Sunday 10 April 2016

In Defence Of Drivers

There are some who say drivers, particularly train drivers are overpaid. I do not subscribe to that theory. I remember when I was doing my conductor training being staggered just how many rules and procedures I had to learn. Many of these procedures I would never have to use but I had to know them. What to do if someone fell under the train, if I found a door open, where to lay detonators for line protection and exceptions to those rules, emergency coupling and uncoupling, procedures for getting current turned off etc etc. Even where braking points on a line were so I could apply the emergency break if required. For drivers you can quadruple that at least. The rule book is immense.

The same applies to bus drivers. There are many things a driver has to have stored in his brain that can be retrieved in an instant. Oh and of course there's the main thing people forget. These guys and gals have our lives in their hands day in day out. Over the last couple of weeks this has been brought home in a number of incidences.

The week before last a bus driver was making his way back to the depot after an early morning contract run. He was minding his own business, sticking to the speed limit when a van ploughs into him at 70mph. The front of the bus is destroyed but mercifully the bus driver was thrown clear and was not seriously injured.

The aftermath of the crash on the A12 at Wrentham        pic (c) Ipswichstar
I recall riding in the front cab of a train with a driver mate of mine when he suddenly went into meltdown. A tractor was crossing the line what I thought was miles in front of us. However my mate said had the tractor stalled while crossing there is no way he could have stopped the train. Today, near Thetford a train traveling at speed with 135 people on board hit a tractor on an unmanned crossing. When you see the front of the train it is a miracle the driver was not seriously injured or worse.

The front of the Greater Anglia train after hitting the tractor
Last week I was traveling on a bus. A perfectly normal journey until the bus overtook a couple of cyclists. A mother with a baby on the back riding behind her son who looked about 8. Without any indication the boy suddenly veered across the road in front of the bus. It was one of those occasions time stood still. As fast as the bus swerved the boy seemed to come across even more. But in some of the best driving I have ever witnessed the driver managed to miss the boy and also avoided putting the bus head first into a tree. I have replayed the incident in my mind numerous times and still don't know how that lad didn't end up under the bus. As it happened no one was hurt, no damage to anything, a couple of very scared but relieved souls and a massive dose of respect to the driver who pulled out skills thankfully seldom needed in an instant.

But it's not only humans who test the skills of our drivers, but Mother Nature does her best too. I've spent a lot of the day watching from the safety of my settee in awe as wave after wave smashed into the sea wall at Dawlish in the most spectacular style. I can only try to imagine what it must feel like to be in charge of a train seeing that heaving mass of water making a beeline for your head. Must need nerves of steel. I took this screenshot from the outstanding Dawlish Beach San Remo cam earlier.

A Great Western class 142 getting a soaking at Dawlish
I'm putting this one up purely because I love it and Twitter wouldn't upload it!

GWR HST at Dawlish getting a wash
Our drivers have to go to work not knowing if today is the day someone jumps in front of their train, or they're going to be sworn at, have a kid on a bike veer in front of them, have a passenger taken ill on their bus, or have to drive the train through 20ft waves. They are responsible for our safety constantly. On top of that we expect them to be friendly, accept having pictures taken with a toot or a wave, take everything in their stride and be unaffected by everything thrown at them. So give our drivers a break. I personally think they earn every penny they get, and in bus driver's case a whole lot more.


  1. Andrew Kleissner11 April 2016 at 07:37

    I read somewhere that London Underground drivers in particular encounter the virtual certainty that someone will jump under their train at some point in their career. They are, I believe, specially trained to look out for "jumpers" but, despite the good brakes of tube trains, there is little they can do unless the person ends up in the so-called "suicide pit" under the train. So it's a daily worry.

    At night train drivers also have to simply know where they are in the dark and brake at the appropriate points. Admittedly there is more street lighting (and the like) around than there used to be: it must have been horrendous a century ago. I remember that there was a bad crash at Morpeth in around 1970 where the driver didn't slow down for a speed restriction: after that they put in AWS magnets at such spots. (At least it was nothing like as bad as that crash in Spain a couple of years ago).

    Bus drivers of course have to face the difficulty of dealing with passengers which, I'm sure, poses its own stress. I remember an Ipswich driver a few years ago who had a most unfortunate (and undeserved) spat with a lady with a buggy. She was so upset that she went off-route and got stuck in a narrow street she should never have been in! I had never seen the driver before; and - more to the point - I never saw her again, so presume that she resigned/was sacked as a consequence.

  2. A very good piece Steve. Whilst I do hold a PSV licence, my driving shifts have been few and far between as I worked in the schedules office, but was surrounded by driving staff as I always had an "open door" policy.

    Noisy, boisterous and leg-pulling is probably the best way to describe the majority of drivers in the canteen, the paying-in/locker room, and even (perhaps more so) at the Traffic Office (Inspector's) window, away from public gaze. But that is the coping mechanism, the thing that keeps most of them doing a professional job out on the road.

    One morning will always stick in my mind, though. It was not long after Great Western Trains (as it was then) had joined First Group, and the staff at Bath felt a family bond to the railway as it runs through the centre of the city, is next to the bus station and the depot and many a train driver had given a supportive toot to a bus depot picket line during a dispute which had not long passed.

    Then there was the collision at Ladbroke Grove, and a driving colleague had lost his life. He might have been driving a train, but just like those bus drivers at Bath he'd left home early in the morning, prepared his "vehicle", run empty to the terminus, and was taking his customers to work. But unlike the bus drivers, that train driver would never go home, and there was the stark realisation that that could be any of them, on any working day.

    That day there was no joking and leg-pulling upstairs at the bus station, the "earlies" booked off in subdued mood, to be replaced by those on "lates" similarly quiet. Any of them, on any day....

  3. Couple of Essex examples too: the driver out a country road on Mersea Island last year who miraculously survived though horrifically injured (and is now on the mend thanks to the incredible work of the emergency services), when an unsecured steam tractor engine on a trailer fell off and smashed into his bus cab. The trailer had travelled from the Yarmouth area, and it just makes you think what is travelling on our roads! And earlier this week a middle-aged pedestrian died in hospital after being hit by a bus in the contorted town centre streets of Colchester. Even just walking the dog around my village it's incredible how close traffic and I have to get sometimes as we negotiate around each other. With everything that's going on in our modern world one momentary bit of inattention and ... I can just take a break, the professional drivers can't ...

    1. I think that bus driver@s reported comment when the emergency services arrived at that Mersea crash just about summed it all up for me:
      "Don't worry about me, I'm a gonna; just look after the passengers". They did however, and he wasn't. An amazing recovery, and richly deserved.

  4. Another excellent put together post. There are good and bad as in every other walk of life, but most of the drivers I have had in the past 25 years,have my respect. Nerves of steel,sharp reflexes,photographic memory,complete concentration and patience of a saint. On top of that,some will even spend the journey engaging in conversation. Even if I could drive,I would never be able to do their job. At times it must seem thankless.

  5. In a comment spree mood this evening, couldn't agree more. The drivers are highly skilled and are full of information they hope they don't need. I was once on a bus where a car suddenly pulled out in front of it. First reaction after the emergency stop on the part of the bus driver was to ask if all were ok.

    I have travelled on many buses and trains in this region, so a heartfelt thanks for all the journeys you drivers have taken me on.

    John D.