Suspend London buses in heat waves, says union
Unite tells the Spy new safety rules are needed if bus drivers can't be kept cool in their cabs
Morning — this July has been relatively mild in London, especially when compared to a pretty blazing June. In fact, temperatures were so high last month that there was a spate of claims online that London bus drivers were overheating in their cabs and fainting. We look into the claims and how London’s bus network may need to change as extreme heat becomes more common after your Sunday briefing below.
Plus: Sunak takes on Khan not once but twice, a reprieve for London opera fans, and a year in the life of a man walking barefoot around London.
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What we’ve spied
😡 Sadiq Khan seems to be living in Rishi Sunak’s head rent-free at the moment, with the prime minister publicly bashing the London mayor twice in a week. The first time was over housing — on Thursday Sunak announced he was ‘stepping in’ to review the London Plan. That’s basically a big planning strategy document drawn up by Khan in 2021 that identifies how and where to build in the capital. It also sets an annual housebuilding target of 52,000, which isn’t being met. Sunak reckons he can do a better job and announced new housing funding for boroughs that will bypass City Hall. Khan called the intervention “desperate nonsense”. The second time came on Saturday, when Sunak urged Khan to “think twice” about expanding ULEZ to all of outer London. It follows Khan’s victory in the High Court on Friday against five councils that were trying to stop the new £12.50 daily charge on the most polluting cars from going ahead. One last bit of Khan bashing — from his Conservative rival in next year’s mayoral election, Susan Hall. She called him a “misogynist” in an interview with the Spectator this week for the way he sacked the previous Met Police commissioner, Cressida Dick.
⚖️ The operator of the Croydon tram and TfL have been fined a total of £14m for safety failings leading up to the deadly 2016 crash. Tram Operations Limited, a subsidiary of FirstGroup, and TfL pleaded guilty to the failings at a hearing at the Old Bailey this week. Neither body had conducted a risk assessment for the possibility of a derailment before the crash, which occurred when a speeding tram overturned at a sharp turn approaching the Sandilands junction in Croydon. Seven people died and 61 were injured. The tram driver, Alfred Dorris, 49, was last month found not guilty of failing to take reasonable care of his passengers.
🎭 The English National Opera is staying in London for an extra three years after Arts Council England extended its deadline to relocate. The ENO moving out of London has been a bit of a sore point for some, and members of the opera company recently protested outside of City Hall. Others say it needs to go from the capital to reflect the government’s levelling-up agenda. It was originally going to move by March 2024, but ACE has now said it has until March 2029 to establish its new headquarters. Elsewhere in the city’s high culture — the director of the British Museum is stepping down next year after eight years in the post.
🏚️ Possibly a new record for the shortest-lived development in London — demolition has started on flats in Peckham built just 12 years ago. Four residential blocks, known collectively as Solomon’s Passage, have lain empty ever since residents were moved out due to dangerous leaks six years ago. Attempts to redevelop the block in the years since failed and now it’s being knocked down to make way for 91 new homes.
🚴♂️ A pedicab horror story from a tourist who says she was charged £450 for a seven-minute journey in central London. April Argenau was charged the sum after a 1.3-mile (2km) trip from Oxford Street to the Royal Lancaster hotel, and she says she felt threatened by the driver when she challenged the high fee. There definitely seems to be growing scrutiny of the growth in pedicabs in central London — last month some business owners said pedicabs and their blasting music were ruining the West End. Some say the problem is that laws covering pedicabs have not been updated since 1869 and the bikes are treated as stage carriages, meaning anyone can buy a pedicab and begin charging people fees.
🦶 Who needs pedicabs when you’ve got your own two feet — a man has written in the Guardian about his experience of walking around London barefoot for a year. Smooth tube platforms, corrugated escalators and sandpaper-like walkways are just some of the tactile highlights experienced by the feet of Michael Peacock, who ditched his shoes in March last year. He says the snow in London last December was his biggest test, though he’s regularly had to battle people insisting he put on some shoes. His rationale: “Being barefoot makes me feel more grounded and helps with my wellbeing. Hardly anyone else seems to have an idea how incredible it feels and it’s most interesting when done in a city. I’ll never go back to wearing shoes again.”
👀 Spotted: Kevin Spacey celebrating in Soho after being cleared of sexual assault allegations in court. The actor was seen having a ciggy outside the private members club the Groucho Club not long after he received the not guilty verdict at Southwark Crown Court on what was also his 64th birthday.
