Changes to bus services cover the pages of The News on a regular basis. But what about the drivers who take people to their destinations? Reporter Ben Fishwick spent a morning with them on the routes to find out.
At 5.30am dozens of buses are tightly parked inches apart so they can all fit in a depot – minutes later the place is all but deserted as one-by-one the drivers hit the road.
As they head out for their first pick-ups they know that thousands of people rely on First Bus services to get to and from work, school, medical appointments and social events.
Any change to a route provokes a huge outcry and at least one petition demanding that changes be reversed.
But what about the 200-odd drivers based at the Hoeford depot in Fareham themselves? What challenges do they face each day on the routes?
The News joined drivers one Wednesday morning to find out.
Robert Choros moved to this country from Poland in 2004 and trained as a driver two years later.
The 37-year-old, of Rowner, clocks in at 5.37am ready to get going – and even at that time he is chirpy.
‘I love driving – I used to go out with my neighbour who was a driver in the school holidays,’ he says.
‘I used to spend five days a week on the bus with him.
‘I wanted to drive a bus when I was young but the driving licence was expensive.
‘When I came here I had the chance to be a bus driver.’
Robert expertly checks his Eclipse bus for damage as he is about to transport hundreds of passengers over the course of his shift.
With no problems found he is off out the depot and on the road to start the first of six trips he will make between Fareham and Gosport over the course of the morning.
‘Every day is different, sometimes it’s really nice, sometimes it’s difficult,’ he says.
‘The more difficult driving is on the school days. On the school holidays it’s quiet.’
But driving safely is no easy task when faced with dozens of difficulties out on the road.
It makes for a tough day when he is tackling narrow roads lined with parked cars such as in Gosport’s Stoke Road, to not being able to see what is behind the bus for a good few feet, and the inadequate bus stops that he cannot stop at.
Out on the road the first commuters of the morning are understandably bleary-eyed after waking up and jumping on a bus to go to work.
But thankfully Robert is eagle-eyed as everything he does in the bus is being tracked by a black box – similar to those fitted in some cars for insurance purposes.
Drivers are told their scores regularly and helped to improve if needed.
Back in the control room at Hoeford, a team is tracking all buses in real time, ready to handle any problems that may arise, including breakdowns and sickness.
Operation manager Andy Anderson says: ‘Everything is controlled from this office with real-time information.
‘With that we can follow the driver right throughout the day.’
He added if a driver calls in sick then it’s the control room staff’s job to find a replacement driver or reorganise the service.
‘It’s their job to get that service covered to get people to work and school,’ he says.
Any problems with the buses are sorted out by a team of engineers that work overnight.
Another driver, Dave McVie, drives a bus for most of the week.
He is also an employee director and works with staff to feed back to the firm’s bosses.
Dave started at the company in 2008 after several different careers and has now become the fount of all bus knowledge.
‘I drive a bus four days a week and no day is the same as the day before,’ he says.
‘It’s an entirely different day every time you take them out.
‘You get to know your regular passengers, you might not know them by name but you certainly know and expect them to be there at a certain stop and time.
‘You know where they’re going before they ask for a ticket. Sometimes you miss them when they’re not there.’
A particular bug-bear for Dave and fellow drivers are people who leave their cars, vans or delivery drivers blocking bus stops – forcing them to pull over in places where they should not.
A lot of stops in the area also need upgrading to move metal posts out of the way as they are too close to the bus wing mirrors.
Dave adds: ‘You might think that bus stops are all the same but they’re not,’ he says.
‘There’s always something happening in the cab. We have to be aware – every bus stop has its own nuances.’
It is fair to say that Dave is never bored by his job.
Sitting on the bus as Robert makes another stop he adds: ‘Out of those big front windows it’s a different experience every day.
‘You see examples of excellence, people being polite to one another, and you see the exact opposite sometimes.’
With that Robert returns to Fareham bus station in Hartlands Road and Dave hops on to another bus to get a lift back to the depot.
Between them the pair will carry thousands more passengers to their destinations in their careers.
Bus services are always in The News but just one morning with the drivers and depot staff has revealed what they do to make sure passengers get from A to B.
It may seem like a simple straightforward job but there are many stop-offs on the way to make sure they get there.
Eyes and ears on the road
YOU might not think of buses when it comes to solving crime or helping find a missing person.
But with drivers out and about and cameras recording the road from each side of the bus, they can be an excellent tool to help police.
And the drivers and firm are only too happy to help .
‘One of our secrets is that we find missing people,’ explains driver and bus guru Dave McVie who himself once helped find a missing person.
‘Around once or twice a week we get called but sometimes we go without any.
‘We’ll get a phone call from police control saying so-and-so is missing.
‘We’ve got 100 buses on the road and our drivers.
‘We get the description and frequently these people are elderly, perhaps their memory is not as good.
‘They have a bus pass on them – they’re on my bus and then we’ve found them.
‘I found someone myself two years ago.
‘It’s not as unusual as you might think.
‘They do call us and ask for help.’
All the buses – including the Eclipse buses serving the E1 and E2 routes and the new £1m 9/9A fleet – have cameras pointing out to the road.
It means that the firm can record any incidents but also help police out if they happen to record any criminal incident.
Dave adds: ‘We’re not involved in very many incidents, as buses don’t get involved in them.
‘But we’re covered with evidence.’
NOT anyone can get behind the wheel of a bus.
But when you do, you even get a special card – called a driver qualification card – and if a driver does not have it on them then they cannot drive.
To get to that point drivers undergo a rigorous but short training scheme, which First Bus has just spent £250,000 on improving.
Last month 30 new drivers did the new 25-day course.
They had to complete three days of intensive customer training as part of it.
And drivers are now being put in a cab behind the wheel of a bus for 30 per cent longer than in the previous courses run by the company.
They are even taught how to deal with conflict and security issues – and to help passengers with disabilities.
Drivers also have checks on their manoeuvres to make sure their skills are top notch before going out on the road.
Once drivers are fully trained every movement on the bus is recorded.
If they brake harshly or swerve, a black box-type machine records the data.
That is all fed back to the depot where a manager can check up on them.
Glenn Jones is a staff manager at Hoeford bus depot in Fareham.
He said: ‘It’s not bringing people up, it’s not about saying your driving is not very good.
‘It’s a tool. It’s there to help drivers maintain a good driving standard.’
Keeping these safe standards goes some way to proving that drivers do have a sense of responsibility – they are aware many passengers rely on buses every day.
‘We do take our safety very seriously,’ adds driver Dave McVie.
PASSENGERS are furious whenever there are changes to bus routes.
Many see the privately-run routes almost as a public service.
But often the companies are forced to axe a route if it becomes unprofitable, as Sean Woodward executive member for transport at Hampshire County Council explains.
‘In 1985 bus services everywhere in England except London were deregulated,’ he said.
‘The act prohibited companies from making a loss on any journey – any bus service which becomes unprofitable for any reason.’
Councillor Woodward said that a problem for companies such as First Bus is that they see little return from passengers who have free bus pass.
It means a bus that is full could actually be bringing in little cash for the firm.
Local government budget cuts also means there is less cash available to subsidise routes.
‘I need to make savings in the bus subsidy budgets,’ he added.