These are the words I have come to dread. When you’re already having a bad day, the point will come when somebody boards your bus with the words, “Would you mind explaining why this bus is so late?”
And actually, I would mind, because having to engage in this conversation only serves to make my bus even later. The only way to deal with it is a simple apology, a word or two about traffic (“Oh, they always use that excuse!” I once overheard a woman tell her friend as they sat down) and hope to goodness they’ve thought to actually get their fare or pass out ready during all that time they’ve had waiting.
The full explanation would simply take too long, as a number of small factors usually combine to slow the bus down. I will use one particular journey yesterday to illustrate. I was driving the slow route from my town to the next and back again. It’s a slow route because instead of following the trunk roads like our flagship buses, it trundles around various housing estates, allowing those residents access to both town centres. We actually have two routes, and we drive out as one number bus, and back as the other.
I had actually been having a good day to this point, with the driving punctual and uneventful, and I was still on time on my outbound journey when I reached the train station and had only a mile or so left until I reached the destination at the town centre. On leaving the train station, the next road had a traffic queue. This is a sea side town and it’s holiday season and the weather was unexpectedly nice, so people were out and about, causing a particular traffic hotspot to snarl up. In the space of just one mile, I went from cheerfully on time to ten minutes late. My duty card read that I should be arriving at my destination at 13:35 and departing as the other route at 13:40. As I pulled in, it was already 13:45. But this wasn’t a worrying amount of lateness, I just had to get loaded up and underway as quickly as I could.
The passengers had other ideas. There was already quite a queue for my bus, but there was also a large queue for the quicker flagship buses which apparently hadn’t been able to break through the traffic for a while, either. When they saw me, they decided a slow bus was better than no bus and surged forward to augment my queue. This lot took more than 5 minutes to board; so much for my quick getaway!
Then the next problem occurred – the bus interchange got snarled up! There is a bottle neck at one end where the buses can only pass through one at a time. Buses coming in are supposed to give way to buses coming out, but nobody seems to have told the drivers of our rival firm this. They pile through regardless until nobody can move any more, a literal bus jam! So there I was, loaded and ready to go, but unable to get out. This took another five minutes until somebody at the top of the interchange finally moved out allowing everybody behind to squeeze through until at last the way was clear for me to exit at the bottom. Now I was a good 15 minutes down and hadn’t even left the town centre yet!
The next bus stop at the top of town was also busy. I pulled in, followed by a flagship bus (how had he caught up so quickly?) and the queue jostled while they sorted out who was getting which. Then I had my next (usually small) problem. The passenger who needed advice on where they were going, what fares were available, etc. In the queue behind her there was a shriek – what on earth? I quickly saw the cause – not a murder in progress, but a small boy wearing ear defenders. I’ve worked with children with special needs in the past, and I’d like to think I can spot a child with an autistic spectrum disorder a mile off. Having spotted him, and pulled faces at each other, I knew I should be prepared for more unexpected noises and not allow myself to be startled by them as I drove.
I was loaded, the other bus had already pulled out and left me, so I shut my doors, looked in my mirrors and prepared to pull out. And promptly put my handbrake back on. There in front of me, practically hugging my windscreen, a man had appeared from across the road, brandishing crutches. I opened my doors again.
“Are you trying to catch my bus, or get run over by it?” I demanded. This was not, perhaps, the polite way of greeting customers as should be expected from me, but seriously – that was a damned dangerous thing for him to do! In response I got a gust of alcohol from his breath and a cheerful apology. As he hobbled up the bus on his artificial limb, I realised he was legless in more ways than one…
Finally, I was underway again. The drunk man spotted a friend (who was apparently deaf) and the two were conversing loudly across the aisle. This was too much for the little boy, who shrieked in response.
” ‘Ere, then, what’s all this fuss?” demanded one of the men, and the child was shocked temporarily into silence.
As I pulled into another stop, the drunk gentleman came forward. “You got a pen I can borrow, love? Gotta write my address for this guy.” Speechless, I handed it over, cursing myself because it was a nice one, and I need to have it on me at all times for the job. Two stops later, it was sheepishly handed to me by a lady as she got off. “That man asked me to give it you, is it yours?”
The traffic was still a little slow, and I crept slowly forwards with it, humming to myself to drown out the loud chatting and occasional shrieking going on behind me. “I’m on a road to nowhere” seemed to fit just then.
At one point on this route, we turn off the main road to go through the housing estates, and it was at this point that my next delay occurred. Remember at the beginning I had taken on some passengers who had wanted the other bus?
“Hang on, hang on, I’m on the wrong bus!” a voice called.
“Okay, don’t worry, let me get round this corner and I’ll let you off,” I replied.
As I got round the bend, I saw a delivery van was parked at the bus stop, partially blocking the narrow road. I pulled in behind. The man who had called out alighted gratefully, followed sheepishly by two others. In front of me was the van and a very narrow road. And I just wanted to get this flaming bus home!
“Hold your hats,” I called back, “we might mount the kerb!” Of course, I knew full well that was the only way I was going to get past. Thankfully, there were no lampposts or people or other junk on the pavement and we were soon underway once more.
Now, this is the problem with running a full service. You get slowed down letting all the extra people on, then you drive more slowly because you have people standing, then you have to let them all off again, slowing you down even further. My bell by now was being rung for every. single. stop. The legless drunk went, then his friend, the little boy with his mum and countless other people all needed their own stop.
As I got to the top of the estates to begin the road down towards home, the inevitable happened.
“Would you mind explaining why this bus is so late?” demanded a very irate lady just slightly older than me.
“I’m so sorry,” I replied, “the service has been rather full today.”
She raised her eyebrows as she looked up the bus. I followed her gaze, to where there were just three people looking back at us…