The Fine Art of Bus Stop Body Language

bus stop queue

While driving a bus, we have a lot of things to concentrate on.  At the top of the list is the actual driving; steering safely, not bumping anything, what the other idiots on the road around us are getting up to and so on; we also have to have half an eye and one ear out for our passengers; is someone out of their seat?  About to ring the bell? – and we have to eye up the approaching bus stop and the people waiting there to assess whether they want the bus.

But that should be obvious, you tell me.  They’re waiting.  At a bus stop.  Of course they want the bus! However, we often have more than one route servicing each stop, and more than one bus company serving our town.  So the people at the stop might want a different bus, or they might not want a bus at all – the bus shelter might be the only place along a stretch supplying a bench, which is used by the elderly needing a break or the young needing a hangout – people, in short, who are not even planning to become passengers at all in the near future.

We could pull in to every occupied stop just in case, but firstly, we look a bit silly opening our doors to no one, and secondly, we would never get the bus round on time that way.  Our schedule assumes we wouldn’t need to serve every stop, so is tight enough not to allow for that eventuality.

This necessitates becoming an expert on body language, on assessing the likely want of the people at the stop.  This body language takes on many forms and nuances:

The Clear Signaller

This person is our perfect passenger.  They stand straighter when they see us, read the destination blind and hold out their hand (or their stick, bus pass or whatever they’re holding) in a clear demand for us to pull in.  Or they make eye contact and shake their head firmly, no.  You are not my bus.

The Stepper

You have to be watching because you could miss this.  The person at the stop sees you approach then either steps forward, indicating an expectation to board, or steps back, the only clue they will offer you that they are not interested.

The Back Turner

This person will have seen you are not their bus then will studiously turn their back on you, perhaps assuming that giving you eye contact will bring you in to the stop.  They may well pretend to be reading the timetable, often the one belonging to the other bus company, easy to see from a distance because they use a different background colour to us.  At least once, I have almost missed a person because they were so busy actually reading the timetable, they didn’t notice my approach until the last second.

The Hider

I know it’s awful of me, but when I see these, they make me laugh.  They see you are not their bus and they actually attempt to hide from view – behind the shelter, in the hedge, behind other people waiting and once, hilariously, behind a telegraph pole so that I could see only his feet and belly, just like in a cartoon.

The Shoo-er

These are clear signallers, but they are also deadly.  The person who shooes your bus away, often firmly, almost crossly, as if it is somehow your fault you are the wrong one for them, are sometimes completely unaware that a) they are not the only person at the stop and b) not everyone is waiting for the same bus as them.  So while you are distracted by their wild, angry flapping, you fail to spot that another person has stepped forward, that easily missable but clear signal that they, in fact, do wish to catch your bus.

The Inscrutables

These people are a nightmare.  They stand at the stop, watch you approach, and do not react at all. They simply stare through you unseeingly.  Is it because you are not their bus so they are simply disinterested?  Is it because they are daydreaming and haven’t actually registered your approach?  Is it because they assume you would know they want your bus and expect you to pull in automatically on seeing them?  So you slow the bus slightly, peering at them, trying to make eye contact and elicit a response, often without success – they are avoiding your eye contact because they don’t want your bus.  Or are they?  Just as you draw alongside, they might suddenly snap out of their reverie, realise you are driving past and all but fling themselves in your path to stop you!  So you haul in at an angle (to the annoyance of the traffic behind) and scoop them up as quickly as you can with an apology for missing them and an admonishment to signal clearly next time.

A sub-group of the inscrutables is the device-viewers.  They sit or stand at the stop completely engrossed by their mobile, and do not respond to your approach.  I’m afraid I can be a little impatient with these and doggedly keep going, and I know I’m not the only driver who does this.  I wonder how many people miss their bus because their technology has so completely consumed them.  It would be ironic if the reason for their engagement is a fascination for the App that shows where your bus is in real time…

So there you have it.  Even something seemingly as simple as serving a bus stop is not always completely straightforward, and requires a small degree of psychology to execute efficiently – pulling in only when we’re required to keep the bus flowing with the traffic as much as possible.

