Thursday, 9 June 2011

Bumbling Brisbane Buses, Part 1: The Service

“I truly can’t help but find your bus stories amusing”, comments Peter, a friend on Facebook. “They bring a smile to my face every time I read them. I’ve never known one bloke to have so much bad luck with the transport system”

“Every morning I look forward to reading your post before work”, says Jade.   
“Never a dull moment with your 5am bus, Brett”, comments Wendy.   
“What would the morning be without your post on trips to work?”, wonders Mary-Ann. 
Just some of the feedback I receive on Facebook in response to my stories about what I like to call Brisbane’s “come if we feel like it” bus service.  

A great deal of my time each day is spent either waiting for buses, running after buses, travelling on buses… or riding in taxis. You would think that someone with as many years of public transport experience as I would be an expert on how it all works. But the truth is, I am baffled each and every day by the new rules that seem to be made up on the spot, depending on the driver at the time. 

Depending on the driver, the timetable is different at that particular moment. Depending on the driver, the bus does or doesn’t go along certain routes. Depending on the driver, there are certain etiquettes involved when it comes to hailing the bus at different times of day, depending on the sunlight, or lack thereof. 

It is very important to already be at the stop before the time the bus is scheduled to be there. If you’re approaching the stop as the bus is approaching, and you hail it as you’re walking (even if you’re just centimetres from the stop), forget about it. He’s not going to stop for you. The one time a bus did stop for me in this instance, the driver told me that they can’t stop unless you’re already at the stop. Since then, I’ve always tried to be at the stop ten minutes early.

But there have been many times, especially when it comes to the first bus of the day at 5am (which I rely on to get to work each morning,) where the driver wants to zip through early before all the passengers have made it to their stops. On many occasions, as I’ve been approaching the stop in the cold darkness of 4:50am, the bus has roared up behind me. I’ve hailed it as I run closer to the stop, but he keeps going. I would start running down the street to chase him, but I’m just not fast enough. This is where I have no choice but to call a cab. The next bus isn’t due until I’m meant to be at work. And I can’t call in late, because I’m the first person there. 

“Insane morning! 5am bus zoomed through 10 mins early! Tried to chase it! Lost my GO card while running after it. Tried to retrace my steps back in the dark. Couldn't find it. Called a cab. He went all the longest ways, ignoring my directions. Jen then searched and found my GO Card, and texted me. Best wife ever! Stupid 5am bus”.

On one occasion, I was there, ready at the stop at 4:50am. I proudly hailed as the driver reluctantly pulled up. Most of the 5am bus drivers are quite grouchy, and my polite “Good morning” greeting with a smile is almost always met with either silence or grumbling.  So you can imagine how annoyed this driver was when I was there waiting for him as he tried to get a ten minute head start. So from inside the bus, I was fascinated to see what this early rush past all the stops was like from the other side: Good thing I'm dragging myself out of bed even earlier to get this 5am bus. He just zoomed past two stops with people desperately running to catch up! I'm not the only one who often starts the day running after a bus, and having to call a cab.” If I hadn’t been there to hold him up at at 4:50 that morning, he could’ve driven past those stops before those people had left their houses.

Then there are the occasions where the bus just doesn’t show up at all. You get there early. You wait. The scheduled time comes and goes. Before you know it, the bus is ten minutes late, twenty minutes late, forty five minutes late. At that point, you can usually assume the bus isn't coming. 

Later in the morning, when the “normal” people are going to their nine-to-five jobs, there are a few more buses scheduled to get people to the city. But even then, you can’t always rely on them. As a retail worker, I’ve had all sorts of starting times. Sometimes, I've joined the "normals" in their morning peek travel: I was ready and waiting for a bus early enough to get me to work on time. 40 mins later, 2 buses are late. Now I’ll be late.”  That day, a bus eventually showed up 45 minutes later. A crowd for both buses had gathered in that time. Every stop along the way had about ten people waiting. You can imagine what an unpleasant sardine can of a ride that was.

After an exhausting day at work, when all you want to do is just go home, this is the last thing you want to happen: “Bus driver wouldn't let me on! He stopped to let someone off, but wouldn't open the front door, even when I banged on it! And it's not like the bus was full or anything! He just wouldn't turn and look! I was there banging on the front door like an idiot and he wouldn't look! I was invisible! And nobody on the bus cared to say, "Excuse me Driver! Someone wants to get on!" They just watched me calmly from their windows, and sat silently as the bus drove away. When I'm on the bus, and someone outside is trying to get on, or they're running to get to the stop at the last minute, passengers always call out to the driver to alert him/her. But not for me!”

