Visit to First Bus

A couple of weeks ago, I received an invitation to visit the training centre at the First Bus depot in Bolton, so yesterday morning I went along and met some very nice people who showed me what they are doing about road safety.

I have to say that I was very impressed. I arrived at the depot at 10.00am and was met by Phil Bainbridge and Keith Fieldhouse, who took me to one of the training rooms. They know my YouTube channel, so were already very familiar with the issues I have been concerned about on my commute to work.

The first thing they showed me was their driver monitoring system, which is rather impressive. They make use of a system called GreenRoad, which monitors every vehicle in real time. The progress of a bus along its route is monitored, and events are flagged for a range of incidences of driving that falls outside certain parameters, such as heavy braking, braking whilst cornering, and so on. The display shows a calendar of bus journeys as blocks on a grid, which are coloured according to the types and number of events raised on that journey, green, amber or red. When you select a particular journey, a map of the route is displayed, using Google Maps, with the events displayed. Information about each event is accessed by holding the pointer over the event’s icon on the map, and includes time, location (including house numbers), speed, and various other pieces of information. They can also access video footage from the time of the incident, showing the driver and dashboard, the inside of the bus and the external cameras, though they didn’t show me that for privacy reasons. (Fair enough.)

Drivers that are raising too many events, or particularly bad ones, are brought into the centre and undergo a training needs assessment prior to receiving additional training. They are given a chance to improve, and usually do, but in some rare cases the process can lead to dismissal. They also mentioned that there are cash prizes for drivers who get the best results in the GreenRoad system. This is all very good practice, and I found the attitude of the training staff I met to be exemplary.

During the discussion, we looked at one or two of my videos, and I explained how common it is for buses to move in too soon when overtaking cyclists. I went through the explanation that I posted in my article about this, and we had a good discussion on it. The key point is that, if a cyclist is travelling at half the speed of the bus, it takes over 100 metres for the bus to overtake safely. Of course, it is not possible, at least currently, for the GreenRoad system to pick up something like this. I showed them a couple of the worst cases I’ve experienced, which have been dealt with by the company, but they asked me whether I had any examples of good driving. I was pleased to be able to draw their attention to IndyColts8, whose driving is exemplary, and mentioned that I have quite a few examples of good First Bus driving.

They then showed me some of their training materials, and I was surprised to see that all their drivers undergo classroom training on the key elements of the Bikeability national cycle training scheme. That’s right: every First bus driver knows very well why cyclists sometimes ride in the primary position, in the centre of the lane. The training materials include diagrams showing the recommended path of a cyclist at a pinch point, when passing side roads, when turning corners (including left hand turns), which all involve taking primary position. I did ask why it is that some of the drivers complain about it and rant whilst pointing at the gutter. We didn’t really get to the bottom of that, but there was clearly some frustration that this happens given the efforts they put into training about cyclists.

In this discussion of attitudes, we got onto the question of of whether drivers are really delayed by cyclists, or whether they just perceive that they are (two linked video clips there). In the course of that discussion, the possibility was raised that drivers might feel pressured regarding keeping to time, resulting in their not showing the level of courtesy to cyclists that should be expected. You might think that the GreenRoad system could make such a problem, if it existed, worse. In fact, the contrary is true: GreenRoad makes it possible to analyse the parts of the route on which delays occur and adjust timings accordingly. The attitude of the managers was clearly that delays are not the fault of the driver, and necessary adjustments are made quite frequently. I didn’t speak to any drivers about this, but I would hope that this management stance means that drivers should not feel pressured in this way.

An important thing to mention here, is that the things they said and showed me have completely changed my perception of “complaining” to the company about the behaviour of a small number of their drivers. There is a clear will on the part of the company to improve safety on and around their buses, and contacting the company about incidents where the standard falls below what is expected is welcomed. Where I previously felt a bit like an adversary, I now feel more like an ally.

