We got behind the wheel of a new Bee Network bus and joined new recruits who can earn more than £30k a year
and live on Freeview channel 276
As Greater Manchester prepares for the launch of the Bee Network’s bus franchising system in September, 300 new recruits are expected to get behind the wheels of a massive new fleet.
Bringing control of the bus network back into council hands has many more implications than just yellow buses with a bee symbol – it is a complete shift in how companies run the buses. Go North West, one of the new bus franchise contractors has been training up numerous new drivers in anticipation of the launch.
To see what life is like in the shoes of a new driving recruit, we tried getting behind the wheel ourselves.
Arriving at Queens Road Bus Depot, the base of Go North West, it’s hard to believe that there are around 200 buses parked up behind the face of a Grade-II listed building. Beyond those walls it is a hive of activity with new recruits being sent off for training and old hands setting off for their usual routes in different corners of Greater Manchester.
There is a buzz about the place as management prepares for September 24, 2023 – when a London-style transport system will be rolled out. This will start with Bolton and Wigan, as well as parts of Manchester, Salford and Bury.
“Overnight, we will have a whole new brand for Manchester and that means us taking on the employment of all the staff that work there (in the Wigan and Bolton depots), the buses, the ticket machines,” Nigel Featham, managing director of Go North West said. “It will be a really big weekend for us and for Manchester.
“We have been engaging in a big recruitment campaign. We are aiming to pull in 300 people. We’ve never tried to recruit on this scale before. It is really fascinating to see people from all walks of life deciding they want to try bus driving. What people realise is that, you have the importance of looking after passengers, but you are part of everyday Manchester life. You are out there on the open road and you don’t really have a boss.”
Becoming a new recruit for the day, the Local Democracy Reporting Service was given access to a new yellow bus and an experienced instructor to learn the ropes. After learning the basics of the buttons and how to actually make the bus go, it was off to the AJ Bell Stadium in Salford to hit the practice track.
After dodging bollards, weaving through lampposts and reversing into tight spaces – it is clear there is more to being a bus driver than just steering an 11 tonne vehicle. The safety of passengers, other road users and the pedestrians outside is a key component to the work these new drivers spend weeks perfecting.
Not only do they learn how to get a feel for the bus they are driving, but they need to know the bus routes like the back of their hand. Dealing with the public constantly and making sure they get to their destination on time is something Go North West are keen to get right as soon as possible.
The whole point of bringing buses back into the control of council is to improve reliability, make fares fairer and make sure routes are targeting those in need of a bus. The new contract holders are confident they can deliver that, but they also want to maintain the atmosphere and feeling around the place this new scheme has sparked.
“There is something exciting about the transition,” Mr Featham continued. “I think people will see a difference visually with the buses becoming yellow. They won’t all be yellow, but gradually they will be. It will be an iconic look. Eventually, every bus everywhere in Manchester will be part of that Bee Network look. This is the first place outside London to go down the franchising route.
“Putting it back under public control means lots of people will be looking at how it works. The plan is to make this a bus city, a public transport city.”
The managing director described the depot as a very friendly place which is ‘like being part of a community’. It is not just community friendly, but family friendly, as Mr Featham explained there are some third generation bus drivers amongst their ranks as well.
Speaking to the LDRS, some trainee drivers on their second day of the course expressed their anxiety about taking on the task of driving a bus. They explained that learning the different bus routes, especially those from outside the region, was seen as the most difficult task ahead for them.
There were some that had backgrounds in jobs that involved driving such as delivery driving and truck driving. Many had previous jobs in factories or retail and were just looking for a change.
Depending on how quickly they pick up the skills, it can take between three to six weeks to get trained up as a bus driver. Once fully qualified, drivers can earn over £30,000 a year depending on shift patterns, according to the Go North West managing director.
With this new scheme aiming to be as green as possible, some of the new drivers could expect to be seated in one of the new electric buses. The new electric bee buses makeup around a quarter of the overall fleet currently, with plans to increase that in the coming years. “We have 50 electric buses in the fleet,” Connor Lomas, Franchising Training Lead at Go North West, said. “The plan is to eventually phase more (electric buses) into the fleet.
“The main reasons (all buses are electric straight away) are because there is a lot of infrastructure associated with the introduction of electric vehicles. In order to operate them you have to have charging points at the depot. We would have to build in a charging system throughout the day for the buses. So operationally they are more complex than a diesel bus, which is why it is better to phase it in.
“It could be a bit chaotic if we brought it in straight away. This is especially the case when you bring them into depots where drivers have never driven an electric bus and engineers have never worked on them before. It is not just a case of switching them on one day and saying here we go. A lot goes on behind the scenes in order to get them in.”
Regular commuters have already noticed the changes being made to their routes ahead of the big day on September 24 – with Bee Network branding already being donned at Wigan and Bolton bus stations. Some keen eyed locals will already be able to see a few yellow buses already flying about the roads across Greater Manchester as well.
This new system will mean Greater Manchester is the first region to bring bus services under local control since 1986.