Poetry: If I Were a Rich Man
Interview: League of Nations
Industrial: 20/20 Hindsight
Organising: On The Buses
Unions: National Focus
History: The Banner Room
International: The Slaughter Continues
Legal: A Legal Case For War?
Culture: Singing For The People
Review: The Hours
Poetry: I Wanna Bomb Saddam
Satire: Diuretic Makes Warne's Excuses Look Thin
The Locker Room
Re-considering The Accord
Strangers in the House
Nursing Home Concerns
On The Buses
By Jim Marr
Ever stood at Railway Square, rain sweeping across George St, and wondered if the Sydney bus timetable was merely a theoretical concept? Peter Jenkins and Raul Baonza have pretty fair ideas but diplomacy means, for the moment at least, they will keep the answer to themselves.
The pair has just got its boots under desks in the Redfern offices of the RTBU's Bus and Tram Division and they want to see change. Not just in their union but the service that employs their members.
Only radical change, they insist, will meet the interests of Sydneysiders and Novacastrians, their members included.
Baonza has worked up a detailed policy paper on the subject and the union wants the Carr Government to put its money where its public transport mouth is before NSW voters go the polls this month.
Centrally, the new men at the wheel want a $100 million gesture of good faith. That's the level of commitment needed to buy 200 new buses in the 2003-2004 financial year.
Bus fleet replacement is one of eight pillars holding up the union's strategy for an integrated public transport system that will drive NSW's future.
Their argument runs something like this ...
- STA policy means the average age of the fleet must be less than 14 years
- Current replacement rates just match, rather than improve, that target. In Newcastle, the average age is actually outside STA's own standard.
- Passenger comfort, service reliability, and cost all swing around modernisation of the fleet
- Currently, hundreds of buses breakdown and have to be replaced every week with obvious ramifications for timetables, convenience and expense
- New gas-powered buses are vast improvements on the "clunkers" in terms of reliability, noise, operator health and safety, not to mention passenger comfort.
- Almost 20 percent of the existing fleet (350 of 1899 buses) are 20 or more years old. The STA's own scientists say replacing these with new, gas-powered models would deliver the following immediate environmental improvements - 80 percent less reactive carbons, 50 percent less nitrogen oxides, 53 percent less cabon monoxide, a 20 percent reduction in carbon dioxide, and 50 percent less noise.
Improving rather than simply maintaining the fleet, Baonza says, would demonstrate Government's commitment to public transport.
But fleet replacement is only one of several issues they have worked through. Other key demands for improving the service include: bus-only roads and priority lanes; a workable CBD traffic plan; real-time information for passengers; a new Eastern Suburbs depot; along with a political commitment to public transport.
The new bus drivers' leadership will organise around its strategy amongst workers and commuters.
Without a medium term plan for public transport, they say, Sydney's infrastructure will crumble.
"The Sydney CBD has been reduced to a mobile car park," Jenkins explains, "it doesn't work for anybody - private motorist, public transport user or bus driver. People have to get out of their cars and onto public transport or the city will grind to a halt.
"That's not going to happen unless politicians give a lead."
Baonza points out that the average traffic speed in parts of the CBD and along Victoria Rd, during peak hours, is 4kph and that the least generous interpretation of peak hour now extends to four hours a day.
This, he argues, combined with an ageing fleet, breakdowns, and skipped services, makes for a double whammy. The service becomes less attractive to potential passengers but more expensive to run.
They say existing mid-city bus lanes have become a joke, avoided by any bus operator worth his or her salt. They point to the ability of private vehicles, turning left off Elizabeth St, for example, to legally clog bus lanes for blocks at a time.
Baonza says management has one consistent answer - increased running times.
"It happens every two or three years," he says. "When I joined this job 21 years ago, the running time from North Bondi to Circular Quay was 35 minutes, now it is 52. If they don't do something meaningful it will just get longer. How does that make us more attractive?"
Baonza and Jenkins know what they are talking about. Recently elected secretary and president of the RTBU Bus Division they have, between them, clocked up nearly half a century behind the wheel.
Jenkins has driven big blue buses around Sydney and Newcastle for the past 25 years. His grandfather drove trams, then buses, in Newcastle and he met his wife, Debbie, when they both worked out of the Randwick depot.
Baonza, whose family migrated from Spain when he was a teenager, gave up studying at Wollongong Tech for a start as a conductor at 19. To his surprise, he came to love the job.
"You know," he says, "no amount of training will make a good bus driver. The most important thing is dealing with the public, all day, every day. You can either handle that or you can't.
"Me, I enjoyed it. I thought it was great."
Drivers, though, he says are the biggest losers when politicians won't commit to the service.
Under current arrangements, almost all work 12-hour days across split shifts. Many do six days a week and all have to sign on to work considerable overtime as a condition of their employment.
With staff hard to come by, and even harder to retain, it is rare for drivers to get out of their seats, for any sort of break, across five hour shifts.
Strange as it may seem in those circumstances, those that do stay become committed to the job.
"It is the sort of work that sucks you in," Baonza says, "drivers who survive get involved in the workplace. They care about what happens to their city and its public transport."
"Well," Jenkins laughs, "it's either that, or it drives you crazy."
They say that any time a state government wants to get serious about the sort of integrated transport system that would establish Sydney as a world class city, they have plenty of members willing and able to contribute.
Jenkins throws up the name of Gordon Howard, a 40-year veteran, who knows Sydney and its bus routes like the back of his hand.
Politicians, they suspect, wouldn't know the man's name but, in their view, he would have more to offer than most big-dollar consultants.
"He's a good example," Baonza enthuses. "Gordon probably knows more about transport flows than any engineer in Sydney. Why not take advantage of that sort of experience?"
Jenkins and Baonza were only elected to their union positions last December. The most significant change to their lives is that they will be paid for something they have both done for free over more than a decade.
They are committed to membership involvement in the organisation's affairs and seek to work with community groups on their driving ambition.
Bus drivers have drawn up their own 12-page timetable. Unlike the ones under the big glass sheets at Railway Square, it might just work.
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