Buses Make Terrible Get-away Vehicles!

school-bus-driver-clip-art-clipart-panda-free-clipart-images-Y3NA3p-clipart

I’ve been thinking about this problem a bit, recently.  There was an article in our local paper a while back about an author who wanted to include a bus chase in his latest novel, so an instructor from our firm obligingly took him for a test drive on an old car park we use for assessing potential new trainees (I went there on an open day, and was offered my job afterwards).  He let the author have a go at driving to see how difficult it might be if the character had never driven a bus, and then drove the bus himself as fast as he dared to show how scary cornering would be in a chase situation.

I have no idea whether the book is published yet, or whether the bus chase is still included, but I can envisage many problems, if, in real life, one were to try to escape the scene of a crime in a bus.  The first, and most obvious, is that there never is a bus when you really need one – you’re bound to be nabbed whilst waiting at the stop!  If you get lucky, and a bus pulls in just as you get there, you have further issues – the bus is too slow, and in the UK, restricted to around 50 mph.  I haven’t measured the acceleration, but believe it to be 0 – 50 by about sometime next week.  Then, of course, the driver is going to cut up a bit rough if you don’t have the fare, and if you try to threaten him, some old dear is likely to clout you with her hand bag – those pensioners can be quite protective of their drivers.

So, assuming the bus has come, you’re safely on board having either paid or successfully intimidated everybody, and the bus has wheezed its way up to the local limit (30 mph in town, of course), the police will have no trouble in keeping up with your get-away vehicle, and you have until the next bus stop to formulate your next move, because the old man waiting there with the outstretched crutch is not going to be denied.

Despite all these issues, my bus has still been used as a get-away vehicle!

The first time, two store detectives leapt aboard having flagged me down as I was about to pull away.  They saw the shoplifter they were pursuing at my stop as I was approaching, and wanted to walk up my bus and find him.  Unfortunately, he wasn’t there.  It turns out he was the idiot who had run out in front of me as I was pulling in.  While the detectives were searching my bus, he was gleefully legging it down the other side of the road.  The detectives were from a well-known supermarket. I suppose you have to admire the lengths they would go to in the prevention of vegetable theft.

The second time, I was accosted by a council enforcement officer.  He demanded to know what stop a passenger had asked for, because he was jolly well going to have the police waiting for him when he got off.  I’m afraid I was less than helpful – most passengers, if they have a pass or return ticket, don’t tell me their destination, and those that do I promptly forget unless they specifically ask me to tell them when we get there.  The master criminal himself then chose to come forward, and told the officer what cafe he worked at, and they would have to contact to him there because right now, he just needed to get to work on time.  His crime?  He had dropped his fag-butt when he saw his bus approaching, and was not keen to give his name and address or pay the on-the-spot fine for such flagrant littering!

So there you go.  The criminals of sleepy sea-side towns have yet to learn that buses make terrible get-away vehicles.  Apart from the vegetable thief, who tricked his pursuers into thinking he had boarded a bus, thereby buying himself vital seconds and proving that vegetables are indeed brain-food.

A Day in the Life…

busoutline

I realise I haven’t written this blog for quite a long time.  This is because I have been so busy day to day just getting into the routine of the job.  I keep meaning to write, but life gets in the way.  So I thought I would write “A Day in the Life” to show the sort of things I do all day.

At 07:53 I start my shift.  I never start at o’clock or half past or any logical sounding time.  I clock on exactly 15 or 20 minutes before my first bus is due out, depending on whether I have to carry out a “First Use Check.”

This morning, I’m doing a first use check.  This means going into the office where a supervisor marks me present on his computer and hands me a duty card.  I then trudge (cold and dark this time of year) around the back to the garage.  A number on my duty card corresponds with an allocated bus which I can find on a dry-wipe board.  A map then shows me the precise location of my bus in the grid of parked buses (they form roughly a 4  by 8 rectangle of buses packed tightly side by side and nose to tail.  Some of our larger drivers have trouble squeezing through…).  The grid is carefully planned so that the earliest buses are nearest the front.  When all is going to plan, the buses in front of yours have left or are just about to.

I find my bus and press the button to open the doors.  Nothing happens.  This means one of two things; either the air pressure in the tanks is low or the battery is dead, or both!  I force one door, flip on the power, check I’m in neutral and press the starter.  For a heart stopping moment, nothing seems to happen, then the engine roars into life.  The battery is clearly fine, the beeping dash tells me what I already know – my air pressure is low.  The air tanks operate the brakes, suspension and doors so they are crucial, but a few revs gets them charged up, and the doors decide they will open now.

