A young woman, 19, is refused entry to a bus. Her crime? She carries a pass entitling her to free travel, as she suffers from epilepsy. But this, the bus driver declares, is just a “piss-take”. She must pay up or leave. When it comes to rank unreasonableness, he’s not alone. In recent years, we’ve had a model refused entry for being too tall, pensioners wrongly ordered off and a nine-year-old and a 14-year-old ejected for being a few pence short. In separate incidents, two mums were kicked off: one, who was heavily pregnant, for being accompanied by a noisy child, the other for breastfeeding. Most awfully, a 22-year-old law student was beaten and raped in Nottingham after finding herself 20p short of the full fare and attempting to walk home at night. Is this some sort of epidemic? And how come so many of these cases feature some of society’s most vulnerable?
Dig deeper and you’ll find a more complex picture. There’s reporting bias, with the worst cases making headlines (instances of drunken lads being sent packing scarcely excite a tremor in the news-o-meter, though those that respond by attacking the bus driver sometimes do). There’s no doubt that there are individuals who have clearly overstepped the mark, like the drunken woman who subjected a fellow passenger to racist abuse, and attacked him. And then there are the downright bizarre: a goth couple were turfed off because the woman was being led on a lead by her male partner. There’s much to argue there, from the rights of those living alternative lifestyles to do so in public, to the “degradation” of the woman involved. According to the bus operator, this was a safety issue.
So let’s try for some perspective. As a very nice man from First Group reminded me via email, buses are the most heavily used mode of public transport in the UK; at almost 5 billion journeys per year, shouldn’t finding so few incidents be cause for celebration? Besides, there’s no standard industry approach, but some of the bigger bus operators have rules that supposedly govern how vulnerable individuals must be treated, including an obligation not to order individuals off a bus if danger might ensue. So is there really a problem?
An experience of my own with a “grumpy” driver brought the issue home. A minor falling out – I suggested he was taking a roundabout route so as not to arrive at his destination too early – was cut short with a threat to throw off his bus anyone who publicly disagreed with him. I felt intimidated, silenced. Unsure of my rights, I had no idea whether I could be left stranded just for disagreeing with the “captain” of the bus.
Not that asserting said rights would necessarily help, as disabled activist Ray Bellisario has discovered. After difficulties with a number of drivers, Bellisario took the unusual step of acquainting himself with the rule book regarding his rights on buses. It hasn’t helped. He has still been refused admission or received objections from bus drivers 28 times in 18 months. The drivers were often clearly aware that they were breaking the rules. A few passengers might get uppity, but sadly the majority – those who are vulnerable and are used to the steady drip of institutional discrimination – just put up and shut up.
In Bellisario’s case, the rule book failed to help. So what hope for those travelling with smaller operators – or even some larger operators: train companies running those most curious of beasts, the replacement bus? Take First Capital Connect: as a train company it has exemplary procedures for putting people off trains. When it comes to buses, it plays pass the responsibility parcel. Asked what guidelines were issued to sub-contracting companies running alternative travel arrangements, a spokesman explained: “All professional bus and coach drivers are fully aware of their responsibilities to their passengers and, as the only member of staff on board, have to exercise their own judgment and discretion.” Or in other words, passengers must take pot luck as to what codes and practices are in operation at any given moment.
So while I don’t quite believe there is an epidemic, it would not surprise me if press reports were just the tip of the iceberg, with large numbers of vulnerable people just going along for the ride, in every sense of the word, because they have no idea what their rights are.
That won’t be solved by “professional standards” or rule books stashed away in control rooms where no one can see them. It calls for a culture change: bus operators getting out and publicising standards and proactively engaging vulnerable groups. Because only when drivers and passengers alike are fully aware of what to expect from a bus service is that service likely to improve and the ejections, the suffering in silence, become a thing of the past.