The long and winding road to safer public transport

24 Feb

I once took a bus from Malawi to Tanzania. According to the timetable it was supposed to take eight hours. We arrived in 22. I always talk about this journey as the worst  of my life.

It started in a place called Mzuzu and we were picked up around 1am. Already tired from waiting for 6 hours for the bus to arrive, when it finally came into the station, it didn’t look like it would make another mile with all that it already had on board. Some passengers did get off, but more were getting on. Our backpacks were added to the overflowing pile on the roof. If they made it, it would be a miracle. Getting on the bus, I realised that if we made it, it would be a miracle. I spent the first 7 hours of the journey sat in the aisle in between my boyfriend’s legs, crouched up into a little ball. I didn’t think I would ever feel my legs again, nor would they ever go straight. The border was a welcome break and also meant that after immigration duties, we got a seat. The seat was so tight, you couldn’t put your legs out straight. And having a seat brought other dangers. We could see at out of the window. While on one hand, this was a good thing; passing Africa shrub, elephants wandering their home land, on the other, it was terrifying. The driver had been on the road for over 24 hours and was obviously keen to get home. How he stayed awake, if he stayed awake, I have no idea. Our careering turns on dusty mountain roads (I swear we went on two wheels more than once); being jammed in like sardines; windows that didn’t open; and that overwhelming feeling that we are never going to arrive. The joy of public transport.

When you're not in any hurry...

But that’s Africa. Right?

One commuter I know takes a bus to the train station. This can take anywhere between 10 and 20 minutes. She then gets on a train for an hour: if the bus has made it in time and if the train hasn’t left the station early. The train is packed. Only the privileged few have enough space to open their newspapers. Then there is another bus, less crowded, but a lot slower. She is in the city now. If she makes it into the office in less than 2 hours, it’s a good start to the day.

Another commuter gets on his bike. He’s bought it through the Cycle to Work scheme and it’s a gem. He’s got his helmet and as far as he can, he sticks to the bike lanes. It’s a helpful wake-up in the morning. At a junction a HGV is alongside him and about to turn left. Luckily, the bike’s brakes work and he goes up onto the curb as the HGV turns its corner. “Don’t think he saw you,” says a man walking his dog.

A different commuter stands on the platform. One train has passed by, full to brimming. It reminds him of his trip to India with people sitting on the roof. The second comes into the station and he squeezes on. The doors shut and they move on. Thirty seconds later, the train stops. Signal failure, leaves on the line, train breakdown. Who knows? Same old, same old.

Dangerous professional drivers, faulty vehicles, defective trains, overcrowding. These are not ‘third world’ issues: they are part of the daily lives and journeys of many of Britain’s workers.

In the March issue of Safety Management, Keith Whitehead writes about the benefits a green transport plan can have on businesses in terms of its health, safety, economic and environmental value. But what good will they be if workers are made to suffer delayed, unsafe and uneconomical public transport.

With many of the risks employers and employees have to deal with on a  daily basis, hitting the road to get there or home should not have to be one of them.


One Response to “The long and winding road to safer public transport”

  1. Amy Liptrot February 24, 2011 at 12:31 pm #

    I once had a terrifying minibus journey during a camping trip in the Welsh mountains (I’m sure two of the wheels went off the edge off the valley) – but this sounds worse.

    Interesting blog.

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