A former TfL safety panel member has blamed the disproportionate number of deaths among bus drivers on “a failure to do basic things” and “a mayor that doesn’t take responsibility”, while bus drivers – including one at a garage in Greenwich – say a “deep cleaning” of their vehicles is rushed and patchy. JESSIE MATHEWSON, the Local Democracy Reporter at City Hall, investigates.
A total of 21 London transport workers have died after contracting coronavirus so far, TfL confirmed on Monday. The figures paint a bleak picture – more than seven out of ten of them have been bus workers. Drivers speak of more staff in hospital or colleagues that are seriously ill. Front line workers in many industries are putting themselves at risk every day to do essential jobs – but why have London’s bus drivers been hit so hard?
Former TfL board member Michael Liebreich says these deaths are TfL’s problem. He is saddened but unsurprised by the loss of life.
“People have died because of failures to do basic things. This is entirely predictable for an organisation and a mayor that doesn’t take responsibility,” he told the Local Democracy Reporting Service.
Mr Liebreich served on TfL’s safety panel from 2012 until 2018, leading the committee for the final two years. He was vice-chairman at the time of the Croydon tram crash in November 2016, in which seven passengers died and 62 people were injured when a tram came off the rails. He says the same failures he saw then are reappearing in this current crisis.
Like the trams, London’s buses are run by private companies contracted to TfL. Each company has responsibility for the day-to-day running of its routes. With bus workers on the front line of the coronavirus outbreak, Mr Liebreich believes the network is shirking its responsibility to drivers.
“TfL does not have a safety culture where it mandates things from service providers,” he explains. “There is a systematic problem that it does not take responsibility for what its contractors do.”
TfL denies that claim. Bus operations director Claire Mann says staff have been “extremely saddened” by the deaths of bus drivers. “London’s bus drivers are playing a vital frontline role allowing critical workers to fight the virus and we are committed to their safety,” she says. “It is our absolute priority.”
But Mr Liebreich maintains that bus companies are “effectively unregulated” in any meaningful way – and workers tell the same story.
‘No leadership from TfL’
Over the past week, the Local Democracy Reporter Service has spoken to drivers across the capital, working at a range of bus companies including Go-Ahead, Abellio and Metroline. They say companies have acted too slowly to protect them, and TfL has failed to lead. They believe there is a lack of consistency and accountability that is putting lives at risk.
TfL says the number of passengers on London buses is down 85 per cent on the same period last year, reducing the risk of infection. Bus garages, break rooms and buses are cleaned daily, and steering wheels, doors, poles and handles are treated with anti-viral spray every night. It is the same solution used in hospitals, and prevents build-up of Covid-19 for 14 days.
But bus drivers tell a different story. Several have seen specialist cleaners in their depots, spraying buses and work rooms in full hazmat gear – but not every garage is the same.
Charlie is a west London bus driver with almost 30 years in the industry. At his depot, there are normally 15 to 20 cleaners – but for the past few days he’s only seen three or four. On his last shift, buses were parked along the road by the garage because cleaners were too busy to finish the job. “The extra cleaning is not happening – I’ll tell you that right now,” he says. “They’re just overwhelmed.”
James, a driver in south-west London with 16 years’ experience, says his depot is also short-staffed. He claims cleaners are using a rag and a bottle of disinfectant to clean hundreds of vehicles. “I know for a fact the buses are not being deep-cleaned every night,” he says.
Many drivers are worried about a rushed job. “The word deep clean brings to mind people really wiping the bus down and going to town on it,” says Graham, a Greenwich driver with 15 years in the industry. “This is a light mist from a hose. I’m still uncomfortable.” The Greenwich garage, run by Go-Ahead from Morden Wharf Road, operates routes 1, 108, 129, 178, 180, 225, 286, 291, 386 and N1.
Some drivers say their garages are imposing social distancing – roping off chairs in the break rooms, and marking queuing space on office floors. At the depot where another driver, Ryan, works, laminated timesheets have been swapped for disposable paper ones.
But there is only so far drivers can keep the rules at work – like many London depots, Graham’s is a converted building. The narrow corridors are barely a metre wide, he says, and staff brush against each other as they pass. While some garages are now using buses to take drivers to the start of their routes, at Charlie’s depot up to ten drivers are still crammed in a small minivan – making social distancing impossible.
Responses to the pandemic have been patchy. Some drivers say they were issued small bottles of hand sanitiser a few weeks ago. But the large dispenser at James’s garage ran out a few days later, and hasn’t been refilled since. At Charlie’s depot, refills were issued by office staff – now they’re working from home, there’s no way for drivers to get more gel.
Nowhere to wash hands
Washing your hands, as the public is often reminded, is far better than using hand sanitiser. But for many drivers that is not an option either. A lack of bathrooms on long bus routes has been a long-standing problem, and lockdown has made things worse. Toilets in cafes, pubs and shops have been closed, along with some railway stations.
