Drivers: part-human, part-machine

A while back now I contacted Go-Ahead London’s marketing department to see if they were interested in my project. They weren’t – which I thought was a shame, if understandable, they are a private company after all. The reason I was slightly put out about the rejection was that I contacted them because I wanted to learn: firstly about the operator’s experience, i.e. how they deliver bus services and remain profitable; secondly, about bus drivers, their work routines and the experiences they have – to be honest, I thought GoAhead might take the opportunity to show themselves in a good light and also express their appreciation for their drivers.

So, I’ve had to go about things slightly differently: by going to Sutton Garage and hanging about until someone talked to me, Google-ing until I found a 213 bus driver online and relying on chance to give me information about driving the 213 bus.

Who would be a bus driver?

When people complain about bus travel it’s more often that not something to do with bus drivers. They aren’t friendly, don’t say hello, are lazy, bad drivers. It is true that according to the literature, the key factor in positive bus service delivery is the drivers, and a role profile for bus drivers might be something like:

  • Empathetic, approachable
  • Knowledgeable about the local area and transport connections
  • Good communicators, Cooperative
  • Good drivers, holder of PCV license and meets DVLA medical requirements
  • Working towards or hold BTEC qualification; sign up to follow highway code and company code of conduct
  • Patient with good levels of concentration no matter the road traffic conditions, weather, or situation on the bus

but who could realistically meet those criteria, all day, day in day out, which is basically what is required if drivers are to avoid criticism? With a starting salary of £26K, 30 applicants are tested weekly to become drivers, so obviously quite a lot of people want to do it.

213 drivers

I personally really like the 213 drivers. They are always smartly dressed, and most of them seem quite quiet and unassuming. I always say ‘hello’ when I get on, and ‘thanks’ as I get off which might help relations a bit. I have a lot of respect for them because I think that there job is difficult, aside from anything else, they are taking responsibility for a lot of people’s lives.

Here’s a little description of a few of them as I don’t know their names: the quiet, ginger one – think he does the split peak hours shift and gives me a wry smile when he picks me up at Lindsay Road (I think he knows who I am re: this project); then there’s the tattoo-ed,earring-ed bloke with the Elvis haircut and cool attitude; the older gentlemen who I can’t decide if he’s nice or secretly planning to kill us all; the five lady drivers including the Lara Croft lookalike with the Aviators and the petroleum blond one who looks like she should be in Euro-pop group; the silver fox – gentlemen with black hair going grey who is always friendly; the one who picked me up at Fairfield on DOE33 (23/7/13. 5.25pm), called me ‘Princess’ (the first time ever I’ve been called that) which made me grin from ear to ear; the smiley round faced one; the one who stopped a bust up on the bus just last week without even leaving his cab (they aren’t actually allowed to)… There’s loads more but I only see them for like 5 seconds so can’t distinguish them all.

Surveillance

But I’m not the only one looking at the drivers. Within their cab they have various machines which judge their performance and tell them what to do, either by a system of beeping or through intercom to colleagues at the bus company and a London Buses control centre. The first machine monitors the driving: so if they brake too sharply or accelerate to hard, or travel at too high a speed they will get beeped at. They are only allowed a certain number of beeps before they face disciplinary. This is to ensure a comfortable and safe journey for passengers – no seat belts after all.

The second machine monitors things like the headway, i.e. the gap between buses, to ensure a regular, to-time service. The bus company has to meet ‘quality of service indicators’ which include waiting times (for 213, a passenger shouldn’t wait more than 6.5 minutes).  If the company meets these targets they can earn up to 15% contract value as extra payment, or be fined up to 10% contract value if they don’t. The machine is used to calculate these timings based on scheduled points (as shown on a driver’s duty card) between 5am and 11.59pm daily, monitored with satellite navigation technology.

Some tales from behind the steering wheel…

One of the things you learn by driving all day, five days a week, is just how narrow a gap you can get your vehicle through. It’s usually wider than it looks.
There’s a certain place on the 213 bus route where the road is dead straight, and there’s a long enough interval between stops for you to work your bus up to the 30 limit. About halfway along there’s a pub, and there are always some cars parked just past it. The space between these cars and the opposite kerb is just wide enough for a bus and a car to pass each other: not a lot of spare room, but enough.
Many drivers didn’t realise this, and I used to take advantage. If I was approaching those parked cars and there was a car coming the other way I’d carry on at full speed, knowing from experience it was OK to do so, and nine times out of ten the car would stop to let me through, its driver apparently convinced that a collision was impending.
It wasn’t only car drivers who got it wrong. One day a new driver, out for the first time on the 213, was coming up to this bottleneck with a car approaching from the opposite direction. Our lad seems to have suffered a fatal bout of indecision, never a good idea when you’re driving. First he thought (correctly) he could make it, but at the last moment he got cold feet. Worse, instead of just screeching to a halt, he tried to swerve out of the way.
The first in the line of parked cars that day was a Mercedes S class, the expensive, top-of-the-range model. It’s a big car, with a long boot. When I came past not long after the incident it looked like a hatchback…

I was a 213 driver for about ten years. I liked it partly for the reason someone else told you, that there’s a toilet (and a coffee machine) at each end, and also because at both ends the bus stands away from any bus stops, so you can relax between journeys (if you have the time!) away from passengers pestering you to get on. That complete break, however short, can be quite important if you’ve been having a stressful time. Also, because the whole route is in semi-detached suburbia, you don’t normally get too much aggro, except occasionally on a Friday or Saturday night (see below).

