Bus Travel: Why I’m Not a Fan

broken down bus
broken down bus

Getting the bus for most people isn’t a problem, in fact for many it is an inevitable stage of the everyday routine. Buses get people to work, school, holiday destinations – and, more importantly, buses get people home. Yet, for almost everyone who gets them, buses are frankly a right pain in the arse.

My relationship with the humble bus all started when I was fourteen and began travelling into town by myself and with friends, which necessitated a move away from the convenient but uncool parental taxi service towards less convenient but slightly more socially-acceptable public transportation. At first, the idea of being on a bus was exciting: leaning my head against the window feeling the roar of the wind outside as we rushed along, talking to strangers, listening to music as I watched the hills go by rather than being forced to listen to Steve Wright’s Sunday Love Song’s on Radio 2 (sorry Mum). Admittedly, trains were better suited to the wind-in-your-hair function, but back in the day, train times in Ayrshire were rather less frequent than the bus ones. And so, the greater half of my adolescent years was spent riding buses, or more likely waiting endlessly for them to arrive.

In fact, I’m sure I can blur much of my teenage years into an eternity of waiting in the rain at myriad bus stops. It is generally a standard principle that a bus is either five minutes early, and disappears before you get a chance to run like an idiot after it, or else it’s 45 minutes late and the driver and all passengers look grumpier than Nick Clegg.

It is also a standard principle that those waiting for a bus will generally unite at a bus stop with the social glue of the Great British Moan. Whilst this is a gloomy disposition that reflects our weather, it nevertheless provides a useful way of connecting disparate generations. Elderly people love to talk about buses. My nan, like many other people’s grandparents, has probably memorised her local bus timetable. She knows their numbers, she knows which ones are reliable and which ones to avoid. She likes to moan about the drivers and the rising prices. Well, I do too. Some of our best intergenerational bonding has stemmed from conversations complaining about buses.

Regardless of the positives that can come out of poor service, the sheer cost of travelling by bus in my opinion is rendering void any novelty value they might still retain. Buses are getting extortionate. The slogans about cheap travel for students plastered on the back of our local buses are a joke. To make the eight mile journey from Maybole to Ayr it would set me back almost £4 (for a single ticket), when I can get to Glasgow with my third-off young person’s railcard for just over £5 – a journey over five times the distance. Not to mention the substantial luxury of train travel in comparison to buses, where leg room is smaller and the chance of being flung violently into the person in front/beside/behind you is considerably higher.

On a train, I have access to lots of comforts. I might be able to charge my phone. I will be greeted on occasion by a friendly ticket officer, rather than a bus driver irate with the stresses of traffic and grumpy passengers. I have a little table if I want to drink my coffee, write or read a magazine (perhaps the complementary Metro). Late night train travel allows a snapshot into local nightlife, although sometimes it isn’t necessary to take the late train to see this, however. It is not unusual to see someone casually open a can of Tennents at ten in the morning, or to witness a band of rowdy men (on a stag-do, or on their way back/to a rugby/football match) cajoling the ticket conductor and singing rude songs. A hazard of both bus and train travel is the lonesome teenager playing awful dance tunes out loud through the tinny speakers on his/her phone. This was the mode through which I experienced my delightful first exposure to Carly Rae Jepsen’s ‘Call Me Maybe’. So, don’t get me wrong, train travel is by no means a leisurely experience. Anyone who has undergone the horror of taking the evening train back from Ayr to Glasgow on a hot day, will know this. Being packed into a tightly enclosed space with a load of highly-intoxicated, sunburned, tired and aggravated Glaswegians who have just spent a day by the beach is far from light pleasantry.

Yet while trains have their problems, at least they are generally reliable. By reliable, all I mean is that they tend to head from one place to another, stopping at fixed destinations on the way. Recently, commentator Caitlin Moran tweeted that:

Screen Shot 2013-06-27 at 15.25.21

To some people (particularly those who are drivers and rarely take public transport) this disruption to service might seem astonishing. To me, it’s comically familiar. Growing up, I used to regularly get the 361 bus to travel to my friend’s house in a tiny far-out village. It stopped in many different farm towns and villages, and was notorious for its lateness, tendency not to show up and the antics of its drivers. I loved that bus, although it was a bloody nightmare. It was the bus we had to get at nine in the morning after a rough night of partying, and journey along those endless winding roads, being thrown between seats, trying our best not to throw up. It was the bus whose driver has, on separate occasions, pulled up by the side of the road to get a chippy, to take a piss in a ditch and to buy a pack of cigarettes (which said driver proceeded to smoke outside of the bus while we waited patiently inside).

