South of the River – The wheels on the bus

At the risk of treading on Frank Reagan’s toes, this column is about buses. I was watching Between The Lines last night on MADE in Leeds and their news review reminded me that the week’s two big disability travel stories were linked to Leeds.

The first was the Supreme Court victory for Doug Paulley of Wetherby, that disabled people should have priority over parents with buggies on a bus. There’s an awful lot to consider in this story. Back in the day to travel by bus with a small child you needed a fold up buggy. But then, as I recall, most buggies were foldable back then. Are they now? I’m not sure.

But then again, back in the day, neither would have got on the bus because there wasn’t a space with fold up seats, the bus couldn’t dip its doorway to meet the pavement and foldaway ramps weren’t available. Technologically we’ve come a long way.

And we’ve come a long way technologically, because we’ve come a long way socially. By the way this isn’t because of some inevitable rise of liberalism. People struggled for these changes, and they were most effective through the trade unions (or trades union as my Other Half pedantically, and yes technically correctly, insists on calling them).

If you’ve seen the film Pride, and were paying attention during the end credits, you’ll understand that gay rights took a massive step forward when the National Union of Miners backed them through the TUC and Labour Party. Legal changes occurred once Labour formed a government in 1997. The course of disability rights took a similar course.

I’ve never had to use a wheelchair, but I have taken small children on a bus, so I have sympathy with the woman who wouldn’t give up her buggy space on the bus. The panellists on Between the Lines made some good points: the woman had a choice, the guy in the wheelchair didn’t, drivers shouldn’t be put in a position of making these choices – they should be guided by the Suits at First Bus.

I think the solution is both simpler and more difficult. We need more buses with more space for wheelchairs and buggies. Hopefully the simplicity of this solution is self-evident. It’s only difficult because of a privatised market and neo-liberal austerity.

The problem is that buses are not run in the public interest, by local councils. Since 1986 (outside London) they have been run in the interest of private profit by private companies.

Leeds City Council has come up with a transport strategy, which puts a strong emphasis on buses. This should be great news for South Leeds where many people rely on the bus to get around.

The Council is going put £180 million into buses (or £180 as I inadvertently mis-tweeted). But Leeds’ problem at the moment isn’t buses, but drivers. My social media accounts are strewn with angry rants about cancelled services.

A bus driver I know explained the problem. First Leeds has introduced a new contact for new drivers. It’s not as good as the contract my friend has. The old contract included pay for the time inspecting the vehicle at the start of the shift and for paying in the cash taken for fares at the end of the shift. The new contract doesn’t – drivers are now expected to do this in their own time. Throw in a lower hourly rate and whilst First can still recruit, they can’t retain new drivers. The shortage of drivers leads to cancelled services, angry travellers and a lack of confidence in the service that keeps car drivers behind their wheels, clogging our roads.

The Council have some limited leverage over the bus companies on things like routes, but they can’t intervene on staffing issues. For that we need strong trade unions that can resist attacks of staffing conditions and staff numbers that then affect services to the public.

Next time you read about ‘disruptive’ strikes on Southern Rail, just remember that the normal service on that franchise is characterised by cancellations just like Leeds’ buses. The staff there are not just fighting for their own jobs, but for a decent public service too.

If the Leeds Transport Strategy is going to make the difference the city needs, we need a strong council and strong trade unions to help see it through. And while we’re at it can’t we put buses back in public ownership (like they are in London)?

I’ll be on back next week with more of my views from South of the River. If you’re on Twitter, you can follow me: @BeestonJeremy.