After about an hour, we went out to look at some buses. We looked at the way buses move, the rear swing when a bus turns, and so on, but it was particularly interesting to sit in the driver’s seat and see the view that a driver has. Now, I tend not to ride up the inside of buses or trucks unless there is absolutely no chance of them moving at all. It’s much safer to go over and overtake on the outside. I was still, however, surprised at how bad the blind spots are on the nearside of the bus. A man standing level with the front wheel of the bus, about a metre away from the side, is completely invisible. I see a lot of cyclists riding up the inside, which really is very dangerous.

The highlight of the visit was when I got to drive a double-decker bus around the depot. I was pleasantly surprised at how easy the bus is to drive. The biggest vehicle I have driven before is a Mercedes Sprinter van, and this was no more difficult. What is clear, though, is that, even at quite slow speeds there is a lot to do to make observations when manoeuvering; much more than in a car. I sort of already know all this, but it’s always worth reinforcing it as I do see so many cyclists taking up a poor road position that could put them in danger.

All-in-all, I am glad that I went down there. They are clearly doing a lot to improve the safety of their operations, and I will no longer feel awkward about contacting them when I have any problems.

The next question, of course, is what can we do about Arriva!

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7 Responses to Visit to First Bus

  1. Nice article. One thing I’m curious about is whether the driver training may be undermined by things outside the trainers’ control such as unrealistic timetables. Do you know if drivers are forced to drive aggressively in order to avoid penalties for not keeping to time? Maybe a trade union view might be illuminating? (Apologies if you’ve covered this before).

    • MrHappyCyclist says:

      Thank you for raising that important point. In fact it did come up and I forgot to include it in the write up. I have added a paragraph on that now (7th paragraph). It’s turning into a big essay.

  2. Uncle Phil says:

    “That’s right: every First bus driver knows very well why cyclists sometimes ride in the primary position”. Really? Every First driver, or only those around Boton?

    • MrHappyCyclist says:

      Well, they train all of the First bus drivers in Greater Manchester, so it is at least all of their drivers in Greater Manchester. I suspect the training syllabus is standard across the country, but I can’t guarantee that.

  3. No mention of eye contact here, I’ve found this very useful and also handy for an occasional mild ticking off.

    When passing a bus at a stop watch the offside mirror as you’ll see whan the driver turns from dealing with fares to looking ahead and (I hope) in the mirror ready to move away. It is courteous to invite a bus driver to accelerate away if you are alongside and likely to take a few seconds to clear the front of the bus. I use a rolling signal (like hand-jive) with my right hand, and they usually pick up my meaning. This makes for a much safer sequence, as instead of you pulling in sharply across the front of the bus, which then has to pull out sharply to overtake you, and then probably pull back in when the driver has just got past, you are in full control of when you pull in behind the bus, and the driver (of a vehicle which is far less manoeuvreable on the road than a bike) does not have to make a rapid wiggle to go round you.

    I apply the same reasoning in bus lanes where possible. look back and eyeball the driver of the bus catching you up, and pull out in to the general traffic lane (which is probably going slower than both of you, so that the bus can go cleanly straight through, and again you can decide when to go in behind rather than rely on the driver’s judgement of when to pull back in.

    I won’t say too much about the exchange I had with one (First Glasgow) driver who was clearly (seen in the mirror and through the side window) looking back to speak to a passenger as his bus moved away when I was alongside, but it related to the ‘conduct (of bus drivers, conductors, inspectors & passengers) regulations’ which in basic terms prohibit the bus driver from doing anything other then drive the bus when it is moving. Worth seeing how often that is mildly breached by many drivers on the road.

    • MrHappyCyclist says:

      Well, the article is about my visit to the First bus depot, and we didn’t discuss eye contact, so it wouldn’t really appear here. However, I do agree with much of what you say.

      I disagree with the point about moving in and out of the bus/cycle lane when buses are approaching from behind. I think that is quite a dangerous practice. In my experience, a bus is never delayed by more than a few seconds by having to stay patiently behind me, and that tiny inconvenience is more than outweighed by a cyclist’s safely.

      Letting the bus set off if it is already indicating to pull away from a stop is absolutely right, irrespective of the mode of transport. It is even recognized in the Highway Code (rule 223).

      • John Colburn says:

        Eye contact is covered in first training. It is applied to picking up passengers, car users not signalling and pedestrians in the road or pedestrians waiting to cross

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