Transport Canberra is recruiting so The Canberra Times answered the call. This reporter went to the bus depot on Scollay Street in Greenway to be shown the ropes (or rather, the routes) by Karan Kenny, a bus driver who loves the job.
In fact, she loves the job so much that she moved to the city from Kangaroo Valley just to take it.
She’s moved lock, stock and barrel and loves the new life. A friend of hers who still drives a bus in country Australia is also heading here to join the city’s bus service.
Karan Kenny said the pay was “fantastic”. She earns about $1200 a week.
The pay rates at the moment are $26.33 an hour as a trainee (about $52,198 a year); $33.40 an hour after qualifying ($66,212 a year) and $37.05 an hour after six months probation ($73,448 a year).
In December, the drivers and the employer agreed a new deal which will give a 10 per cent rise over four years. About 400 drivers at a meeting of the Transport Workers Union voted to accept the terms of a new enterprise bargaining agreement.
What they didn’t do was agree to rostered weekend working.
According to Ian Hocking, Transport Canberra’s recruitment manager, pay for Canberra drivers is higher than that for drivers in other cities – but that’s because there isn’t extra for weekend or other anti-social shifts.
At the The Canberra Times briefing cum training, he said, they were taking on drivers earlier than usual this year because of the demand caused by the reorganisation prompted by the tram service shortly to arrive at light-rail stations in the city.
“We anticipate having to have additional drivers to assist us with the new network which will be rolling out in late April” to work in with the introduction of the light rail.
His pitch to potential recruits is that it’s “a great place to work, particularly if you like working outdoors, being your own boss and enjoy interacting with members of the public”.
The ACT bus service loses about four or five drivers a month through “natural attrition” – people getting other jobs or retiring (there’s no age limit for the job providing drivers pass the tests, and they’ve had drivers well into their 70s in the past who have accident records as clean as any youngster’s).
Driving a bus is the easy bit. Dealing with difficult passengers can be the real task, particularly drunk and aggressive passengers.
Mr Hocking said he thought Canberra passengers were far friendlier than those in other cities – Sydney came to mind.
Transport Canberra has 20 assessors who train people to drive a bus, he said, but the additional, tougher demand is “being able to interact with people in the manner that we like – polite friendly, great customer service.”
New drivers go on a 23-day course, part of which teaches them to deal with difficult people and de-escalate unpleasant situations. If things get really nasty, there’s a red panic button for a driver to call for help.
Ms Kenny looks like the last person to need a panic button. She disarms with a smile more potent than a Taser gun.
She said charm usually did the trick. She recognised grumpy passengers might have other things going on in their lives and so her charm soothed troubled minds.
People waiting for buses were already tense – Will the bus arrive? Will I get to work on time? – so an immediate friendly greeting softened tension. A bus driver meeting a grump with a bigger grump was pouring oil on the fire.
There’s psychology in that momentary meeting at the front of a bus. Drivers are taught to read body language and general attitude, according to Mr Hocking, “just to manage the situation as best they can”.
“If that includes just letting a person on a bus to give them a free ride because of a ticket issue, that’s fine – that’s what we do.”
So how did this enthusiasticThe Canberra Times reporter do? How did he perform as he took the steering wheel and drove the bus in Tuggeranong?
Pretty well, I thought. The braking takes some getting used to. I’d have sent passengers kareening about the bus for the first few miles.
And turning corners is different from turning in a car – you have to go much further before doing the turn, otherwise you clip the kerb. If you turn too early, it ends in tears – and complaints to “customer feedback”.
But the driving’s the easy bit. The public’s a bit harder.
I’m not sure I’d have Ms Kelly’s disarming charm. “What do you mean you don’t have enough for the fare? No money, no ticket!” might be my way.
But my instructor did say that I seemed like I might have been born to be a bus driver.
I felt genuinely chuffed. There is life after journalism.
Steve Evans is a reporter for The Canberra Times.