Caitlin Moran later added that everyone on the bus was being ‘very British’ and politely pretending that nothing was wrong. I would like to suggest that such awkward manners are less visible during bus travel in Scotland (well, I can’t speak for everywhere, but at least South West Scotland). As soon as the bus driver accidentally stalls, or refuses some twenty-year-old chancer a half, cue the cries of (and I quote) “ya fucking fanny” and “fuck you wee man”, and general laughter and goading from the other passengers. Well, some of us will try to turn our heads, but generally being on a bus seems to be a more raucous affair than it is down south

Raucous indeed; maybe even adventurous. The notorious 361 was also the bus that one day broke down in the middle of nowhere, while I was on it. Being a highly trained professional, the driver attempted to ring someone ‘in the know’, but succeeded only in engaging what sounded like an exchange of swear words and incomprehensible banter. It being the middle of nowhere, his phone signal then suddenly went and the call was cut off. Said driver left the bus and began angrily kicking at the wheels and inspecting the engine, before standing outside lighting cigarette after cigarette and turning his head around to admire the rural landscape. Meanwhile inside the vehicle, a group of middle aged women on the back seats had pulled out cans of fizzy juice and with conspiratorial giggles were proceeding to top them up from a bottle of vodka. Procuring paper cups from their Farmfoods bags, they offered their concoctions around the bus with much bravado, cursing the uselessness of the driver. As said drive returned to the bus after getting through presumably to his manager, rather than being calmly offered a refund and a possible replacement means of transport, we were told we would have to wait until they could get the sputtering vehicle itself repaired. My friend and I decided it would be miles quicker to walk to the nearest village, where she lived and could provide me with a lift home.

As we wandered the several miles, on a Friday night in July sunshine, quite content with this little drama, the 361 suddenly trundled past us. Arrogantly, it honked its horn  but did not stop to let us on board. We didn’t wave our fists, but just laughed incredulously and kept on walking. Service to rely on.

Following my initial recreational experience with buses as a means of getting into town to meet friends, during my latter means of school I learned what it was like for working people who had to get the bus everyday. I had taken subjects in a college and school in a different town which required several bus rides a day, so that I was hopping around from place to place and finding the majority of my week spent perched on the edge of my seat, trying to read while resisting the urge to vomit (whether said nausea was induced by the driver’s furious attack on bends or by the body odour of the man/woman in front of me I could never tell, probably it was both). I spent so many hours waiting in the frozen cold at bus stops with a bunch of old people wrapped up like Eskimos, or other college students standing catatonically puffing on cigarettes. How I longed to smoke in those days, just for something hot to travel fast to my lungs. Frequently I wore two pairs of gloves at once.

There was one day a week, a Thursday, when I had to get four buses a day, and that truly was hell. But it was also amusing, like the times nearing summer when for some reason the normal-sized bus was replaced with a monster of a holiday coach, which provided a bit of midweek excitement. Or when a woman, looking like she had dressed in my brother’s preteen sportswear wardrobe, got on lugging a titanic-sized flat screen television and proceeded to hug it to her seat like a warm fuzzy bear. Or witnessing the fights that broke out when some kid tried to get on as the bus was pulling away, and the driver exploded into fits of rage and cursing about the arrogance of youth.

Maybe I’m doing bus travel a disservice; maybe taking the bus isn’t what it was a few years ago. Maybe post-recession it’s all got a bit more efficient. I don’t know and maybe I won’t find out, because these days I do everything I can to boycott buses. Walking everywhere helps, and investing in a value-for-money railcard. At least I’m being green.

What I will say about buses is that they are, for good or for bad, a communal experience. Inevitably some ghost from primary school past will float on and treat you with a journey’s worth of gossip about old teachers, or a slightly ominous man in a tracksuit will strike up a fascinating conversation about his egg sandwich with you, or a pair in front of you will keep turning around to inform you each time the bus driver picks his nose and looks straight in his mirror. Maybe there isn’t that kind of intimacy on the train…unless, like the trains where I’m from, the train often has to stop for extended periods after hitting a cow on the line, and what unfolds is like something from a Martin McDonagh script: a gross and darkly hilarious suspension of regular social norms where conversations turn to graphic depictions of absurd animal violence, and people who would normally take a glimpse at one another and then look the other way are suddenly engaged in furious conversation like old mates. I guess waiting for some specialist to come and ‘remove the animal’ (read: scrape cow guts off the train) has its dramatic effects.

Coming to some kind of conclusion, I admit this article has been a bit of a rant, but I hope it is more a record of experiences than a whole-hearted attack on bus travel. After all, it will always have that nostalgic quality: the acrid smell of body odour, stale perfume and freshly-opened cheese and onion crisps; the thundering voices of the half-deaf passengers trying to speak on their brick-like mobile phones; the grimace of the bus driver as he realises he has to count your change from a tenner. Or maybe just the excitement of travelling to college for the first time, or going to a friend’s house and surreptitiously sipping vodka from a plastic coke bottle whilst discussing the forthcoming antics of the evening. When you take a bus, you definitely feel like you are going somewhere (I suppose it bloody well should considering the cost), and there is always the added fun of staring out at the scenery and batting away the wasps, flies and other natural paraphernalia that comes flying in the open windows.

Yes, the bus is certainly the most humble means of transport. Nevertheless, it has to be said that I’d rather walk.

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