After filling in some details about myself and the bus on a defects card, I proceed to walk around the bus checking everything on my list.  This includes lights, wheels, mirrors, wipers and many other things around the outside, then lighting and seating, safety equipment etc in the saloon (where the passengers sit).  I have a tick list on the card to complete to make sure everything is in working order.  Today, a parking light bulb is out, so I trudge back to the workshop to tell the supervisor and get someone sent to replace it.  Meanwhile, the guy in the vehicle behind mine is looking at his watch; it’s not just my bus that will be held up if the problem can’t be resolved quickly.

Bulbs are easy, however, and I’m quickly underway.  Today I’m not starting in the bus station, but going out “dead” to start an inbound journey.  I love driving along with the “Not in Service” sign showing at the front of the bus; I can take short cuts and drive as fast as I like (safely and within speed limits of course) as I have no passengers to worry about.  I reach my starting point with a couple of minutes to spare, and set up the destination blind so it now shows my route number and destination.  Once I have logged in to the ticket machine and programmed the correct journey into it, I’m ready to go!

Because it’s early, I manage to go a couple of stops before I find some passengers to collect. I manage a particularly cheery good morning as they board, because even though I only started the engine half an hour ago, the air blowers are starting to blow warm already, and that puts me in a good mood; some buses seem to take an hour or more to warm up, while one or two have no heating working.  Hard cheese if that’s the case; if the blowers are doing their job of clearing the windscreen, they’re legal, hot or not!

Because it’s a Saturday, I’m not too busy this early, and I get the bus back in plenty of time.  In fact, I have to pause at one of the stops and wait.  My duty card has a list of timing points that I must not get ahead of.  If I start to run early, I simply stop and wait until the time on my card matches the time on my ticket machine, then set off once more.

This particular route is a circular.  Having started from the halfway point, I now have two more full circuits to run before my break.  This is a short day – it is more common to have to do four of these circuits before a break.  The next two circuits pass without incident, apart from the fact that everybody seems to have ten pound notes, eating up my float.  I have explained how we have to maintain our own float in one of my earlier blogs, so you can appreciate how annoying it is for me, giving away all my coins. On my final return to the bus station, I log off the ticket machine and sign myself off the defect card, circling the box to say there have been no defects arising en route, then leave the bus ready for the next driver.

After an hour’s break, which I spend in the staff room chatting with the other drivers as they come in and out on their various breaks, I now switch routes.  I’m no longer doing the circular, but taking a bus to a hospital in the neighbouring town and back, an hour each way, done twice (so a four hour stint). Before I have to start, I pay an extra visit to the loo in the hope I will then be able to hold on for the duration.

At the station, my bus is nowhere to be seen; it isn’t back from its previous trip yet. The sun is out and the traffic has built up which doesn’t bode well for the smooth running of the second half of my shift.  Another vehicle is found for me and I’m underway on time.  Halfway up the hill out of town I pass the guy whose bus I was supposed to have on his way down, and give him a cheery wave.

It doesn’t take me long to find out what kept him.  I am held up for over five minutes queueing at the roundabout for John Lewis.  The unexpected mild and sunny day has brought everyone out of hibernation and they’re all driving to the shops.  This queue is repeated at every shopping centre between home and the hospital.  I get there ten minutes late, then have to fight my way back through it all again! For the first time this year (well, it is only February) I get hot enough to ditch my jumper and put my sunglasses on to protect myself from the unaccustomed glare of sunlight on my white shirt.

By the time I get back to the bus station I’m over twenty minutes late – it’s a good job I paid that visit earlier – and as fast as I can I reprogram the ticket machine and get my next load of passengers on board.  I stop looking at my duty card at this point; knowing how late I am will only make me want to rush, and that’s when errors happen, as I have learnt to my cost (more on that another day).  I put on my four way flashers, a signal to the banksmen I’m ready to leave, and one of them approaches to guide me back out of the bay.