TfL says it has identified those routes and is putting “temporary facilities” in place. But right now, Charlie has no toilet on his five-and-a half hour bus circuit. The only option is a 25-minute round trip to the depot – it is “not popular” with his employers, he says.
On shift, there are more problems. TfL has put up signs asking passengers not to sit near the driver, and on some buses chairs have been taped off. There’s an automated announcement telling passengers to maintain social distancing – but drivers say it doesn’t work on some vehicles.
TfL says most buses have now been fitted with a plastic shield to cover the speech holes in the driver’s cabin and prevent germs from passing through. But drivers says gaps around the ticket machine or where cash is handed through aren’t blocked. Several complain the scraps of plastic fitted by company engineers blur their view of wing mirrors.
Where screening hasn’t been fitted, some drivers have made their own from clingfilm or masking tape. Black tape criss-crosses the perspex screen of one bus cabin – dangerously blocking the view. “It just highlights how desperate some drivers are,” says Moe.
Bus workers are worried about the air flowing through their cabins on a long shifts. “Every time someone opens a can of lager or rolls a spliff on the back seat I know about it,” says Ryan. “If that’s all coming through the cab, well coronavirus is carried on the air too.”
Graham agrees: “If someone were to cough, I’m fairly certain the driver would be at increased risk,” he says. “I would certainly feel a lot safer if it was sealed – it’s not an unreasonable expectation.”
No PPE for drivers
One way to protect drivers would be by increasing personal protective equipment – providing masks and gloves, like those worn by hospital staff. Mr Liebreich says everyone using buses – not just drivers, but passengers too – should wear a mask. His call has been echoed by Conservative mayoral candidate Shaun Bailey. But TfL says latest advice from Public Health England suggests masks aren’t necessary.
Drivers are divided – some are buying their own gloves and face coverings, while others feel they get in the way. For Moe, it’s about morale. “There are people on the buses coughing and sneezing,” he says. “It frightens the hell out of the drivers and their families.” He thinks all drivers should all be issued with anti-bacterial gloves and visors. “Time is really ticking, but we want this desperately,” he adds. At the very least, most want the option. “That’s the minimum in these circumstances,” says Graham.
But TfL may have found a way to reduce the pressure to source protective kit – banning front-door entry. Most London buses have multiple doors, and blocking off the area near the driver would reduce their risk of infection. Last week, TfL began trialling middle-door boarding on 140 buses.
Most drivers welcome the move, but not all are impressed. “A trial right in the middle of a pandemic is bonkers,” says Ryan. “It’s a bit of virtue-signalling on TfL’s part. It helps, but it’s just to keep us quiet.”
There’s no detail yet on when the trial will be rolled out across the network – and some drivers don’t think it will happen at all. “It’s all about money,” says Sam, “Like anything to do with bus safety.”
It’s a refrain that comes up again and again – though TfL and the bus companies strongly deny it. “It’s all about the money,” James tells me. Ryan agrees: “The safety and comfort of drivers comes a very poor second.” And Moe feels the same: “TfL is putting revenue before the safety of bus drivers. They’ve just got to forget about the money for now, and take that off the table. How many more deaths are we going to see before they do that?”
It’s a familiar narrative for the drivers I speak to – industry veterans who say they’ve seen this attitude before. “One of my problems with the bus industry throughout London is it’s so old fashioned,” says James. “They’d like to water this over until it goes away – but who cares about a little bit of money at the moment?
“I’m very disappointed they’re not doing more. When it comes to a pandemic, a crisis, they should be going out of their way for us. It’s disgusting they won’t spend a couple more pounds to keep drivers safe.”
‘Khan doesn’t know what he’s doing’
Ryan is more positive about what his company is doing – they’ve been “fairly proactive”, he believes. But he agrees that “the whole industry is still very much in the 1970s”, and drivers are scared to speak out. “They can be quite draconian when they want to be,” Sam tells me. “Because the companies are the way they are, the trust just isn’t there. There’s no respect.”
For many drivers, this goes deeper than coronavirus. They believe years of long shifts and brutal rostering have left workers exhausted, and their immune systems ill-equipped to fight the disease. Last year, a Loughborough University study revealed one in six London bus drivers had fallen asleep at the wheel in the previous year. And though TfL is planning new fatigue management rules, drivers still face hard conditions.
Shifts are often 12 hours long, and start times irregular – for day shift, it can be as early 3am and finish as late as 2.30am, drivers tell me. They can work up to seven days in a row – and with buses now on permanent Saturday or Sunday schedules during the pandemic, drivers are working even longer hours. “Your body clock has basically given up,” says Ryan. “It might be legal but it ain’t moral, that’s for sure.”
But many staff have no other options. Graham says he couldn’t survive more than three months without work – he’ll have to keep driving, even though he has asthma. “I’m really concerned that we’re already exhausted,” he says. “I believe we’re going to see a lot more deaths in the bus industry because people’s immune systems have been compromised by work. We’re already a vulnerable group. In my eyes it’s a case of when we get coronavirus, not if we get it.”
