I’ve only ever driven two cars: a tiny Vauxhall Corsa and a negligible Fiat 126. Now I’m sat behind the wheel of a 13 ton double-decker.
“Take the handbrake off, and slowly raise your foot.”
This was it. My one-hour career as a bus driver was underway.
Behind the wheel
I’d been invited to Camberwell Bus Garage by the Go-Ahead Group, one of the major bus operators in London. Go-Ahead has an ambitious programme to recruit 1,000 new apprentices by the end of the year. Could I make the cut?
My first three seconds of motion are bewildering. All London buses are automatic, and I have never driven an automatic vehicle before. The bus moves forward as the brake is released. It’s enough to fluster this rookie driver — and that’s before we get to the 10 metres of omnibus trailing behind my seat.
The befuddlement is short-lived. Once I have the hang of the transmission, these beasts are a joy to drive. I take my first corner with ease. The secret is to wait until your body is level with the object you want to turn past, and only then move the wheel. In contrast to the cliched oil tanker, the double-decker’s turning circle is tight as a button. I hardly need to do a thing. The bus continues on auto at a steady 5 mph, no brakes or gas necessary.
After a few turns around the yard, I’m asked to manoeuvre into the garage itself. This takes a little more concentration. Other vehicles and pedestrians cross my path. I’m led to a dead-end. This is where the fun begins. Can I do something that most drivers don’t need to tackle on-route: perform a three-point turn and drive out again?
Yes, and it’s not that hard. The main challenge is to understand the length of the vehicle. It’s not clear from the mirrors exactly how close I am to the parked bus behind. In my tiny Corsa, I can practically stick my hand out the window and touch the vehicle behind. Here, in my ridiculously stretched box, it feels like I need to take the curvature of the Earth into account. But I cope.
As I swing forward again, it seems I’ve fluffed it. We curve out on full lock, but I’m going to clip the bus to my front-left. “Keep going; don’t worry,” says my instructor. And he’s right. You know that thing when you’re sat on the top deck and you think ‘no way is the driver going to make that corner’? Well it’s the same in the driver’s seat. What looks like a certain collision is avoided by the bus’s ability to turn on an Oyster-tapped sixpence.
We’re not going out on the roads today, for which I am grateful. The bus might be easy to manoeuvre, but I’m not yet ready to deal with all the random hazards of Camberwell’s streets. New recruits are often treated to this baptism of fire. “It’s mostly bus lanes, so it’s not that scary,” my instructor explains.
Fancy a go yourself?
Anyone with a UK licence (held for at least two years) can learn to drive a double-decker. You just need to apply for a Category D entitlement, the provisional licence for driving these big beasts.
Go-Ahead’s apprenticeship scheme runs out of a new recruitment and training academy, bolted on to Camberwell Bus Garage. Recruits get a heady mix of classroom lessons and driving experience. The course lasts between 12 and 36 months, depending on your flexibility. Apprentices receive a salary (earn as you learn), and also get a free transport pass for all TfL services.
I can’t say I’ll be swapping the desk job for a driver’s cab anytime soon, but my experience behind the wheel has given me a newfound appreciation for the skills involved. If bus driving sounds like it might be for you, then you can find more details about the apprenticeship scheme on Go-Ahead’s site.