Without a single glance at my card, I fight my way back up the hill, back through the John Lewis traffic and all the other hotspots and back to the hospital.  Only then do I dare to check the card – I’m only just over ten minutes late!  Somehow I’ve managed to claw back some time.  It’s now mid afternoon, the sun has found a new bank of clouds to hide behind and the traffic is thinning out.  After a quick sip from my water bottle and a change of glasses I start my final inbound journey of the day.  Again, I ban myself from looking at the card until I’m on the last leg of the trip.  Miraculously, I bring her in to the bus station just two minutes late, where the next driver is waiting to take her out again.  He was my mentor during training, so we chat while I log myself out of the ticket machine, sign off the defect card (no defects to report) and he adjusts the seat and signs himself on.

I haven’t quite finished my day.  I now have to go to one of the machines to pay in my day’s takings.  I have a paltry amount today because I didn’t carry many commuters (it being a Saturday)  and most of my passengers had passes or pre-paid tickets.  The readout from the ticket machine declares that I have £79.60 to pay in.  A good day (on a more popular route during the week) could see me taking over double or triple that amount.  But I have another problem.  I may only owe £79.60, but I have £85 in notes and a rather depleted float. To give the correct amount, I would have to put in £75 in notes, then deplete my change further to pay the rest.  Instead, I choose to make an over-payment and shove £80 into the machine.  The difference will come back to me in my pay packet next week or the one after.  If I under pay (because, for example, I make a mistake with change and my takings are down) this gets deducted from my pay.  Funnily enough, we’re all really careful giving out change!

Now, at last, I am done for the day, and I’ve had a good one.  Even though my bus was really late at one point, nobody has grumbled at me and because today was a shorter shift than usual, I’m away home with time and energy to spare.  I’ve a day off tomorrow, then I’m on early Monday, when all the commuters will want to buy their weekly passes from me, and no matter how much they slow me down serving them, they will grumble if we’re late…

Keeping Afloat

sterling-coins-7201598

After a few weeks of driving, I’m beginning to get into the swing of things. I’ve managed to get lost one more time – driving late, in the dark, on a less familiar route, I became a little confused at a roundabout and chose the wrong exit.  However, I am now much more confident at manoeuvring the bus, and quickly chose a suitable side road to reverse into and get back on course with only a couple of minutes delay.  It earned me one cheerful comment from an elderly gentleman as he disembarked about exploring a part of town he hadn’t seen before, but I’m not sure how many other passengers even noticed!

Our bus company is quite forward technologically, with their own version of the Oyster card and even a mobile app you can use to buy and display tickets.  From the driver’s point of view, it’s very simple; if the passenger has valid travel for that day, they simply show you their phone screen with an animated rectangle that alternates between the current time and that day’s codeword.  The driver then simply presses the button on the ticket machine that says “mob app” and the passenger is counted on board.  The animation and time are to help protect against fraud; you can’t simply lift a screenshot of the rectangle from your friend’s phone and show it to the driver on yours for a free trip, because we know not to accept static images.

However, when it comes to cash handling, we are still so twentieth century!  When we started our classroom week after qualifying to drive, one of the many things we were issued with was our float, which we keep for the entire time we drive for the company.  Basically, I was given (and signed a slip to say I had received) two twenty pound notes and a list of recommended coinage.  These I took to the bank with the list, and that was my float sorted.

Every day at the end of the shift, the ticket machine prints out the total takings for that day, and we go to another machine to pay it in, slotting the notes in one at a time (fiddly) then pouring coins into a hopper until the counter reaches the figure on the ticket.  We have to be selective doing this – we are responsible for having the right coins for next day’s float left in our tray at the end.

This week, I’ve had a bit of trouble with change – everybody seems to have boarded my bus with notes or pound coins, and by yesterday I had all but run out of twenty and ten pence pieces.  The firm do not provide change, so that meant a run down to the bank on my own time for more.  I was a little mystified as to how I could run out so quickly, as other days I have had an excess of coins which I have gladly poured away into the hopper to lighten my load, but I think I’ve worked it out.  This week has been half term holiday in the schools, and I’ve been taking a lot more teenagers on board, all with ten pound notes doubtlessly given them by parents keen to get them out from underfoot for an afternoon!