The immediate problem, drivers say, is consistency. “Each different company has its own rules, and each different depot has its own interpretation of those rules.” says Charlie. At his garage, management has been “non-existent” since office staff began working from home. Drivers rely on a depot-wide WhatsApp group for updates – but it’s full of “nonsense”, he says, from 5G conspiracies to gifs and videos.
With no uniform plan, it’s hard for drivers to trust the press releases from “TfL towers”, as they call the network headquarters. “I don’t think most people there actually know what goes on in a bus garage,” says Ryan. “They live in this ivory tower, which is probably the best place for them.”
Drivers feel TfL should take the lead – after all, “they’re the ones that hold the purse strings”, says Sam. Staff want the network to set stricter rules for the operating companies, stipulating exactly what protections drivers should get. They want accountability. “But TfL are all words and no action and they always have been,” says James ruefully.
Many drivers believe their union is little better. Only one driver spoke warmly of Unite, but most viewed London’s biggest driver union as lacklustre.
“There’s a very cosy relationship between the companies, the union and TfL,” says Ryan. Charlie agrees: “There’s the underlying feeling that the unions put the mayor in his place,” he says. “Bus drivers supported him because he’s a Labour mayor but that has gone out the window now. Words like ‘useless’ or ‘incompetent’ are at the nicer end of what people are saying. He’s not trusted at all because he doesn’t know what he’s doing.”
Responding to those claims, Unite London secretary Peter Kavanagh said the union’s “overriding priority” in the Covid-19 crisis has been its members’ welfare.
The union worked “tirelessly” to ensure all drivers got hand sanitiser, that cabins have been sealed, that seats near drivers are roped off, and extra anti-viral cleaning was brought in, he said. As a a result of “intense lobbying”, Unite secured company sick pay from day one for all London staff – and continues to push for middle-door boarding and the option of protective kit for drivers, according to Kavanagh.
‘Mayor will do whatever it takes’
A spokesperson for Khan said the myor will do “whatever it takes” to keep transport workers safe and is “urgently exploring every possible option”. He said protective kit may be counterproductive if used incorrectly, as it creates a false sense of security – but transport workers are “understandably scared” and Khan is “looking at the detail” of whether sufficient protective gear could be provided despite “serious concerns” about supplies.
Sam is unwilling to blame the mayor for delays – City Hall’s money comes from the government, he says. That attitude is rare. Moe welcomes Khan’s decision to trial middle-door boarding as “a massive step” – but says more action is needed. “At the end of the day, he’s a Labour mayor,” he says. “We’re questioning whether he’s on our side because we’ve been neglected in our protections for so long.”
Disillusionment and delay is now hitting morale. “Three weeks ago we were all high up, let’s get out there and battle it out,” says James. “But the last week you can see everybody is down.” Charlie agrees – the usual banter between drivers is nonexistent, as staff hurry out of their cabs at the end of a shift. There’s no one in the break room. “That camaraderie is gone,” he says. “Whether that will ever come back I don’t know.”
Drivers want to do their job, and are proud of the work they’re doing, Ryan tells me. But the mood is changing as they see the “horrible delay” in protection – and its cost. “It’s sad and scary,” Graham says. “It’s killing people in our profession and that’s a feedback loop. It’s just never ending information at the moment. Everyone is being bombarded.”
The lack of trust for the bus companies and TfL goes deep. For many drivers, this isn’t just about coronavirus. As they see it, it’s about years of being ignored, neglected, underpaid and overworked. “Now all of a sudden people are calling us heroes,” says Moe. “I appreciate that – but we won’t ever forget how we were treated.”
All London bus companies were approached for comment. In a statement, the the Confederation of Passenger Transport (CPT) said: “Bus operators across London are providing an essential service at a time of national emergency. This couldn’t be done without the thousands of drivers and other staff doing an incredible job to keep routes running and keeping them and passengers safe is our top priority.”
The CPT said enhanced cleaning, promotion of personal hygiene and “a range of other measures” were in place. It said operators were following Government guidance and “commissioning a thorough assessment of all the risks facing drivers working in the industry” which will be ” independently assessed and further action taken urgently where it is identified as being necessary”.
All bus drivers’ names have been changed.
Jessie Mathewson is the Local Democracy Reporter for the Greater London Authority. The Local Democracy Reporter Service is a BBC-funded initiative to ensure councils are covered properly in local media.
See more about how 853 uses LDRS content.
853 produces public interest journalism for Greenwich and SE London and is part-funded by its readers. If you would like to help keep it running, become a member:
- Join us on Steady at steadyhq.com/853 – donate monthly amounts in pounds
- Find us on PressPatron at presspatron.com/853 – donate monthly or annual amounts in pounds
- We’re also on Patreon at patreon.com/853 – donate monthly amounts in dollars
Thank you for your support – the site would not exist without it.