Friday 15 March 2024

Why We Can’t Have a Green Economy Without Well-Paid Bus Drivers

This article was first written in November 2023, commissioned by a publication to discuss the connection between the Go North East bus strike and a sustainable economy. In the end it wasn’t published due to the strike ending earlier than expected (which is a win!). Although the strike ended some issues resolved – including and importantly a backdated pay rise for bus drivers – there are still larger systemic issues existing. For this piece I went down to my local picket line and talked with some amazing workers. They were so open to discussion, sharing their experiences, hearing mine and sharing ideas for change. It’s those guys who know how to make transport work for everyone, not the people at the top.


All names have been changed for anonymity.

Workers in this image gave their permission to be photographed. They are not the workers quoted in this piece.



We all know the feeling of waiting on the side of the road in the freezing cold for a bus that should have turned up 20 minutes ago. Checking your watch, late for work, late to meet a friend. It would have been so much easier if we’d driven, got a lift, or even walked. But that’s not possible for so many of us. Maybe we can’t afford a car, can’t drive, or have disabilities that mean public transport is our only option.


Our public transport system - whether bus, rail, tube or local metro networks– is crumbling. You only have to look at the extortionate prices of train tickets, unreliable and cancelled services, and seemingly constant strikes to see that. This is not only damaging to the day-to-day lives of ordinary people, but is also a huge barrier to a truly sustainable economy.


From October to early December 2023, more than 1,300 bus drivers operating Go North East routes have been on indefinite strike over pay and working conditions. The strike has brought the North East to a standstill and prompted questions over the state of our public services and the treatment of the North East in comparison to other areas of the country. I live in Gateshead and work at a pub in the East End of Newcastle. Since I moved to Gateshead, I’ve been reliant on the buses getting me to and from work, often leaving much earlier than should be necessary to compensate for late or missing buses to make sure I get to work on time. During the strike, I cycled as much as I could, walked, or used the metro and taxis when that’s not possible. It was frustrating but is manageable. However, for many people further away from the city and in more rural areas, the lack of buses left them isolated.


If anything, the level of disruption caused by this strike proves how important bus drivers and other public transport workers are to our daily lives. During lockdown, bus drivers were classed as ‘key workers’ and now, according to Andrew, a striking driver, “many are reliant on food banks.” From being viewed as vital to our society, bus drivers have now come to be seen as dispensable. Thom Campion, councillor for Castle in Newcastle City Council and Transport Spokesperson for Newcastle Liberal Democrats, says that “almost a third of [his] ward is solely reliant on one Great North East service, [and the strike] has occupied a lot of [his] work as a local councillor.” He tells me that “residents in Newcastle Great Park only have one bus service and that was a Great North East service. [The strike] completely cut them off and has a huge impact.” However, Campion emphasises his support for the workers, highlighting how “public transport workers are the lifeblood of our network across both [Newcastle] and the country.” According to Campion, the immense disruption caused by this bus driver strike has led to residents having “a greater understanding of why the bus drivers are so important and why they should be supported.”


In order to achieve a truly green economy, we need a shift of focus from the individual to the collective. That means drastically reducing the number of cars on the road in favour of public transport that can carry large groups of people at a time. In other words, we need effective, reliable and cheap buses, trains, trams and metros. Simple, right? Barry, another striking bus driver, told me how, across the sector, the problems all come back to the same root cause: “It’s all the same, it’s all about the profit. We need a massive restructure of all public transport. It’s not just us, that’s why the train drivers are upset [too].” Chris, a colleague of Andrew and Barry, told me how the pursuit of profit has decimated bus services in the North East – “they have stripped all the meat from the bone.”


One of the reasons why Go North East bus drivers were striking was over pay. The striking drivers were paid £12.83 an hour, while bus drivers at Go North West are paid £15.53 an hour for the same job. Andrew said “it’s only a couple of pound here and there but a couple of pound on 40 hours a week is a substantial amount.” However, as much as the he would “like a decent pay rise”, for Andrew “money isn’t everything, it’s about the conditions” too. The end deal of the strike results in a rise to £14.27 per hour from January to July, rising to £14.84 from July and a 10.5% pay rise backdated from July 2023.


One of the most pressing issues bus drivers face is toilet breaks. Barry recalls that they “used to have a sitting time every time we got to a terminus, where you could get out and stretch your legs and [go to the toilet]” but these have been cut to reduce the time between bus stops, create a quicker service and increase profit. Additionally, to save money more bus stations have been closed or reduced and bus stops without facilities prioritised. This lack of ability to take toilet breaks is tougher on the increasing number of women drivers. The drivers I spoke to were all men, and said they “could nip behind the bus” to relieve themselves if they needed. This in itself is degrading and something they shouldn’t have to do. However, for people with periods and who can’t stand up to go to the toilet, even this option is not available – and it only gets worse if the workers are already disabled or have bowel issues. The drivers briefly suggested the lack of breaks or sitting time causes water infections and bowel problems.