So next time you board a bus with a twenty pound note and the driver’s face drops, you know why.  If you are on board early in his shift, and he has to  change it with his precious coins, you’ve probably cost him another trip to the bank later, on his own time.

Groundhog Day

groundhog-day

Groundhog Day.  The day, apparently, a rodent emerges from hibernation and heralds the start of spring.  And the title of a movie where the lead character has to repeat this day until he gets it right – and so it seemed last week for me.  I had been given the exact same schedule to do for three days in a row, and a nice simple one at that, apart from the early 5 am start. A number 1 route followed by a 2 then a break, then two lots of 2 then home.  Simple.  Except I had not yet done the 1 on my own, so on the first day of my second week driving solo, I was sightly anxious, and went over the route in my head several times: I knew the way as far as the train station, then I just had to remember right at the cemetery, right towards the shopping centre, then back again.

I was determined, on my second week of driving solo, that there were going to be no missed turnings; no embarrassing apologies to passengers and a hasty re-think of how to get the bus back on track. I was going to get it right this time.

But I hadn’t counted upon the power of Groundhog Day.  So intent was I on getting that first run right that I made the schoolboy error of forgetting to look at the diversions board before leaving the the staff room and setting off in search of my bus.

It all started well.  I remembered all my turnings and as an added bonus, I was keeping to schedule; no unexpected traffic or passenger requests to slow me down.  I made the right at the cemetery, had to think at a couple of roundabouts but made the right choice, and was cheerfully headed toward my last right before the shopping centre when cones started to appear.  And “road ahead closed” signs.  Oh dear.  What I didn’t see was any diversion signs.  Then I met a colleague coming the other way.  He stopped alongside and we opened our windows to speak.

“You can’t go down that way.  You’ll have to turn round.  Take West Road instead.  Or was it East?”

There was no choice.  I had to make a three point turn.  My first one ever in a bus.  With parked cars nearby.  It took me more like five points, but I did it, found the alternative route (still no diversion signs) and made it to the shopping centre just a couple of minutes down.  The closure was only one way, so I was able to drive back by the expected route.

So that was that.  My resolve to make no more wrong turns in ruins on my first run of the week!  The rest of the day went along just fine, I didn’t get lost on the 2 route, and I kept reasonably to schedule.  But the curse of Groundhog Day hadn’t finished with me yet.

Day two of the same schedule.  Just to add to the sense of deja vu, some of the same passengers were waiting for my bus, themselves on early shifts in their jobs.  This time, I had checked the diversions board, the 1 route diversion was still in place, but now I was clear on where I was going.  Today I would get it right. And as an added bonus, a colleague boarded for a lift home after his night shift; company for part of the way!  I think we made it half a mile, over the top of the hill past the hospital.  Then my dashboard flashed on and off, and my acceleration cut out; I was coasting without power!  The other driver came to my aid immediately.

“Can you roll round the corner onto the next stop?”

When I did, he hopped out, lifted the battery bonnet, fiddled with something and the bus came back to life.  He jumped aboard and we set off, but seconds later, we cut out again.  As we were still facing downhill, I rolled into the next stop  and jumped out to call the supervisor back in the office.  Having established that a battery reset had already been attempted, I was told a replacement bus was on its way to me, and to apologise to my passengers for the delay.  Most were very polite about it, one man insisted on grumbling but I was content to ignore him.

A bus quickly arrived, I moved my things across,  signed onto the ticket machine and we were on our way at last, leaving the poor driver who brought it to me stranded on the roadside next to the broken down bus.  My passengers got to their workplaces late but in one piece.  After that, the rest of the day passed without incident.  When I got to the point of yesterday’s debacle, I found the sign for the diversion (maybe it had been knocked over in the night yesterday) and followed it, finding my way easily.

Then came Day 3 of Groundhog Day.  What went wrong that day? Nothing!  The bus worked, I remembered the diversion, I stayed reasonably on time, and the schedule was as simple as it looked; two runs then a break, two runs then home.  So, just like the movie, having finally got the day “right,” the next day was a different schedule; Groundhog Day was over!

Going Solo

lonely-bus

I have just finished my first week of working alone as a fully-fledged driver! For the first couple of days I felt very anxious.  With the mentor there, if there was anything I wasn’t sure of, he was there to ask, but now I was out on my own, no help, just managing. Somehow.

