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The Grass Is Never Greener

By John Walker

In August 2007 my company was suffering from an acute staff shortage and morale was fairly low. A long dispute over pay and working hours had just begun and several of our drivers had defected to Lothian Buses where there appeared to be a better deal than what was offered locally.
One day I was battling my way out of Edinburgh in the evening rush hour and kept getting held up behind Lothian Buses advertising their current £24.000 per annum salary.  I was running about 15 minutes late and knew that my late running would make no difference to me.  I would have to complete the journey, which being subsidised by various local councils, had to be run to ensure the company received the subsidies concerned.  It occurred to me that if the Lothian Buses in front of me were running late they would merely be “turned short” at some point so that they could get back on schedule. This would take the pressure off their drivers whom I was convinced were on an easier number than I was for almost £2.50 per hour more than I was earning.
I began to think that I could earn just as much working 3 days for Lothian Buses than what I could get working 4 or 5 days in the Borders.  The problem was that I lived about 1 ½ hours commuting distance from Edinburgh and some of the shifts would almost certainly be of 12 hours duration. I did a few calculations and worked out that I may be better going part-time in the city. I would lose out a little, but decided to give it a go nevertheless.
I telephoned Lothian Buses and enquired about part-time working. Their personnel office advised me that they were not really into part-time but they would see what they could arrange. I duly completed an application form and was pleased to receive a telephone call a few days later. Yes, they could offer me a day shift job for three days per week, subject to my passing their entrance exam and driving assessment.  I would be working out of Central Garage on the Single Deck rota. Lothian Buses has separate rotas for single and double deck bus drivers, with double deck drivers being classed as a “promotion” with enhanced pay rates.
I arrived in Edinburgh about an hour early for the appointment and went to get some lunch locally. I had lived in Edinburgh for some 9 years, but would have to say that they were not the happiest years of my life, and I soon began to think that perhaps I was about to make a big mistake.
I called at the city’s Longstone Garage for my appointment and was left standing outside the office to await the arrival of the senior driving school instructor. I was a bit overwhelmed by the number of notices and instructions to drivers posted on the walls, a fair percentage of which threatened the drivers with disciplinary action if they failed to obey the instructions concerned.
The main man eventually appeared and I entered his office with some trepidation.  I passed the necessary exam and drugs screening test and was invited to go for my driving assessment in one of their training fleet Leyland Olympian double deckers. To the uninitiated the Olympian has a very light accelerator pedal coupled with the rather unforgiving “Leyland” brake.  Basically, the bus requires to be driven rather differently to those with which I am accustomed, and therefore takes a few minutes for the driver to become familiar with.

I was taken on a fairly long “test” route and disgraced myself at a staggered crossroads by turning across the path of a driver approaching me at the crossroads.  I was totally unfamiliar with the location, but nevertheless knew that I was in the wrong the moment I had started the manoeuvre.    I stopped the bus smoothly without much fuss, but realised I had “blown it” at that point.
Also, in the Scottish Borders the council have made several bus stops with raised kerbs to facilitate the ease with which elderly or disabled passengers can board or alight from buses. We are advised to “eliminate the gap”, but when I did that in Edinburgh I was advised that I should try and leave a foot between the bus and the kerb in case the nearside mirror struck a pedestrian. Fair comment I suppose, but our operating conditions are very different from theirs.
I returned to Longstone Garage where it was explained to me that my driving style was deemed to be too fast for city conditions. That was the end of my application and I was not even afforded an interview.  I was advised to wait 6 months and re-apply, with the proviso that it would be beneficial for me to book myself into their driving school in my own time so that they could slow me down! Mirror checks, or lack of them, appeared to be a concern, and I would have to defer to the knowledge and experience of their instructor on that score. Needless to say, I will not be applying to Lothian Buses in the future.
2 years of driving express buses in and out of Edinburgh had caused me to adopt a driving style that was deemed to be unsuitable for city work, and I would have to concede that I had given a fairly dismal performance in a bus that I simply could not get to grips with in the time required.  Some of my colleagues were amazed at my failure as they had travelled “passenger” with me on various occasions and had concurred that I was definitely not the worst driver they had ever experienced.
I would have to admit that I am of a fairly nervous disposition and I’ll either be alright or all wrong under test conditions.  I was obviously in the latter mode on the day concerned!
The irony of it all is that, one week before my failure at Lothian Buses, I had had one of our “Mystery travellers” on my bus, and he had endorsed his experience as “a quality, comfortable, and confident drive”.  I wish I could have taken his report and waved it in the face of Lothian Buses instructor.
Therefore, I am still slogging it out in the Scottish Borders in the knowledge that I can drive a bus to an acceptable standard, whether on Hawick Town Services or on the “main road” between Edinburgh and Carlisle. I have only had one platform incident in over 2 years driving, and that was caused by a drunk male falling. He reached out for a grab rail prior to alighting and discovered that a Volvo B7 coach doesn’t have one at the front bulkhead on account of the wheelchair facility!
Lothian Buses may not appreciate my driving style, but I would have to say that I am not particularly keen on the techniques employed by some of their drivers either.
Pay and conditions have improved of late and it appears that I was obviously meant to be an “SMT” man, despite whatever livery or company logo today’s buses may show.  I now take pride in the fact that I still work out of a “Scottish Omnibuses” office and depot. (We still have an old S.O.L. mirror in the office-definitely not for sale on Ebay!) The old days may have gone forever, but I still consider that I am giving service to the public, in the same manner as the drivers did in the old SMT, Ribble,Western SMT, and United Automobile Services days.


Copyright © 2008 John Walker


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