I often wonder if it has anything to do with the supermarket worker’s uniform I wear. I wonder if the negative picture current affairs shows have painted of people who work at supermarkets has caused a bit of discrimination against us. When I'm standing on the bus, and I see a vacant seat, people will often place their handbags onto the seat so I can't sit down, even if I'm carrying several bags of groceries. And I guess the same goes for when I want to get on the bus. The driver ignores me, and the people just watch, because they don't want a filthy supermarket worker on the bus with them. Friends have suggested that I wear a different outfit before and after work, so there’s no chance of discrimination. But why should I have to dress up just to be accepted on the bus? Why should I have to feel like any less of a human being because of my job? 

I often find the bus service and schedules totally confusing. One night after band practice, there were two buses parked at the Tennerife bus stop, with signs saying, "West End Express 199". I always thought "Express" meant that there were no stops between point A and point B. So as I was trying to decipher the poorly written timetable, the driver of one of the buses asked, “Are you here to catch the bus?” What I wanted to say was something sarcastic about how I just enjoy hanging around bus stops late at night reading timetables with no intention of catching the bus. Of course, what I really said was, “Yes. Do you actually go to the city?”, which was met with an annoyed “Yeah!” in a very “isn’t it obvious?” kind of way. It certainly was NOT obvious. To me, the timetable read something like this: 
Buses leaving from this stop travel Express to West End except where (a) indicates Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays, in which case it travels inbound via City between 9am and 1pm, and then from 4:30pm until 9:57pm via Legume Road and Lutwyche Avenue. Where (b) represents Halloween, Easter and Arbour Day, buses travel outbound via Sorpez Drive and continue to run Express from 7:39am until 2:43pm every 46 minutes.

One night I was trying to get to Paddington. One bus didn't stop when I hailed it. A different bus pulled up. The driver said to me (and to everyone at every stop along the way), "The 385 bus you’re waiting for is cancelled. We don’t know where the driver is or what happened. Come with me to Bardon, then you can link with a 375 from there".  Someone at every stop asked, “Do you go to the city?”. And the driver, rolling his eyes and starting to lose his cool, replied, “No I don’t… But come with me to Bardon and you can link with a 375 to the city from there.” Most people just shook their heads and walked back to the bus stop seat, where they would’ve waited at least another hour for the next bus.  But I was happy to go along for the ride so I’d have a story to tell. As for the comment of "We don't know where the driver is or what happened". Well I guess that earlier bus that didn't stop for me when I hailed it must've taken the driver prisoner and driven off with him. 

Sometimes, the bus service is temporarily cancelled when there are major events on, which completely inconveniences people like me. Like the many times I’ve walked out of my workplace on a Saturday or Sunday into streets of chaos: “The streets are packed with people, Police, traffic at a stand-still, and fire trucks. Roads to my two bus stops are closed off. A house fire on Caxton St plus a big Rugby Union game at Suncorp Stadium. So now I have to get a train from Roma Street Station to Keperra, and then a taxi from there, instead of one prepaid bus trip straight home.”

As for those “GO Cards”… At 5am, the GO Card machine often has problems. No matter who the driver is, the usual routine on that 5am bus is: I swipe my card across the machine on the left. It says “Error”. I try swiping the card across the machine on the right. It says “Error”. The driver takes the card, rubs it on his shirt. The machine still has an error message on it, or sometimes an “Out of Service” or "Please Wait". Then he’ll tinker with the buttons a bit. “How about now?” Still an error message. He’ll press a few more buttons. “Now?” Still nothing. Sometimes he’ll open the machine up and fiddle with the inner workings of it. All this is usually pointless. If I’m lucky, he’ll say, “Don’t worry about it”, and I get a free ride. But most times, the driver manages to fix it.  
Strangely, I'm one of the only people who uses a GO Card on the early morning bus. Most other people have a bottomless pocket of change, which they pour out onto the driver's counter each day.

In my next blog post, I’ll talk about some of the crazy drivers I’ve encountered and their own personal rules - especially when it comes to “hailing etiquette”.

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