After hours and hours on the road, with little breaks in the cold and often in the dark, bus drivers only have a minimum 8.5 hours between shifts, compared to the usual mandatory 11 hours. So, according to Cheis, “you could finish at midnight and be back in at 8:45am and that doesn’t include your travelling time.” If you live 30 minutes’ drive from the depot, you could have closer to 7.5 hours of so-called rest. In that time, you need to eat, sleep, check in with or take care of family and friends, do housework and allow for relaxation. As Chris put it: “I cannot go home, take my coat off and go to bed. I’ve got to unwind. There’s not time for that.” Sleep-deprived and burned out drivers ultimately leads to less safe journeys, at no fault of the drivers themselves. The combination of low pay and damaging working conditions has led to an exodus of bus drivers from the sector and meant difficulty recruiting. The shortage of drivers adds further to pressures with fewer buses on the roads.


Increased pressure is being added to drivers as the time between stops is being shortened and is taking a great mental toll on the drivers. This shortening of timetables means there is no time to wait for stragglers (remember that time the bus pulled away while you were running), there’s no time for regular safety checks of the bus, and there’s little time to assist disabled or elderly passengers, all because, as Andrew says, “there’s always the panic in [the driver’s] head of ‘I’m going to get wrong if I’m late, I don’t like to be late’.”


Time pressures also reduce the drivers’ capacity for another crucial part of their job: community care. Each of the drivers I spoke to had attended the funeral of a passenger. They share stories of regular passengers who use the buses “like clockwork” to go get a pint of milk from the shop. Bus drivers are sometimes the only other person that passenger might speak to that day. Drivers look out for school kids and young women making sure they get off safely. Drivers are the first port of call for those in danger or with medical issues. That’s “the other side of the job, the actual side of the job that we all do as drivers is looking after people,” Andrew tells me - “it’s never reflected by the hierarchy of the businesses cause all they want is the money. It’s more than just driving a bus.” A crucial part of bus drivers’ jobs is keeping us safe.


While some people may say that the strike is environmentally damaging by forcing more people to drive or use taxis (what about those of us who are cycling too?), however, strikes like these are necessary if we are going to achieve a sustainable public transport system in the long-term. People drive because there is no other option. Because buses are few and far between, because they don’t know when the buses will arrive. To make the sustainable economy we all know is desperately needed, we need more than just a few electric buses. We need, as Barry said, “a massive restructure of all public transport.” It’s striking bus drivers who are “trying to fight back by having people back on the [public] transport.”


If we had functioning public transport in all areas, including and especially in rural areas, cars could become obsolete. Bus drivers know this better than anyone else. “Even in Gateshead,” Chris shares, “if you live somewhere like Chopwell, where it’s pretty rural, there’s next to no bus services because it’s not bringing in profit.” Similarly, in places like Jarrow and Hebburn elsewhere in South Tyneside, there used to be “nine bus services [but] now has only got two because the heavy industry isn’t there [anymore] but people are still there. They close the shipyards down and build houses, surely [the residents] need to be travelling [to work]. It’s been a knock on effect from quite a few years.” As Andrew says, “if you want people to travel on public transport you need to have that link working properly.” These transport links in the North East have been taken away with the shutdown of the region’s heavy industry. The needs of the people left behind have been forgotten. These areas deprived of public transport also have high levels of poverty. For instance, in Jarrow 34.3 per cent of children are living in poverty. The reason rural communities are struggling as a result of the strike is not because of the bus drivers, but because private transport companies like Go North East don’t see them as profitable enough to bother with – as a consequence, communities are left isolated.


The drivers tell me how Go North East “under-estimates how much support the public have for [the strike]. Because they’ve realised we’re fed up with the way [the bus network’s] being run [too]. They know how bad it is when that bus doesn’t turn up, the reason the bus doesn’t turn up is because they can’t get drivers because they’re not paying a good enough wage to keep drivers.” Andrew believes that “the travelling public are on [their] side because they don’t want change. People don’t like change. They want a bus that comes every day at that [same] time.” Ben, 24 from Sunderland, echoes those sentiments. He says “most of the people [he’s] spoken to feel similarly in terms of siding with the drivers on this. We interact with them in our daily lives and can relate to them more than Go North East as a faceless company in charge. The frustration [of late and cancelled bus services] is definitely directed at the company.”


Ultimately, we need a public transport system that is sustainable for both our communities and our planet. Regular, reliable bus services that we can count on to get us safely where we need to go without requiring a car. A world with few cars, cheap and reliable buses driven by people who are well-rested, happy and are able to chat and even wait for you when you’re running late is not a fanciful dream. It’s a reality that is entirely within our reach. However, it’s only possible when workers have decent pay and working conditions. Without the worker, there is no public transport system at all.


This blog has been neglected somewhat while I completed my Master’s, but now I have so many ideas for blog posts I would love to share with you and I hope to post more regularly in 2024. To help me have more time to spend on this blog, it would be amazing if you could buy me a cuppa or two to keep me going! It would mean the world to have your support and would also help keep my cat warm. 

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