Socialist Worker

Bus worker speaks out—all the controllers say is, 'Why are you late?'

Strikes by London bus drivers have brought the state of the capital’s transport service to the fore. Mostafa, a driver, spoke to Raymie Kiernan about the pressures of work

Issue No. 2437

London buses stranded by last week’s strike

London buses stranded by last week’s strike (Pic: Socialist Worker)


Most people think driving a bus must be stressful, but have little idea of the unrelenting pressure put on drivers. 

Bus driver Mostafa told Socialist Worker, “The controlers talk down to the drivers like we don’t exist. They don’t understand what is going on.

“We get harassed. All they see is that buses are running close together. Every driver’s cab has an ‘ibus’ screen that shows how close their bus is to the one in front of them.”

The pressure comes from the top. Mostafa points out, “Transport for London’s (TfL) tendering process for contracts is not about providing a proper service to the public.

“It’s all about mileage. The companies want to show TfL that the service is running perfectly to avoid getting penalised. They force drivers to do more than what their duties require them to do.” 

That makes an already stressful job worse. Mostafa said, “We’ve got a bus full of passengers, while we are dealing with the traffic on the roads. 

Rush

“We’ve got pensioners and people rushing to work. We have to watch out for cyclists. Disabled passengers and older people are a priority, and we have too make sure we give them the time to sit down.

“But the controllers don’t want to listen to any of that. All they say is, ‘Why are you late?’.

“Buses are supposed to have an eight-minute gap between them. If one is late they tell us we have to do the mileage and complete the route. In the past the bus would just be turned around. 

“They make you finish late, which can sometimes be up to one hour after your proper end time. But we have lives and want to go home,” Mostafa explained. 

“All the profit that they make is not down to them. It’s down to the poor people driving the bus daily—that appreciation is not there.

“If they decide not to turn up to work, the buses would still go out. But if the driver doesn’t turn up for work, the bus isn’t going to move.

“This is the power of the bus drivers.”


Cuts and privatisation cause a rotten bus service  

Half of all English local authorities cut funding for bus services in the last year—and have slashed £44 million and 2,000 bus routes since 2010. 

The Campaign for Better Transport released the research the day before the London bus strike last week. It says bus services are in crisis.

Two thirds of all public transport journeys are made by bus. But services in many areas are under threat as austerity bites. 

Councils subsidise unprofitable routes that private companies don’t want to run. Otherwise many communities would have no alternative public transport.

Labour argues the solution is “London-style transport powers” across the board to help “bring back the buses”. 

But London’s bus system is far from perfect. There are around six million passenger journeys a day.

Transport for London (TfL), headed up by Tory mayor Boris Johnson, regulates the buses. 

It procures contracts and manages the network of nearly 700 bus routes operated by 18 private companies. 

Bus operators compete for exclusive contracts for routes and then receive an income from TfL, with bonuses and deductions made for good and poor performance. 

TfL takes the revenue from fares. So to turn a profit, companies reduce costs. 

On the surface this system has been a success. London’s bus usage grew by a third between 2004/5 and 2012/13, compared to a six percent drop in other English metropolitan areas. Fares are also better in London. 

But at a closer look the picture is less rosy. Performance statistics determine bonuses or losses for the companies.

The pressure from the regulator is passed on down the chain of management into the bus garages.

This is why bus controllers scrutinise driving times and the time gap between buses. The expectations on drivers to deliver on this are high, adding pressure on to what’s already a stressful job.

The competition for routes has meant a continual driving down of pay rates as bosses cut costs to bid for contracts.

London’s drivers are on 80 different pay rates. The number of what TfL calls “collisions”, accidents, serious injuries and deaths or are on the increase.


We pay for it—we should run it

Transport for London (TfL) funds the private bus companies. Since it’s already paying, why doesn’t it run the service and reinvest the profit into publicly run transport? 

The main reason is an ideological commitment to the market. There’s plenty of money in TfL’s coffers. 

Equal pay could easily be funded out of the £170 million profit the bus companies have made in their latest accounts.

TfL could intervene on the drivers’ side.  But Tory Mayor of London Boris Johnson is a free market ideologue, who’s opposed to strikes and wants to restrict workers’ rights severely. 

In his view, companies should be free to make skyrocketing profits at the public’s expense, while squeezing bus drivers’ pay rates.

What London needs is a fully integrated transport network, which is democratically accountable to workers and users. It should not be run for the profits of the bus companies. 

The buses should be publicly owned. That would make it a more efficient and better serviceand would improve the pay and conditions of workers. 


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