of sexist triumphalism, but there was none, and in fact the gender of the driver is not the point of the story. The woman was not a trainee driver, but a guest at a PR event on behalf of bus travel, who’d been invited to try her hand behind the wheel. The moral is that no such frivolous event would have been required in the preceding decades.

A bus is a symbol of uncoolness, a mobile ghetto full of – with all due respect – the old and the broke. Put it another way: people from non-car-owning households make four times more bus journeys than people from households with cars. In Britain in the Fifties, you’d see smartly dressed businessmen hailing buses with their furled umbrellas, but today you won’t often see a person in a suit on a bus, unless it’s a transport minister and 20 photographers.

The recently introduced Bus Industry Awards are a self- conscious attempt to boost the glamour of the industry. They are always held at a swanky hotel – this year, it was the London Hilton – and are preceded by compelling footage, shown on giant screens, of OAPs boarding low-floor single-deckers with exciting disco music pounding in the background, while provincial bus men scan the menus, incredulously muttering “Asparagus tips!”

At this year’s awards – known as the Bus Oscars – I spoke to a 31-year-old bus driver from the north who told me about the effect that the privatisation of the bus industry had on drivers. At best, they suffered pay freezes; at worst, pay cuts of up to 50 per cent in the ensuing rationalisation and loss of subsidy from an industry whose decline was quite possibly due to a lack of investment in the first place.

“You know how all old bus drivers seem to hate everyone?” he said. “Well, that’s why.” He loves the job, but then his routes took him along the coasts of north-east England. “Freedom, fresh air . . . I used to be a welder and, even though I earned more, I’d never go back to it.”

There are some signs of hope. After decades of decline, bus “ridership” is increasing – quite minimally in the country as a whole, but fairly significantly in London, as the penny drops about the impossibility of driving a car through the city. Conscience may be a factor here, too, because the environmental arguments in favour of bus travel have always been excellent.

The cleverest thing you can do with a gallon of diesel is put it in a bus and drive 40 people around. People interested in public transport are beginning to focus on buses, and on their drivers in particular. George Wright says: “The railways are packed to capacity. If you’re going to get cars off the roads, you’ve got to start looking at bus use. If the market dictates that they’ve got to be paid a crap wage, then maybe there should be intervention to change the market.”

This is where Ken Livingstone comes in, with his quaintly named “mayor’s bonus”, introduced this year. It’s a direct attempt to address recruitment difficulties, and is worth £20 a week to London drivers.

Things might be about to get better for bus drivers, and the funny thing is that, if they do, they will simultaneously get better for everyone else as well.

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