‘You’re sweating bucket-loads’
London bus services should be suspended during extreme heat waves if cabs can’t be kept cool, the union for the capital's drivers has told the Spy.
Unite’s call for new safety rules in extreme temperatures comes after claims of London bus drivers fainting from heat exhaustion were circulated on social media during last month’s heat wave.
Unite says it also has received reports of drivers collapsing from heat exhaustion, but TfL contests these reports. London’s transport authority told the Spy it has not found any evidence of drivers passing out due to heat, and stressed that London buses are designed to protect both drivers and passengers from extreme temperatures.
“That cab is very uncomfortable. You’re absolutely sweating bucket-loads,” is the description of a hot cab by James Rossi, a London bus driver, in a video posted on TikTok last month.
Rossi is one of 1,600 people who’ve signed a new petition calling on the capital’s bus operators to ensure air conditioning is working on buses. Though all London buses are fitted with air-con, both Rossi and Unite claim it doesn’t always work properly — meaning drivers are at risk of overheating, passing out and crashing.
Rossi points to two incidents in London in June as evidence that this worst-case scenario is already playing out.
The first involved a 141 bus crash on Green Lanes on June 13. The bus veered off of the north London road and collided with a fence and hedge outside a block of flats. No one was injured.
The Islington Gazette reported claims from one passenger of the bus that the driver had fainted due to the heat and “regained consciousness soon after the crash”, and Rossi has repeated the claim the driver passed out due to heat.
At the time TfL did not comment on the possibility of heat exhaustion as it awaited bus operator Arriva to complete an internal investigation of the cause of the crash.
But TfL has now told the Spy the investigation found the incident was not due to heat.
Another incident just days earlier has also caught the attention of Rossi and other users on social media.
On June 11 a photo circulated online purporting to show a driver of a 147 bus lying on the floor unconscious. According to Rossi: “The driver felt nauseous and got out of the cab, threw up, and passed out from heat exhaustion.”
Presented with Rossi’s claims, TfL said it had no evidence the incident involved a driver, rather than a customer, or that the incident was heat related.
On paper, all London bus cabs are fitted with air conditioning, but some drivers say the system is often not adequate to keep them cool.
“If you do put the blower on, it just blows warm air,” said Rossi. “You’ve got a hot floor, because of the electronics underneath and that’s heating up your feet. You’ve got all the electronic panels on the dash that are quite hot. And then you’ve got glass all around you, which is basically creating a greenhouse effect.”
Heat on London’s transport was drawn into sharp focus last year during the record-breaking heatwave. In July 2022 TfL urged customers not to travel due to the heat, and one bus driver claimed his cab had reached an internal temperature of 44C.
Some drivers have long spoken out about the heat in their cabs. In 2021 a bus driver confronted mayor Sadiq Khan about heat on a call-in radio show, telling him “we’re sweating like pigs”.
In a statement to the Spy, TfL outlined features of London buses designed to keep drivers cool.
It pointed to every bus having reflective roofs, insulation and opening windows, and said its new double-decker buses have air cooling. It also highlighted that its efforts to make its fleet zero-emission will reduce heat from the engine.
A spokesperson for Unite declined to comment on the individual cases in London from last month. However the union, which represents London bus drivers, says it is currently seeking a new extreme temperature agreement with bus operators, including the fitting of temperature monitors.
If the temperature in the cab exceed 30C for more than hour, then drivers should not be required to work and services should be suspended without loss of pay.
Unite national lead officer Onay Kasab told us: “Unite is demanding bus operating companies agree safe guidelines for working in extreme temperatures.
“We’ve already received reports of drivers collapsing from heat exhaustion. We also know that air conditioning is not fit for purpose, we’ve even received reports of air conditioning being completely removed from some buses. It’s no wonder workers are demanding action to protect workers and passengers this summer.”
Tom Cunnington, TfL’s head of bus business development, said: “The welfare and safety of our staff and customers is our top priority and we're working hard to ensure that we adapt to, and prepare, for increased hot weather. Buses are already equipped with features to keep cool, including air conditioning in all drivers' cabs and we continue to explore further measures to keep people cool.
“While operators have many measures in place to protect staff, if, for whatever reason, drivers do not feel they can carry out their duties safely, they should contact the controller and action will be taken to support them.
“With heat waves becoming more frequent we also have a comprehensive hot weather plan in place to keep services running and to protect our staff and customers.”
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