8 December 2023

Newsflash: buses are big and driving them is harder than you think

| James Coleman
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Bus driver trainers

Transport Canberra bus driver trainer Paul Coleman and head of training Heidi Stephenson. Photo: James Coleman.

Transport Canberra has been screaming out for more drivers for as long as I’ve been alive.

It’s hard to see why. On the surface, it looks like a pretty awesome job.

You get to sit down on the job with your favourite radio station or podcast going, and you’re in command of 10 tonnes of machinery. There are even hissing and roaring noises. And to mix things up occasionally, you’ll come across a challenging corner.

And, in the words of head of training Heidi Stephenson, “You’re out in the community, and get to see Canberra”.

We should probably also mention the base salary of $41.72 an hour.

READ ALSO Fuel price relief arrives ahead of Christmas holidays (finally)

To entice new drivers into the big seat, Transport Canberra holds ‘Come and Try Days’ at the Sutton Road Training Centre near Queanbeyan to give prospective drivers the chance to cut their teeth and see if all this is truly for them.

Purely in the interests of journalism (okay, maybe not purely), I attended the most recent event to see what it’s like. It didn’t hurt that my trainer would also happen to be my uncle, Paul Coleman.

“Normally, we have about 150 people come,” head of training Heidi Stephenson says.

“The majority of people we see today have never sat in the seat of a heavy vehicle. Many have well-established careers in all sorts of different fields and they’re just looking for something a bit different.”


Waiting and ready. Photo: James Coleman.

The day starts when I hand over my driver’s licence to a woman in hi-viz under a gazebo and sign a waiver I should probably have read more closely than I did. Then you’re allocated your own personal trainer for the half-hour session. It’s just like a gym, really.

If you think, “I can drive a car, I can drive a bus”, there are some differences. Some rather big ones.

Unlike a car, the steering wheel on a bus is spread out before you like a large dinner plate. There’s the head of a lion on mine, indicating it’s a Scania – among the nicest of the bus brands, I’m told. The seat is suspended on what feels like a cloud and yes, I can reach all the controls and the window blinds (the first box on the trainer’s checklist ticked – some people are simply too short).

Bus cabin

At the wheel of a Transport Canberra bus. Photo: James Coleman.

Heidi says the comments coming from all the newbies are the same.

“Because you’re sitting ahead of the front wheels, the turn is quite unusual. And the sheer length, of course – you have to consider that.”

The training centre includes a 2.5-km two-lane tarmac circuit dressed like a standard road (but with fewer potholes and cyclists). The first turn is a sweeping uphill right-hander and I’m instructed to almost head into the dirt before turning to make sure the end of the bus clears the centre white line. For left-handers, my body must be positioned over this centre white line to successfully make it around.

READ ALSO Victoria rode every single one of Canberra’s bus routes in a year – here’s what she found

This is among the smaller buses in the TC fleet, but I’m still using all of the road on every corner. I’m told the bendy buses are easier because they … well, bend.

On the home straight, we can get up to 60 km/h. The diesel engine doesn’t exactly hurry all 10 tonnes along, but there’s enough torque for me – and certainly when the steering ‘plate’ is at an angle while the wheels themselves are tracking straight as an arrow. On the whole, it’s very disconcerting.

So are the brakes. They’re very ‘grabby’. I now sympathise with why drivers struggle to glide to a silky-smooth stop. It takes conscientious effort.

I pull up as elegantly as possible behind the other buses, where my trainer again refers to his checklist. What are they looking for? And did I pass the first hurdle to my new career/side hustle?

Bus driver

You’d get on this bus, wouldn’t you? … Wouldn’t you? Photo: Paul Coleman.

“We’re not expecting people to know what they’re doing,” Heidi says.

“We’re basically looking to see if you can take instruction. If you can listen, we can train.”

This whole experience does count towards your application, although there are many hoops to jump through before you’re an official employee, from police and medical checks to a sit-down interview and four weeks of full-time training.

But I can confirm I now come recommended by Paul Coleman. If that counts.

To apply to become a bus driver, visit the Transport Canberra website.

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William Newby7:09 am 11 Dec 23

News flash, driving these massive (empty) busses all over the ACT creates a lot of carbon emissions. Sure the electric busses are coming, but driving empty million dollar busses all over Canberra will also be insanely expensive.
I used to think those that worked on the docks were heavily unionised, that was before I moved to Canberra.
Like everything managed by the current ACT gov, our bus network is massively expensive and inefficient.

If public transport was more in tune with people’s needs, more people would use it so those emissions per person would reduce.

Leon Arundell10:49 am 10 Dec 23

Driving a diesel or CNG bus causes a lot of greenhouse emissions. Transport Canberra’s buses provided 14 million boardings on 2022-23, and caused 33,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions. The average 12 km journey involves 1.4 boardings. That means 270 grams of emissions per passenger-km. Car travel causes only about 200 grams per person per km.

Samuel Gordon-Stewart7:38 pm 10 Dec 23

I don’t care in the slightest about the emissions of a vehicle, as long as they’re fun to drive. And buses most definitely are, as are other heavy vehicles. In fact, if I could afford it, I would quite happily make a prime mover my daily driver. Parking at the local shops would be a challenge but every drive would be very enjoyable.

GrumpyGrandpa10:30 pm 10 Dec 23

Hi Leon,

Rarely have I been on a bus, where it’s only me and the driver. During Peak on R services, it’s usually “noses in armpits” busy, but yes, at other times, like at night through the suburbs, there will be buses that are running empty.

The thing to remember when pulling Stat’s is that low patronage services that are producing high CO2 per passenger kilometre, are provided by the government, as a service to the broader community.

The government provides these services to enable those without cars, our kids with part-time or casual jobs, shift workers such as nurses etc. to be able to travel home at night, safely.

We are a family of 3 adults and we have one car. , there are three of us and one car. The car comes out of the garage, on average, about once a fortnight. Collectively, we make about 30 bus trips per week.

The problem in pulling Stat’s and averaging out the length of bus trips, average passengers per trip and CO2 emissions per passenger kilometre vs the average CO2 per car passenger kilometre, is that using that logic, the government should cease operating a bus service and just buy every bus commuter a car.

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