There are some things about it that are not so good, from a bus driver’s point of view. One is the vast number of schoolchildren you pick up. I used to say to colleagues who moaned about this: ‘If you can’t stand the kids, you shouldn’t be a 213 driver.’

Another is the fact that both Sutton and Kingston have a lively night-life, so things can get a bit fraught with hordes of drunken passengers on Friday and Saturday nights. At one time we used to call the 2320 departure from Kingston ‘the scum run’ because it used to pick up so many drunks in Eden Street and Cromwell Road, after the pubs had turned out. It’s not so bad now there are so many late opening bars and clubs in Kingston to stagger the going-home times.

And of course there is the dreadful traffic in the rush hours. My personal record for the morning crawl between North Cheam crossroads and Worcester Park Station stands at about one-and-a-half hours (!). The highway planners really shot themselves in the foot when they decided a few years ago, for reasons best known to themselves, to alter the road layout so that the traffic queuing for the Worcester Park Station traffic lights in the Kingston direction is all funnelled into one lane, where there used to be two. I used to be one of the ‘nice drivers’ who’d let people off between stops in jams like this, so they could walk it. But you have to be careful. I once did it when I had a senior inspector riding as a passenger, and he gave me a right rollocking for it. The issue is that the bus company is not insured for any accidents that may happen when passengers are boarding or alighting other than at bus stops.

There were times, like driving along peacefully early on a sunny summer morning when most people were still in bed, when I’d say to myself ‘Hey, you’re being paid for this!’ And even when things were tough, the answer to the question ‘Would you rather be doing this, or would you rather go back to your last job?’ was always ‘Yes.’

I came a sort of full circle by becoming a 213 driver, because it was my local bus when I was a child. That was when it used to go past Carshalton Beeches Station and along Banstead Road South to terminate at Belmont, and was run by RF type single-deckers.

Both stories from Richard
I was a driver at Kingston and Norbiton garages from 1975 until 1990 and worked on the 213 from 1986 when crew operation finished on route 65. Unfortunately in June 1987 Norbiton became the first London bus garage to become a low cost unit where all routes were put out to tender and were won by reducing the drivers’ pensionable pay to £3.20 per hour whilst the London fleet rate was £4.17 per hour. We were also given decrepit vehicles to drive and the 39 hours week became 45 hours. Instead of the economical operation of a garage each end of the route i.e. Sutton and Norbiton, the tender trap meant all buses must come from one operator and consequently Norbiton ran empty buses to and from Sutton and West Croydon as positioning journeys whereas previously all buses ran in service. Our pay cut helped pay for this uneconomic operation.
The 213 was a pleasant route with more than adequate running time and the four different eastern terminii added to the variety. I believe it is known as the ‘Old mans road’ which usually means the senior drivers prefer it rather than some of the more hectic routes. When I worked it the duties were on a ’round robin’ rota which meant working all the routes on one rota rather than the idea of drivers being routebound.
The only quibble I had was the Belmont Station stand where having come down past the Royal Marsden Hospital the 213 had to reverse onto the stand in pitch darkness and so if the stand was busy I would go up the A217 towards Banstead and turn at the roundabout and then wait at the first bus stop on return. One night I had a Leyland National single decker and nearly slid into the bushes at the junction of Banstead Road South and Downs Road due to black ice at this high spot.
From Graham
Thank you for your great memories!
So I hope you begin to see how drivers are expected to behave as part-human, part-machine. Without them, the bus simply wouldn’t exist, but at the end of the day, they are only human. We all have bad days at work, and personally, I’d prefer a human driving my bus, with all their errors of judgement, rather than a machine driving based on statistics and probability – for one thing, who would break up the arguments (!) and who would wait for the little old lady to board?
One last thing:

In the driver’s manual for the 213 route, under ‘hazards’ it says: ‘Central Road, Worcester Park – be patient, especially during morning peaks when this stretch of road blocks up with traffic’ – that is the bloomin’ biggest understatement of the century!

For the traffic in Worcester Park alone, I commend 213 bus driver, you’ve got more patience than me!

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213 v The Rest

This memory from Tim, recounts an aspect of his school days at Kingston Grammar between 1968 and 1975. It is all about a football team which became the ‘213’, and shows how buses can become more than just objects which take us from A to B, they can also become signs for something else.

