Gordon Cutting is not your typical bus driver. Having graduated with a degree in physics and astrophysics from Birmingham University in 1992 he thought it would be a good idea to get to know the industry in which he intended to work as a scheduler from the bottom up, so he applied for his licence. “I found out I was good at it and I enjoyed it,” he said.
Yesterday that decision was rewarded when at the third time of trying the 42-year-old was handed the ultimate accolade for passenger transport professionals and named Bus Driver of the Year.
Mr Cutting, whose S3 Stagecoach Gold route from Chipping Norton to Oxford is one of the most picturesque in the country, notched up just 180 penalty points in a gruelling and tense competition in Blackpool this weekend which pitted the cream of the UK’s drivers against each other.
“I have gone from a state of anxiety to one of complete euphoria in a split second,” he said as weighed down with trophies Mr Cutting, a lifelong Independent reader, posed for photographers on the steps of the resort’s Hilton Hotel.
“If you approach it right it is probably one of the best jobs in the world. I have the best passengers of any driver in the country. They are the reason I do what I do and I drive the way I drive. It is interacting with them that puts a spring in my step every day,” he said.
It had been a nerve-jangling morning for all 105 national finalists – a record number of entrants drawn from the UK’s major and independent operators.
The first competitor departed Middle Walk bus station at 8.45am sharp. Each was required to execute a series of precision manoeuvres – carrying out refuelling, negotiating a tight chicane and reversing out of a bay – in an unfamiliar bus before pulling across the promenade tramway into the seafront traffic.
Along the route huddles of inscrutable judges sporting high-visibility jackets painstakingly monitored the buses rainy two-mile passage. Each driver was required to make two, inch-perfect halts at special competition stops before passing a breathalyser and then completing arduous written tests.
Operations director Keith Fieldhouse, who set the course, said the competition had been fierce. “To see the looks on the guys’ faces, to see them compete and to see what intense pressure they are under and to see how much they enjoy it was fantastic,” he said.
“These are the top drivers in the country – the real cream of the crop. They are having fun doing it but at the end of the day it is all about winning. Yet take away the uniforms and these are all drivers. They are superb guys,” he added.
Although it has a low media profile outside the pages of the specialist press and among the bus spotters who turned up to photograph the new Thomas Heatherwick-designed Routemaster which was on display outside the competition hotel, Bus Driver of the Year is currently celebrating its 47 year.
Founded in 1967 in Coventry by road safety officer John Boxall, the competition was aimed at raising industry standards which were floundering in the municipal-run transport department of the time.
Other towns and cities rapidly joined up during the 1970s and 80s and the competition thrived until the late 1990s when the industry was hit by a triple whammy of deregulation, tendering and privatisation.
Much has changed since the first finals although a first female winner remains elusive in an industry where 80 per cent of employees are men.
In the meantime traffic conditions have worsened, white vans have emerged as the terror of the roads and Communities Minister Eric Pickles’ plan to allow drivers to park on double yellow lines threatens to add yet another obstacle to the strangled traffic conditions, drivers fear.
Vice chairman of the competition Andrew Braddock, a veteran bus manager, said that whilst there are other passenger transport awards, this was the one that the ordinary driver wanted to win.
“The winner can expect to walk away with around £2,000 in cash. But if you were to talk to any of our winners from the past 10 years it would not be the money they remember but the thrill of being called up and winning the prize,” he said.
“You will never get people to agree on whether a deregulated, privatised industry which we have is the best thing. But we are where we are,” he said.
Mr Braddock acknowledged that in the UK we would never expect or receive bus services of the sort enjoyed by passengers in Germany, Switzerland or Austria. Like the Americans, he said, we are simply too wedded to the private car.
But bus passenger numbers are growing as operators improve service quality, introducing leather seats, Wi-Fi and air conditioning. “Most bus companies now have a higher level of customer satisfaction than big retailers such as Marks & Spencer. It is in the upper 80s and 90 per cent,” he said. “Where passenger numbers are growing it is a function of a service provision at an attractive frequency,” he added.
As for the humble driver – pay has improved although it still only averages around the low £20,000s. “It is a difficult job with unsociable hours. In many places buses are on the road from 4.30am until after midnight,” he said.