Taken for a ride by the Number 37

A reliable bus service now seems an impossible dream, says David Bowen, angry of Peckham
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Last summer I spent several hours sitting outside the since-demolished Peckham bus station in south London. Not a nice place to sit, especially on a hot day, but I had become mildly obsessed with buses, and was carrying out an unscientific survey. I knew from many hours (weeks, probably, if added together) that the jokes about buses travelling in half-dozens were too often true. That, as Flanders and Swann's bus driver had it, "We likes to drive in convoys - We're most gregarious!" I wanted to find out whether this was because London traffic - ultimate test-bed for Chaos Theory - thwarted attempts to run the buses properly. Or because buses left the depots in bunches.

After two hours I had my answer, sort of: Peckham bus station redefined Chaos Theory. I wrote down the departure times of all those 12s, 36bs, 37s - and could hardly detect any pattern at all. Sometimes they left in bunches, sometimes they did not. This was surely a service out of control.

To me the question "Why do buses travel in convoys?" ranks up there with all those questions about the meaning of life. But when I told colleagues about my discovery I was greeted with sad headshakes and undisguised yawns. There was a simple reason for this: these people did not travel on buses, so they just did not care about them.

The Tube strike may have helped a little - the moles were forced to the surface and discovered the joys of waiting at bus stops for 50 minutes, or taking half-an-hour to get half a mile. As I live in a part of the capital where there are no Tubes, and trains do not go where I want to go, I already knew this. In theory, buses can take me anywhere - London's buses travelled 200 million miles in 1995, while Underground trains scuttled a mere 34 million. In theory, they are cheap, safe and environmentally friendly. In practice, they are probably the most dangerous form of transport for a commuter because of the risk of high blood pressure, nervous breakdown or spontaneous combustion from sheer frustration.

We hear much of the horrors of the trains and Tubes, and millions of words are written about congestion on the roads. But we hardly hear a thing about a service that makes the Tube and train systems seem like Swiss chronometers. That, I suggest, is because the people who might kick up a fuss - let's say it, the professional middle classes - are not big bus users. In fact, more of the chattering classes use the bus in London than anywhere else in Britain - but that is not saying much. Overwhelmingly it is transport for shoppers, for people who do not have to be at an office or meeting at a certain time.

We have a vicious circle. Professional people do not travel on buses because they are so unreliable. Therefore they do not write apoplectic letters to their MPs and the press. Therefore there is no consumer pressure on the service to improve. Therefore professional people do not travel on buses.

Outside London the effects of deregulation on the bus services have been obvious and often disastrous. London's buses were privatised but not deregulated a decade ago - and, London Transport says, there has been a great improvement in financial efficiency without any deterioration in service. Which is fine for me as a taxpayer - not so useful for me as a passenger. I want a huge leap in reliability, and I believe it must be possible to give me one.

The problem arises from a mix of bad politics and bad management. Nothing would speed buses more than a clear route through the traffic. But bus lanes are often ignored - and it takes only one parked car to make them pointless. The penalty for obstructing them should be monstrous.

According to the pressure group Transport 2000, local authorities are not prepared to paint double yellow lines where they are needed, because of opposition from shopkeepers. There are few better ways of inducing stress than to sit on a bus as it waits for a van to complete its delivery (old Routemaster double-deckers have a huge advantage here - you can jump off them and run screaming past the driver).

The lack of a single body for London does not help either. Two years ago Steven Norris, the transport minister, introduced a grand scheme called the Bus Priority Network, which would provide superhighways for buses through London. The trouble was, a Number 15 does not go through London; it goes through Tower Hamlets, the City of London, Westminster and Kensington & Chelsea. The chances of getting several councils to agree on a superhighway is close to zilch, which is why the network does not exist.

But we cannot blame the politicians alone. Why did Chaos Theory rule in Peckham? Because the bus drivers were not leaving at regular intervals. Why was this? Because there was no pressure for them to do so. My experience is that London bus drivers are not the jolliest folk around. Many of them seem to follow the Flanders and Swann principle (developed for two-man buses): "I stops when I'm requested although it spoils the ride, So he can shout 'Get 'aht of it! We're full right up inside!' "

Bad morale is invariably a function of bad management. The people running the bus service now are employed by private companies - but they are for the most part the same old London Transport people who presided over chaos in the past. Other parts of industry have discovered that good, rigorous management can transform an organi- sation. Bus managers have yet to be touched by this magic wand.

There is one beacon, or rather digital display, of hope. Some bus routes now use Countdown, which tells you how long you will have to wait for the next bus. This does little for the quality of the service, but works marvels on the blood pressure. LT says it will be available across London within 10 years. I hope my arteries hold out that long.