The bus can begin to represent people you know who use it, and inversely people who use the bus can in a sense become the bus. When I first met my boyfriend (i.e. before we went out), every time I saw a ‘45‘ in Newcastle I would say to myself, that’s Jamie’s bus, and look for him through the windows. Not wishing to compare him to a giant turquoise moving rectangle, Jamie will in a sense always be a 45 bus, because that is how I got to know him. More on this thinking in a forthcoming post ‘Becoming the 213’…

School began, from memory, at 9am. However, boys began arriving before 8, dumping their schoolbags in the classroom, then heading out to the Cage – the fenced area in the centre of the school, between the Victorian teaching block facing on to London Road and the 1950s teaching block facing the Fairfield. Down the side of the Cage was ‘The Covered Way’ – a concrete path, topped by a little flat roof to keep the rain off.

From 8am every schoolday, rain or shine, a little impromptu football match was played in the Cage, on the dusty, mucky, grubby surface. This match was always ‘213 v’. To explain: many of the most gifted natural footballers were, for some reason, from the North Cheam area. They bowled up on the 213 bus, and the rest of us non-North Cheam types had to muster a rival team to play them. So it was 213 v The Rest.

I was fairly rubbish at football, so usually ended up in goal. From about 8am to 8.30am, there weren’t enough people to muster full sides, so we played rush goalies, with the goalkeeper in theory able to gallop up the field to also become a makeshift outfield player. Not that I did a whole lot of galloping. Anyway, 213 invariably won. 

As well as North Cheam, Sutton and Worcester Park, the 213 also mopped up a fair few KGS pupils from New Malden as it trundled to Kingston, and a few from Coombe. Some arrived on the 213A, but the team name never varied from its original 213 title.

That early-morning football loosener was also a bond-builder, and many friendships began in the dust of the Cage in the heat of the 213 battles.  I doubt many football teams are named after buses, but the 213 has that rare honour.

Stopping the bus to anywhere

Those of you who are very observant may know that there are in fact two types of bus stop: ‘Bus Stops’ and ‘Request Stops’. The logo on ‘Bus Stop’ flags is red on a white background, ‘Request Stop’ flags have the reverse. The bus is technically meant to stop at every ‘Bus Stop’ if there is someone waiting there, i.e. you shouldn’t have to stick your hand out to wave it down at these types of stop. However, I wonder how often this works in practice: I for one always wave down the bus even though my stop is a Bus Stop, and I’ve only ever had one 151 pull up to ask if I wanted to get on in almost two years of waiting there. With 24 Bus Stops towards Sutton, and 24 back towards Kingston, you can imagine the route might take a lot longer if the bus actually stopped every time it is meant to. On the other hand, people with reduced mobility, or those who physically can’t wave down the bus (e.g. blind people; where the stop is positioned right after a turn in the road) should have some security that their bus will actually stop for them!

Bus stop flags are really well designed things, displaying information simply with a versatile design which serves the whole of London. They also reveal something about the bus stop: that catching a bus there actually gives you an opportunity to go anywhere because all stops and bus routes are interconnected.

From 213  stops you can also catch: 57; 80; 85; 93; 131; 151; 154; 164; 265; 280; 371; 407; 413; 420; 470; 613; 627; 665; 668; 773; 775; A3; E16;  K1; K2; K3; K4; K5; KU1; KU3; N44; N87; S1; S3; S4; X26 – that is 36 different bus routes! Plus it connects you directly to railways at Worcester Park and New Malden, plus Sutton, Cheam, Malden Manor, Norbiton and Kingston if you can walk a bit. I will eventually put this all on a map but for now, the mind boggles at the numbers alone!

History #2 Bus Types

Browse through to look at the bus types which have been used on the 213 route over the years:

The first buses to be used on the 113 (later 213) route were  single deck B types in 1921, then S types some of which remained in operation until 1931. An important change to single-deck types was the introduction of pneumatic tyres (air filled, rather than solid), initially on K buses based at Kingston from 1926, and to the entire fleet by October 1928 which reduced the journey time from 70 to 55 minutes (Belmont – Kingston). From the 1930s – 1952, T and LTs were the official fleet although Q types were in use from 1936 and in fact, the route appears (from photos) to have run with any single-decker it could get.

Beginning on 12 December 1952, the route was converted to RF operation, running from Sutton and Norbiton Garages. This was the last single-deck type on the route, double-deck RTs being introduced in May 1963. RMs or more famously know as Routemasters were used on Sundays only from 1966.

The route became one-man operated in August 1972 with the introduction of the DMS type bus, Ms followed in 1984, NVs in 1997, EVLs in 2002, PVLs in 2007 (still used on the route) and the DOE type from 2011. The current allocation for Sutton Garage is 53 DOEs, 17 PVLs of which 19 vehicles run the 213 on weekdays.

Lots of letters and dates – but the important thing for me is thinking about the experience of being on these buses, the noise, smell, and feel of them and also their visual place in both constructing views of the urban landscape (the view out) and their visual identity on the road. Old photos of these buses on the route are both strikingly familiar and at the same time jarring, like looking at an alternative universe…

I’m not a bus expert, so if you spot errors or can pad out my account, please comment. Other important things to learn from bus design and manufacture are: material wealth of society / bus companies; the need for greater capacity; regulation or de-regualtion of rules on bus design (police standards were incredibly restrictive in the early 20th century); the environmental impacts of bus travel – e.g. if a bus travels empty it is more damaging than a car – so judging required capacity is essential.