Monday, 1 October 2012
Taking The Bus Driver Challenge!
When National Express West Midlands asked if I'd like to try my hand at driving a bus, what was I to say?
I write about them, monitor them, ride them endlessly, take pictures of them, read about them.....but DRIVE one?
There were 4 brave souls from Bus Users UK who were up for the challenge. After a quick briefing at NXWM's training centre at Walsall Garage, we were taken out into the large training area, marked out with various cones and kerb-style mock ups. Just as well it was large - there were other trainees going through their paces, and whilst they were doing it for real, we all felt slightly apprehensive about getting behind the wheel!
Our Instructor team split us into 2 pairs. We had a double decker Metrobus and an ex National Express Volvo coach as our vehicles.
Me and my partner had the Metrobus first. I recognised this as the former "Timesaver" 2951 - a bus I'm sure I've ridden on in much younger days.
"Who's going first?" shouted the Instructor. It appeared that I had no choice in the matter!
I had the course explained to me - a bit like a bus version of an obstacle course - littered with cones in all sorts of pretty shapes and sizes. Foot on brake, select "drive", handbrake off, then, like my own automatic car, releasing the footbrake, the classic 80s decker rolled into action.
I gently touched the accelerator and that familiar Metrobus roar appeared as I gingerly made my way towards the first "challenge" - the mock up kerb.
"Don't forget the wheels are behind you", reminded the Instructor, as I edged towards my fictitious kerb, with possibly fictitious passengers.
I didn't do too badly "for a first attempt", apparently, (although I think the Instructor was possibly being kind), as I headed towards challenge number 2 - the chicane.
Weaving in and out of cones (without mangling them in the back wheels) was completed (without any mangling), and then a diagonal run (avoiding other trainees in their large white steeds) leading to a full left-hand lock, bringing me to challenge number 3 - lining up the back wheels in between two cones.
"About 6 inches out" said the Instructor. Hey, what's 6 inches amongst friends?!
The final challenge was the scariest! 2 lines of cones tapering in to 2 final large cones either side of the vehicle, which were positioned just about wide enough to get the bus through. The secret was to watch the right -hand mirror, get the bus dead straight - and then don't move the steering wheel! Having been hugely tempted to pull the wheel all over the place, I listened intently to the Instructor's advice - and I managed to get through - without any injured cones!
We swapped teams, Instructors and vehicles - now I was behind the wheel of the Volvo coach. The brakes certainly worked as I applied them for the first time! We repeated the assault course in our new vehicles and then the big test - our Instructor was going to mark us! Aaarrrggghhh!! No advice, no comments, nothing.
Round the course one more time, trundling with the coach at no more than 10mph - the poor vehicle had once had the prestige of gliding down the motorway but now she had me - proving that the brakes very much worked every few moments!
I managed to squeeze the coach through the tiny tapered cone arrangement one more time and spun her round, parking her next to the Metrobus which contained our other pairing.
The moment of truth was very much like an X-Factor moment and in classic 3-2-1 countdown - I'd won with the scores on the doors, to raucous laughter and cheesy grins! We'd all had a lot of fun!
Apart from a hugely enjoyable afternoon testing our skills behind the wheels of our mighty vehicles, what had we learnt?
Well, in much the same way that I learnt to drive the Stourbridge Shuttle Class 139 Railcar, I can tell you that it is a lot more challenging than it looks! The real trainees face lots of theory tests and numerous practical ones before they can be let out onto the streets. It may look relatively easy but it requires huge amounts of concentration at all times - and it's very different to driving a car!
Catching a bus is something most people don't really think about - and shouldn't have to. But driving such a large vehicle, in traffic, thinking not only about what you're doing, but the actions of others, whilst having up to 70+ people behind you is a huge, continuous responsibility.
Apart from having a hugely enjoyable and fun afternoon, my "driver experience" has helped me to appreciate what skills bus drivers have and what an excellent job they do every day across the highways and byways of our country.
Thanks to National Express West Midlands and the Training School at Walsall Garage for a fascinating afternoon.