So many things went wrong…

  1. Taking the wrong turning – twice! Both times the passengers were amused rather than annoyed, and I was able to get the bus back on track quite quickly.
  2. Taking the bus out to a housing estate before 6 am to start a route, only to find the cars had double-parked over night and I couldn’t fit through.  The solution?  To bang on the door of one of the houses with a car outside until the owner woke and could be badgered into moving his car for me.  Ten minutes late, I finally had my bus on its way.
  3. Being given one of the brand new buses to drive, only to be unable to get it off the stand in the depot.  I popped it into reverse, waited for the wave from the banksman, released the hand-brake and, nothing!  Into neutral, into reverse, nothing again!  Mystified, I waved the banksman over to help me.  He knew the problem straight away – the reverse had a safety lock, and there were two buttons I had to press to get the bus into gear.  After listening to his grumble about giving new buses to the drivers without bloody training them to flipping drive them first, and it is only £200k’s worth of equipment, after all, I was underway five minutes late again.
  4. Being so late back with one of my buses (actually, the new one because I was so terrified of scratching the thing I drove even more cautiously than usual), that I missed the next one I was supposed to drive altogether, and the “spare” driver had to run the route instead.  I was able to redeem myself by agreeing to take out a different route even though it put me into overtime.

But so many things went well, too.  Each time I got a bus round on time was a success.  The fact I didn’t have any accidents or even near misses was a success.  The fact that I sometimes got my bus reversed off the stand without the guidance of the banksman was a success.  And, most importantly, once the nerves calmed down, I thoroughly enjoyed myself.  And I think  enjoying one’s job has to be a very great success…

Learning Fast

 

wp_20160915_20_36_19_pro
Ooops!

The first week of driving with a mentor is over, and I have learnt so much already.  The first, and most embarrassing, lesson is that the kerbs in the depot are ridiculously high – I managed to beach my bus on the kerb on Thursday, and this tiny piece of bumper broke off when I tried to back out again!  The damage is so small (and frequent) that they aren’t even going to bother fixing it, but I still had to fill out the paperwork which is on record somewhere…

I kept the chunk because I’m slightly weird like that, and as a reminder to take extra care when approaching the stands.

But the other lessons are less painful and sometimes amusing.  As well as just learning the routes and dealing with the ticket machine and the customers, I have also learnt the following;

One, red traffic lights are your friend.  As soon as you have put the hand brake on, you can

  • take your feet off the pedals
  • roll your shoulders, shake your feet, lift your buttocks off the seat to get some circulation back
  • get that sip of water/mint/tissue you’ve been wanting since five stops ago.
  • fidget, scratch, look at your duty card to see if you’re on time (and immediately regret looking)

Then, as the lights change, switch your concentration back on, release that hand brake and go.

Two, don’t bother thinking that you can build up your speed and race to get up that next hill.  There will be a pensioner at the stop at the bottom who just wants a lift to the stop at the top, dear.  So you wait while they shuffle into a seat, then listen to your poor motor wheeze and groan as it fights its way up the hill from a standing start.

Three, the uniform gives you an air of authority, especially if you team it with a hi-vis jacket.  I got the bus stuck in a local market town on market day, because the traders had parked their vans illegally opposite a tight turning.  A quick toot on my horn and a stern word from my mentor got the vans shifted and the bus on its way again.

Four, while you are the epitome of courtesy and loveliness to your passengers, the other road users had better watch out!  You can’t afford to wait patiently to pull out from your stop or make a turn at a junction, because nobody wants to give way to buses.  Instead, you creep forward an inch at a time until the other cars have no choice but to stop for you, then, with a cheeky wave, you’re off!  And, my favourite sport while driving, the constant monologue criticising other drivers – “See that little stick by your steering wheel?  It’s an indicator – try using it!” “Ooh, look, a bus!  Bet you wish you hadn’t come round that corner so fast!” “Come on, mate – you could get a bus through there!”

Five, this job is actually fun.  Most of the passengers are friendly, and some are even grateful for the service you provide.  The shifts are long but pass quickly because you are so busy.  And, when you are driving well, there is a real sense of pride to getting that big old beast through the parked cars/tight bends/tricky spaces that you never would have thought possible at the start of training.