During that time, 50-60 years ago, it was perhaps understandable to a point – health and safety regulations not being the constant reminder they are now – that vehicles were rickety and belched out black smoke that no doubt did your lungs not a lot of good! That was the view as you watched a lopsided second or third hand bus struggling to leave the bust stop and with great effort slowly moving along like an elderly person laden with shopping.
I never used them much but I do recall using the brown and yellow or blue and yellow Spanish buses to go to La Linea. I would also jump on a local one when I sometimes went to the beach during the summer months. On those, you would be advised to hold on tightly so as not to slide off your seat, there was that much shuddering and trembling! Then other companies took over the routes and things improved somewhat. The problem was always one of maintenance and replacement of vehicles. Many would agree, our bus service deteriorated to Third World standards. Again, the vision of watching a hardly road worthy bus slowly and painfully climbing up Europa Road at two miles an hour spewing out thick, black smoke, was not a rare one and adding to that pleasing view was the ‘EUROPA POINT 40p’ tariff, written in felt pen on a piece of cardboard stuck between the back seat and rear window of the vehicle…what a sight!
Anywhere in the Western World even then, a decent bus service must have been a priority. Well, it was during this lockdown of hours watching so much television, especially news and documentary programmes seeing those well overladen buses in Africa and India moving along – sometimes not so slowly – with passengers hanging onto any part of the bus they can grab, including sitting on the roof of those way passed their sell-by-date-vehicles being weighed down even further with the passengers’ possessions.
Our bus service deteriorated to Third World standards.
Hence my thoughts took me back to yesteryear and our bus service on the Rock. Of course, it was never anything like the above but the state and performance of the vehicles in many cases left a great deal to be desired. Well, eventually the penny dropped somewhere and someone took notice – not a second too soon I would say – as the blatant need for addressing the issue was well overdue regarding what could only be described as a joke of a bus service and an embarrassment for Gibraltar.
Today thankfully, we can be proud of our bus service. The Gibraltar Bus Company began operating a smart fleet of buses fit for purpose in January 2004. The existing route operators were duly compensated and Government took over the bus service for the whole of Gib, except for the border to town route which is shared with buses run by Calypso Transport.
Some of the regulations required when joining The Gibraltar Bus Company’s fleet included drivers needing to hold a ‘D’ licence allowing them to drive a Public Service Vehicle or a ‘white licence’ to handle one of the expensive buses on our narrow roads with would-be drivers also having to go through a thorough training programme; there’s a need to learn how to work the ticket machine amongst other things and go through a vehicle familiarisation course and understand there is no room for complacency and sloppiness. For instance, the old practice of stopping anywhere to let passengers off is now out of the question. They must only stop at designated bus stops – certainly a different culture!
I would imagine negotiating the small arches at Southport Gates entering Main Street and turning that long vehicle into Governor’s Lane just past the King’s Chapel must take some practice and a quite a chore to get just right. Seniors, school children and some other categories travel for free.
During these Covid times, however, masks are compulsory on board, although at the time of writing and for obvious reasons, you won’t see too many of those smart red people carriers on our roads. Also, these days, you can track the bus you’re hoping to get on and make your way to your bus stop on time, by following it on route via your mobile or other clever gadget. The company provides a Night Service when needed and hopefully, things will be back to normal soon.
From time to time there have been complaints about the service not being adequate for Upper Town residents – many of whom are elderly – with buses being smaller for that route needing to negotiate the narrower roads and streets of that area. Consequently, the bus is invariably full when individuals are waiting at a stop in town wanting to return home in the upper district. And also from time to time, there have been other issues to do with pram and wheelchair access and space. I’ve heard would be passengers sometimes complain about ‘no room on the bus’ in the mornings when children take up all the seats on their way to school.
They must only stop at designated bus stops – certainly a different culture!
These days however, we’re being encouraged to leave our cars at home and walk, cycle or – when things get back to normal – jump on a bus! I think most people find the service reliable; buses are generally on time, bar traffic holdups, they’re kept clean and are comfortable. Soon, we’re informed, we’ll be treated to the electric version as we’ve already witnessed with the smart Royal Post Office vans now in service. Bus stops too are comfortable and kept clean.
So all is well by and large as far as our bus service is concerned, but thinking back, I clearly still remember the old folk decades ago, who had no cars and couldn’t afford taxis, having to rely on rapidly, ageing, uncomfortable vehicles that provided us with a so-called bus service. When out in town shopping and were ready to return home, they would say: “Voy a cojer el charabanc – el que va parriva pa’l Castillo,” (“Going to get the bus, the one going up to the Upper Town area”).
Yes, thankfully, things have very much improved but I still ponder over the reasons why we ran those ancient, lopsided vehicles for so long well into the very late 90s and into the 2000s. I’m sure for many, that still remains a mystery!
In the meantime, if you’re a bus user, look on the bright side and ahead to a Covid-free atmosphere when you won’t have to jump on an old, rickety, rust bucket… and enjoy your bus ride!