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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Sutton Archives and Local Studies

Finally, last Wednesday, I managed to get myself along to Sutton Local Studies to start my research on the Sutton end of the 213 route.

The day began treacherously, as I boarded a 151 bus to Wallington rather than waiting for the next 213. It was a decision I almost instantly regretted because at North Cheam /Queen Victoria stop a young bloke sat behind me on the upper deck who smelt SO strongly of cannabis, I could hardly breathe! I distracted myself by eavesdropping on the conversation of some young people in front and thought about how to open a window without it being totally obvious. Luckily, he decided to go downstairs at Cheam Broadway, so I was free again to muse on the views outside.

Got off with most of the other passengers at Sutton Civic Centre stop. The Local Studies is part of the library complex (tucked away on floor 2) and I was really impressed by the scale of the library service, with cafe and different reading areas, it is much bigger than Kingston’s central library. The Local Studies room is quite different to Kingston’s Local History Room in atmosphere, as the former has very little/no natural light, and Kingston is surrounded by windows (which makes it quite toasty in the summer months and chilly in winter).

Kath the Archivist was there to assist me and she had kindly got out a few local history books for me to look at. I’m trying to be good and restrict my research to date from September 1921 to present day since that is how long the route has been running for, but also need to collect specific information about each stop name which may take us back centuries…. Since I know so little about Sutton, Cheam and Worcester Park I began by skim reading the books.

  • Sutton, a very brief history: A place called Sudtone was first recorded in 675AD, but the town we know today was mainly developed due to its location on the London-Brighton stage coach route (from the 1760s on). It developed further at the turn of the 20th century when trams and later trolleybuses and buses terminated at Benhill Avenue. NB: The London Borough of Sutton was formed in 1965, previously Sutton and Cheam Urban District.
  • Cheam, an almost non-existent history (only because I didn’t read the right book…): Cheam Village dates back to at least the Tudor period, when Nonsuch Palace was constructed by Henry VIII, began 1538. Whitehall, Cheam was named after the Palace of Whitehall by Charles I, it was originally built in the mid-1500s as a farmhouse.
  • North Cheam, a shorter history: the crossroads at North Cheam is on the site of an old toll gate ‘Lynce’s Corner’ itself replaced by the Queen Victoria Inn (built shortly after her Coronation, rebuilt 1936, demolished 1964). It marked the point where Cheam, Sutton and Malden met.  The row of shops here only developed in the 1930s.
  • Worcester Park, my home: It is made up of the former area of Nonsuch Great Park, and is named after the Keeper of the Park, the Earl of Worcester. It was open fields until the late 1850s when railway construction began, and houses were built on Longfellow Road for the railway workers. The Worcester Park to Waterloo line began in 1859. Along what was Common Hill (now Central Road) were built beautiful semi-detached Victorian and Edwardian villas, which were replaced by shops in the 1930s.

I spent most of the afternoon looking through the photographic collection…. would estimate 8 filing cabinet drawers and I managed to find some amazing photographs. The world is beautiful! ‘Mundane’ and everyday life is full of meaning. Photography is a wonderful tool to capture the world!

After a long day of looking, I managed to finish just as they were closing (6pm), hurried off for a hot chocolate at an obliging coffee shop and caught a 213 at Sutton Post Office stop. I then attended the Maldens and Coombe Heritage Society meeting, giving an update on my research.

Waiting for a bus….

Avid Readers (hehem….),

May I again apologise for the long delay since my last post. It has been totally hectic as I have put the final touches to two modules’ assessments: one about the future of Local History Museums in London, the other about Torture at the Tower of London. Exciting stuff, but not what this blog is all about.

So, I promise I have been procrastinating, I mean, working when I could on this project and have been going through all the photos I have taken on the route, editing and renaming them. I have designated all the stops a special code which may or may not prove helpful in the long run. It is useful because now all the files are in route order e.g. from Kingston, Fairfield Bus Station is ‘K1’, Eden Street is ‘K2’, Cromwell Road is ‘K3’ etc. It is not useful because duplicate stop names now have two codes e.g. Fairfield Bus Station is also ‘S46’ being the last stop from Sutton on the 213. I’m not sure I’d make a very good archivist, managing information is tricksy!

Waiting for a 213?

Waiting for a 213?

As well as messing about on Photoshop, I have been practising the art of  ‘participant observation’. If you ever use the 213, I’m the one with the little green notebook writing down everything you say! Mostly I have been observing myself as the little gems of insight below will attest:

8/5/13 towards Kingston, 1pm: Ate my lunch on the bus, it was tricksy because of the balsamic dressing – not too stinky though

8/5/13 towards Sutton, 6pm: Bus on diversion due to closure of Eden Street. Smells of lime jelly; traffic is bad

9/5/13, towards Sutton, 7.50pm: Cold, drizzly rain makes waiting for the bus not very nice! Bus on diversion from Kingston Hospital to Langley Grove, down Coombe Lane West and Traps Lane

10/5/13, towards Kingston, 9am: Ran for the bus – always a difficult call because you never know if the driver will wait; still no announcement for Brabham Court; Gary the Transport Surveyor for RBK was on the bus, ‘Good Morning, Good Morning’

24/5/13, towards Sutton, 5pm: Two guys and a lass talking about clubbing, the lass had spent so much at Ann Summers she ‘got free lube’ and was happy to share that insight with the whole bus.

25/5/13, towards Kingston, 9am: Just missed my usual bus and since they aren’t so regular on Saturdays it means I will be later for work than I want to be; X26 goes past at 9.03am, could’ve probably made that had I walked directly to Worcester Park

More to follow – I promise to start some serious eavesdropping. The problem is, most of it isn’t particularly wholesome listening. In the past I have heard about: a man going to the magistrates’ for a hearing telling his mate he hopes to get off a custodial sentence; a woman arguing with her partner over the phone about custody of their child; a man questioning the paternity of an unknown woman’s baby, and how the likely father was a nutcase; who fancies who, who is sleeping with who. Maybe it’s just that these are the conversations which stick in the mind… I should probably frequent the lower deck more often to hear about babies and shopping….

57 Varieties*

One of the ideas of the project is to collect local history information around each of the stops on the current 213 route and produce a blog entry about each. To that end, I’ve started the process of collection – finding photos, interesting stories and remembrances. I imagine that this could become a good structure for an exhibition – maybe the two routes (Kingston-Sutton; Sutton – Kingston) running along the walls with each stop marked and a collection of ephemera surrounding it, plus a place for people to fill in a postcard of their thoughts and memories to be shown alongside, each stop blurring into the next as the walls are filled.

I was typing up the list of stops going each way which my mum had written out (also available on a handy interactive map at http://www.tfl.gov.uk/tfl/gettingaround/maps/buses/?r=213) and suddenly the scale of this project dawned on me. 57* different stops to consider and research…. Overwhelming and also strangely awesome. Things that seem simple can become so complex so quickly. I’m excited at the possibilities of this project for involving a whole load of different people (anyone really- that has, does or will ever conceivably use the 213 bus route or lives their lives alongside it). Will any coherent meaning emerge from this? I think what interests me about the project is that it will produce something more collage, or patchwork in character, a collection, a changeable mass of information that connects us all. The 213 follows a physical geographic route, but is part of a complex network of interconnecting routes: physical, social, historical, economic. And that’s just one bus route!

* The route from Kingston to Sutton stops at 44 stops, from Sutton to Kingston it stops at 45 stops. There are 57 individual names for the stops.

Some of the 89 bus stops on the 213 route (both directions)

Some of the 89 bus stops on the 213 route (both directions)