Tuesday, September 09, 2008

The day the love affair ended


I have loved buses for a long time. I don't know why, but they have always had an air of romance and adventure about them. I love the look of them. And their variety. In London alone there are "bendy buses", which are really like trains without tracks, single deckers, double deckers, and double deckers with no roof (for tourists: no Londoner would be daft enough to brave the English weather, which can be brightly sunny one minute and then dark with rain the next).

There used to be green double deckers too, that went from London to the countryside, now replaced by green coaches.

Go further afield, and you will find more red buses, red and yellow buses, yellow buses, green buses, green and yellow buses, yellow and blue buses, maroon and yellow buses. No doubt there are many other varieties.

In my youth, London Transport, as it then was, used to sell Red Rovers. These daily tickets allowed you to travel anywhere in London, on  red buses. And I did. Sometimes I would hop on a bus, sit there until it reached its destination, and then jump on a bus going somewhere else. Just for the sake of it, and to watch the changing scenery, and the little vignettes as bits of people's lives were played out for a few seconds as we hurtled past them.

There was a Green Rover too, which was valid only on green buses. And a twin rover which -- ha! you guess wrongly! -- was valid on both red buses and the underground.

So, my love affair lasted a long time. Until now. My experiences of the last few days has finally made the veil fall from my eyes. In later life, my wish to travel on buses has been motivated partly by a desire to get out of the stifling rush hour tube, and partly for "green" reasons. But tomorrow I may be going where I need to get to by car.

This week I am in a school in the east of London, doing training, ie as a trainee. London is a big place, so although it is not that far from where I live, it's far enough, and unfamiliar. It entails either going by train, bus, another train and another bus and then a 10 mile walk, or taking two buses. Funnily enough, I chose the second option.

bus_stopYesterday, when I was on the second bus, I asked the bus driver if we had passed the road I wanted. He told me we had, a few miles back. I got off the bus and went back. I then realised that this could not possibly be correct, so I retraced my original route. It turns out that when I spoke to the bus driver we were almost at the stop I needed, so he had sent me rushing backwards and forwards for nothing.

Today, I spent a total of 40 minutes waiting for buses in the pouring rain -- including a needless 20 minutes brought about because the driver pulled away from the bus stop when I was within yards of getting on.

On the return journey, the people on the first bus were subjected to listening to a mother and her out-of-control shrieking teenaged daughter having a blazing row. Then, whilst waiting for second bus, I was smoked over twice by people who seem to think it acceptable to just blow smoke in people's faces, couldn't get on the first bus that came along because it was full, and was virtually crushed on the bus I did get. Add to all this the fact that the driver seems to have been trained as a stunt man, and I came home feeling pretty tired.

So, don't let that idyllic picture of a bus shelter fool you. Travelling by bus in London is rapidly turning from a pleasant option to something you choose only if desperate. Well, that's the way I feel anyway, and I know I'm not the only one.

If Transport for London really wants to entice people out of their cars and on to their buses, I suggest they do the following:

Make it an offence to smoke in a bus shelter.

Prosecute people who shout and scream, not just those who threaten the driver.

Get all its drivers trained as advanced motorists.

Send all its drivers on a customer care course -- most of the time when I say "good morning" to a bus driver I am either ignored or grunted at.

You cannot expect anyone who has a choice to choose to experience the sort of thing I've described. So until Transport for London sorts its buses out, it's the tube and the car for me.


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