Life in the bus lane
Dublin Bus driver Colm Meaghar talks to Sam Cox about daily life on the road.
The mechanical snap-shut of the door, followed by a loud banging on the glass as a soaked passenger begs to be let in. The impassive bus driver sits in his impenetrable Plexiglas cab and journeys on. One or two onlookers take to their smartphones to let the world know of the gross injustice that has just taken place. They are glad knowing that they have helped to make tomorrow a fairer day.
Not quite so.
Trawling the Twitter feed, you begin to get the impression that the Dublin Bus fleet is run by bitter vultures, and that events like the one above are everyday occurrences. Drivers leaving passengers in the rain , shouting at confused tourists and reprimanding “awkward” customers. All of these, and more, seem to happen far too often, especially when compared to the stream of positivity that surrounds private bus companies. So why isn’t something being done, or are there other factors at play?
“We have two masters. One is the rules of the road, the law of the land. Two is the company policy: how you should, and shouldn’t behave.”
Colm Meaghar, 48, walks and talks like everybody’s friend. Chuckling with the barista over the good fortune of the Dublin Bus lottery winners, he takes his coffee and joins me with a solid handshake and broad smile. Having worked with the company for 21 years, and doubling as a Union representative for National Bus and Rail Union, he is eager to explain the apparent rudeness of the crew of Dublin Bus’ 968 vehicles.
Meaghar explains the conflict, “We have two masters. One is the rules of the road, the law of the land. Two is the company policy: how you should, and shouldn’t behave.” He emphasises that Dublin Bus run “a timetabled, scheduled service with traffic and conditions”. This, Colm says, leads to a high-stress, multi-dimensional job that many passengers can’t see from their seats. With the ease of posting criticism on Twitter, Facebook or making a simple phone call, drivers are increasingly having their performance critiqued publicly.
“There’s generally a reason behind every complaint,” says Colm. “Now, I’m not saying no complaint is justified, a lot of them are, but it doesn’t just come down to rudeness.” Obstructed bus stops, heavy traffic, passenger management and route diversions are just a few of the difficulties of managing the road while driving his bus. These add layers of stress of driving to keep passengers, and other road users safe. “If you consider the amount of time out on the road for a driver, for however many years, having a clean driving record is really impressive.”
And that’s just the driving.
“A lot of things a passenger would like you to do for them are in breach of a rule.” Carrying passengers safely is his first priority, but shades of grey often come into the job. Tendering fare while driving, staying on schedule and letting passengers off before their stop are just some difficulties. “If you open the door, and a motorcyclist or a bike comes along, and he falls, there are consequences. If he gets hurt, not only is there a sense of guilt, but you’ll be disciplined for it. You’re responsible for what seemed a simple, little good deed.”
“[The app is] so much better than anything we’ve had before, but the success of it relies on Central Control.”
If you delve into the Twitter feed and take a random day, you soon get a sense of what people like and dislike about the service. Of the 87 tweets on July 5 (compared to the 5 tweets of private coach service Swords Express), the vast majority of complaints are concerning late buses, particularly aimed at the Real Time app. With over 500,000 downloads and an average 3.9 rating, on the surface it appears to be a massive success.
“It’s so much better than anything we’ve had before, but the success of it relies on Central Control.” When a bus breaks down, or doesn’t leave its terminus, it will still appear on the real time app “counting down, 5,4,3,2,1,due… and then [there’s] no bus”. Unless Central Control manually updates the system, passengers are left looking at their phone, expecting the bus to come. While some are updated, according to Colm others are bound to slip through.
This leads to (justified) frustration which is often directed at the next driver on the route. Explaining the problem was caused by a broken engine doesn’t seem to help much, either. “You’re nearly as well telling them, ‘Listen, the bus that was supposed to come, there was a bomb scare.’ And they’ll [be quicker to] accept that, because at least it’s a bit of gossip. They don’t want to hear it’s a mechanical failure.”
Another repeat offense is bus drivers leaving passengers at the bus stop. To Colm, this is one of the biggest difficulties. “You get familiar with these people. You want to carry them.” Depending on the model, a Dublin Bus can carry around 90 passengers. Allowing more onto a full bus would overload it, and present safety issues, placing the burden of personal judgement on the driver.
“Sometimes, you say ‘Squeeze on in there. We’ll get you to where you’re going’. To some passengers, they’re appreciative of that. To others, you’ve created a safety hazard.”
“It’s a tough job. We’re first out in the morning, and last home in the evening. We bring you to work, and home from your pint. […] If it were you in your job, would you be happy to take that abuse when you’re doing your best?”
So what effect do our complaints have? When a legitimate complaint is made, what is done to fix the issue? “Every single complaint has to be addressed.” Whether through social media, a written complaint or a phone call, every complaint concerning a driver must be addressed.
“If a complaint is generated, you’re given a copy of it and have to go to a meeting with your manager (generally on a Thursday). You’re entitled to bring a union rep, and you’ll go in and sit down and have a discussion. Get your side of the story, generate a verdict, and figure out whether to take disciplinary action.”
These actions include warnings, suspensions, being sent for “corrective training”, customer care focus courses and ultimately, dismissal. Even if a complaint is dismissed and no discipline is taken, it doesn’t end there.
“All complaints go on the record. And they do keep a tally, a scoresheet, which we see as unfair, because depending on the routes you work you’re more liable to complaints.” When looking to progress within the company, this can negatively affect a driver’s opportunity for promotion.
Interestingly, according to Colm, “anti-social” routes often have a much lower complaint rate than those of more socio-economically developed areas, and so are better for seeking advancement within the company.
“They call you a bollocks, and that’s enough for them.”
Ultimately, Colm would like people to see it from both sides. “It’s a tough job. We’re first out in the morning, and last home in the evening. We bring you to work, and home from your pint. Before you go on twitter and add to that, just think about what [they are] going through at the moment, and what are you putting to [their] stress. If it were you in your job, would you be happy to take that abuse when you’re doing your best?”