There are hundreds of bus routes criss-crossing South Yorkshire, and every year more drivers training to navigate them, and the region’s busy roads. But it’s not as easy as it looks - as The Star’s reporter Rachael Clegg found out when she got behind the wheel herself.
In all the times I’ve stepped on a bus it’s never crossed my mind this whopping vehicle has been checked for dangerous items, that the emergency exits work properly or, more essentially, how anyone goes about manoeuvring something that’s 36 feet long.
Like most of us, I just hop on without thinking about it, desperate to get home after work.
But, after today, I’ll never look at a bus in the same way again.
I’m having a day taster as a bus driver, albeit on Stagecoach’s private training pad, far enough away from public roads.
My instructor is 55-year-old Brian Banton, one of Stagecoach’s instructors but also a veteran bus driver himself.
He takes me to the huge hangar-like space where the buses are stored.
“It was built in the 1950s and can hold several buses,” he says. “It is very cold here in the winter, and very cold here for the people working late shifts washing the buses.”
To our right is a giant-sized car wash, where every bus is cleaned after its last route.
Now, late afternoon, most of the buses are on South Yorkshire’s roads.
The huge bus shelter is peppered with only a handful of cars and two buses, including the one I am to drive.
“Here we go,” he says, as we arrive at a single decker bus that never seems to end. “Hop in.”
At first Brian explains the essential procedure all bus drivers must fulfil before setting off.
“Each driver must conduct a series of checks. They have to check the bus for anything dangerous, check the cab warning devices, the interior lights, the windscreen, the driver’s safety belt, the grab rails, the oil, water and any leaks,” he says.
“They also need to note down any exterior damage to make sure they are not held responsible for it.”
Then he explains how to drive the bus.
“You need to make sure the doors are shut first,” he says.
And it’s strange being the person who presses that button, creating the sound that’s so familiar to so many commuters every day.
Sitting in the driving seat of a bus is nothing like sitting behind the wheel of a car. The engine is turned on with a switch, for starters.
“Switch it on now,” he says.
I oblige, and a judder is heard and felt throughout the bus. Suddenly it strikes me I now have to manoeuvre this colossal vehicle.
“Make sure you do all your checks, and do check over your right shoulder because there is a blind spot,” he says.
“Also be aware that cyclists can come up at the side of you and you may not see them, so you need to be watching constantly.”
Eventually we set off.
“Now,” says Brian, “we’re going to drive out of there,” and he points to an exit that looks only wide enough to just fit the bus, without an inch to spare. My heart skips a beat.
“Okay, just keep going slowly and keep an eye on your mirrors,” he says, his voice calm and reassuring.
The bus is surprisingly easy to move, and the steering is so light. But the brakes, which are air-powered, are super- sharp.
“Just put the brakes on gently,” says Brian.
We leave the compound without shearing off the bus’ side panels. It’s a miracle.
But my next job is to steer around a sharp bend.
“When you’re steering, just remember to swing out to make sure you don’t hit anything with the back end of the bus. You have to allow for how long it is by going over to the left if you’re turning right, and vice versa.”
As the driver of a little car, this is alien to me. But soon I get the hang of it and it’s actually good fun. Getting the gist of turning corners is satisfying.
In my head, I’m a racing car driver lining up the apexes, though I’m not sure this mindset would go down too well with Brian, or my passengers were I driving a real Sheffield route.
“The responsibility of being a bus driver is incredible,” says Brian. “You can have 100 people on board - that’s 100 lives you are in charge of.”
Consequently, the selection process is rigorous, as 32-year-old assistant operator manager Shayne Howarth explains.
“People send in an application form, then they have a driving assessment in a van, and that’s before they go through to the next stage.”
But according to Brian it’s worth it in the end.
“I loved being on the road as a bus driver myself,” he says.
“Every day is different and the things people ask you or tell you are extraordinary.
“There was one person who asked me what they should plead in court!
“You could be a driver on the same route every day, but every journey is interesting and different.”
Brian is nostalgic about his days as a bus driver. “I do miss it,” he says.
And, based on the satisfaction I’ve had today, it’s not hard to see why.
What it takes to run 140 vehicles
Stagecoach operates a fleet of 140 buses in Sheffield.
Of its 140 vehicles, 21 are hybrid diesel-electric double deckers.
Vehicles are inspected by engineers every three weeks.
All vehicles are washed on a daily basis, and have a ‘deep clean’ every three weeks.
Stagecoach Sheffield used 861,000 gallons of diesel last year - an average of 6.7 miles per gallon.
Stagecoach employs 323 drivers, 54 engineers and cleaners, and 18 supervisors and managers.