An Ordinary Day in the Life of a Woman Bus Driver
This is the fifth essay in the “Recollections of a woman bus driver” series, representing a time in my life (from 1981 to 1986) when I shocked my parents and peers by shelving my Degree and becoming a city bus driver.
A city bus driver
Each day was coloured with interesting people: colleagues, passengers and passers-by. This is a job which is demanding in one sense, and in another totally relaxed. You have other people’s lives in your hands – something some people forget, although I was always very much aware of that, especially when doing a school trip. On the other hand, your work can never pile up: when you go home, all your work is finished.
When I left my bus driving career behind my “Cap” number was 104. This meant that I was the 104th most senior bus driver in the service of the City Council. With seniority came a series of related fringe benefits which could influence your happiness and your energy levels.
Once a year, bus drivers got the chance to select a shift for the year. The driver with Cap no 1 would lead the way – he was the first to select a shift and then the shift bus. Both of these became very important features on your everyday landscape.
Shift work and route schedules: driver vs the transport planning section
A shift is a permanent schedule of trips that were not put together for the convenience of the bus driver, but for effective utilisation of the vehicle itself (at least that is what the planning section had in mind). There are bad shifts and good shifts.
A shift is either 7.65 hours or 9.2 hours of work, depending on whether you work 6 days or 5 days per week. Everything more than that is overtime. The catch was that each driver had to work at least a 12 hour span, with off-time, teatime, overtime, and lunch in between.
A good shift will start at 6:00 in the morning. The bus driver will take out the bus at 6:30 for a leisurely trip to a school close to the depot. Back in the depot, before 8:00, they go to the cafeteria for breakfast while others are still sweating and swearing until 9:30. The rest of the day includes well-planned trips, with time in between for coffee and lunch. The driver will arrive in the depot at 17:30 well before the shift’s official end. He gets paid overtime for just being there.
A bad shift starts at 4:00 in the morning with a series of hurried trips, aggravated by dreadful logistics between the last off-loading point of one trip and the first bus stop for the next one. Time allocated to trips will be unrealistic. Turning at the terminus of the one trip, the driver will already be late for the departure of the next trip still 15 km away. The driver will enter the depot at 19:00, half an hour after the official end time of his shift.
Rebecca Street Cemetery
Buses in the 80s in Pretoria
The City Council fleet consisted of several groups of buses:
1. Single deck:
- Very old Leyland Olympics – not for the timid and definitely not appropriate for a woman of ordinary strength. Even now an “out of control” nightmare is of me in an Olympic, standing on the brakes, hanging onto the steering wheel and tearing down on a row of vehicles waiting at the traffic light.
- Old Mercedes Benz buses – Very slow and took long to build up hydraulic power and had and uncomfortable gearing function.
- Fairly new Mercedes Benz buses – what you could hope for
- Very new Mercedes Benz buses – what you could only dream about
2. Double decker
- Old Leyland buses – very uncomfortable and with uneven gearing, especially the two with “automatic” gears (these shook the whole bus and the passengers thought you could not drive). The only day I was ever suspended for bad behaviour is when I refused to take this bus(No 816) out
- New Mercedes Benz buses – what you could hope for
Now put the shift and the bus together: Driver with Cap no 1 will have a brand new bus with a comfortable shift. Cap no 300 will have a very old and slow bus on a very bad shift.
I worked nightshift for a while – in a black and white Tastic Rice bus (No 630) just to escape the bad shift / bad bus situation. I still had to take out a morning special school trip after which I went to another job (junior researcher at the University of South Africa). I had a lot of money then, because I had no time to spend it. During a break, I would sit with Aunt Rachel in the women’s rest room philosophising about life, sipping coffee and scrutinising the racing column.
One of the best trips of the day was to South Africa’s Nuclear Energy Corporation (Pelindaba and Valindaba). In the morning the buses would be left at the Corporation and all drivers would return in two buses. In the afternoon a group of drivers would go back in two vehicles and return with their passengers in a long queue of about a 100 buses, negotiating the narrow road back to the city. These trips turned out to be quite amusing with drivers teasing each other and telling amusing stories. In the afternoons while waiting for time, we played dominoes, making jokes and laughing a lot.
Working for cash
f you wanted to make money, you could work for cash. A driver, who had used up his leave, would sell a shift or a section of a shift, especially on week-ends. Some people would work their full shift from 4:00 in the morning until 18:30, then work extra until 24:00, get up at 3:00 the next morning and continue the next day on the same pattern – not a good recipe for road safety but you could make a lot of tax-free money that way.
Every person had at least one school trip on the shift – these could be quite pleasurable. Equally this could be your nightmare trip of the day. Imagine a group of primary school children, laughing and chattering away and singing specially for you: “Words don’t come easy” and bringing you biscuits and fan mail in the form of handmade cards. Imagine a group of high school boys sitting on the top deck and rocking the bus from side to side until you are sure it will fall at any moment. You have the picture.
This was a life of freedom, leaving you time to think and read, engage with others or keep to yourself. Make money or sell work to buy free time.
In some ways an ordinary day in the life of a bus driver is extra-ordinary