As London grinds to a halt due to the latest tube strike, Joe Ellison argues why we should spare a thought for the bus drivers
Picture the scene: a flurry of limbs grapple in a ferocious bid to pile onto an already overcrowded bus; grown men are reduced to childhood shoving tactics while the lucky few who get seats on the top deck can't help but feel bad about the plight of those poor souls outside, left behind for all eternity. Well, until the next 159 turns up anyway.
Yes, if you live in London, you’ll know the city is once again in the grip of a tube strike, plunging everything into chaos for a solid 24hrs.
Whizzing the lifeblood of this metropolis though steel and concrete arteries, the tube is essentially the heart of the capital during rush hour, and when this stops beating, it makes everybody understandably peeved. But if the ineptitude and inaction of unions and tube bosses to meet in a room and thrash something out has made pariahs of London Underground staff, it should certainly make martyrs of bus drivers.
Make no mistake, the infrastructure of this fair city is already creaking under the weight of a weighty populous. Take one vital component of public transport away and the rest have to bear the brunt. Enter the bus drivers, whose daily passenger total in the capital is already 6m, double that of the Underground, tasked with ferrying marooned office workers and dampened tourists to safety.
Roughly 2.3bn journeys are made on buses in London each year. An almighty number, more than all the UK bus journeys put together. Who knows, you could be reading this on a bus right now. One statistic you’d do well to ignore, however, is that of the tube strike’s projected loss to the economy (no doubt calculated by one financial bod mashing their fist into a keyboard), because, as most Londoners would attest, the average man on the street just wants to get to and from work safely and on time.
Bus staff aren't immune to striking themselves, of course, even staging two walk-outs this year. Though it is worth noting that until 2012, they hadn't seen industrial action since 1986 - little wonder they’ve started to make a stand when their working conditions are so frequently overshadowed by those of London Underground staff.
It's not easy being a bus driver in London at the best of times. Being cocooned in a steel contraption, staring at gridlocked roads and regularly faced with a sea of apathetic, furrow-browsed passengers can’t be healthy for anyone. Compare this then, with the near anonymity enjoyed by Underground station staff, often found hunting in packs, only occasionally mingling with passengers on a platform. Or tube drivers, who, aside from the odd blast of a Tannoy and some guff about leaning on doors, don't converse with passengers at all, leaving the onus of crowd easing to the public themselves (take a bow "Can you move down, please?" lady).
Sadly, bus drivers don't have that luxury. They can't afford to be faceless. Armed with a radio and an indifference to cash payment, these men and women are consistently at the forefront of the travel battle, keeping chaos from spilling over at all times. For the six years I've lived in London I’ve probably seen more potential punch-ups quashed and simmered down by bus divers then I have bouncers outside West End nightclubs. And just try asking these transport workers for sympathy about the ‘night tube’ – these people have driven night buses. Night buses! We can only imagine the horror they’ve seen: “You don’t know what it’s like, man, you weren’t there."
You could even call the role of the London bus driver a thankless task, and for the most part, you'd be right. As a man originally from Merseyside, where, like most places outside London, buses are designed with exits at the front, I'm used to acknowledging and thanking my bus driver as I alight. In case you’re wondering I always go for the classic line, 'cheers, mate', even if occasionally I realise far too late that the driver is a woman and I’m left reeling from a horrifying error. But I digress: due to bendy buses and the like, I'm rarely able to thank the people who drop me off close close to my flat.
So I implore you, for this day of all days, give your bus driver a nod, a smile, a gesture of appreciation, just something they can use to get through the busiest day of their working life. They deserve it.
Hail to the bus driver.
Follow Joe Ellison on Twitter: @ChevyChased