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On a normal summer day, scores of open-top buses stream out of the Big Bus Tours engineering depot in London, heading out onto the streets of the UK capital, ready to pick up curious tourists. If even one of them is late, that’s a big problem.
“It runs like clockwork here. In the summer we have, like, up to 65 buses a day going out. So you haven’t got much room for error,” said Rory Budge, 36, who is technically called a senior electrician at the company.
For Budge, that means keeping a close eye on things, picking up and dealing with minor problems like a blown bulb or topping up the washer fluid, before moving on to tackle the more formal inspection process that takes place every 42 days.
His shift starts at 6:30 in the morning and finishes around 3:30 in the afternoon Monday through Friday, but over the summer months he’s often in on a Saturday as well.
A big challenge for Budge — who has been at the company for nine years — and the rest of the team is coping with the effects of London’s unpredictable weather, which often means plenty of rain, even in the summer months.
Companies like Big Bus Tours want to attract tourists from all over the world and one of the ways it does this is by offering pre-recorded audio commentary in multiple languages — in London there are 12 on offer — through headphones. On some buses there are also live guides.
The buses open tops, however, mean it is relatively easy for water to get in, which could mean corroded wires or issues with the headphone sockets.
“We’ve got the little … modules that mount into the back of the seats and, obviously, you plug your earphones into those modules and then you can listen to the tour guides. It’s just making sure they don’t get a bit of water ingress in them, and as and when, replacing them,” he said.
Like so many other tourism-related jobs, Budge’s role is several steps removed from the thousands of travelers who step on and off each day. But connections can occur in strange ways.
“The funny things I find on buses is when some families will go to Madame Tussauds and they leave their pictures behind on the bus,” he said.
Seeing the Sights
Big Bus Tours was created in 2011 from the merger of London-based The Big Bus Company and Paris’s Les Cars Rouges. Both businesses can trace their origins back to the early 1990s. It claims to be the largest operator of open-top sightseeing bus tours in the world.
Private equity firm Exponent bought the enlarged company in 2015, and it has steadily added cities across the world and now operates in 23 destinations with a global fleet of 550 open-top buses, handling 6 million tourists every year. Theme park operator Merlin Entertainments in 2016 took a 15 percent stake in the firm.
This global approach has opened up plenty of doors for Budge.
“I’ve done a lot of traveling for Big Bus. I mean, over the years I’ve been to San Francisco, Washington, Dubai, Paris, Budapest, Vienna, New York, you know, there’s a lot of opportunities here,” he said.
Visiting different cities across the world came off the back of an interest in mechanics that goes back all the way to Budge’s teenage years.
“Well, I suppose it goes back to when I was about 13 years old, and I had my first motorbike. Obviously it broke down, and then from there on I kind of, like, tinkered around with the engines, and it was a natural talent that I had: I could repair things. It was just the route I went down, vehicle maintenance,” he said.
Budge’s knowledge of what’s under the hood has grown over the years, and it has meant adapting engines so that they can pass stricter environmental tests.
Big Bus Tours started operating retrofitted electric vehicles back in 2015 and followed this up two years later with its first new build. It currently has four electric buses, one in Paris and three in Washington, D.C.
In the meantime, while there are still fossil fuel-powered buses in the fleet, the mechanics have to do what they can.
“We are fitting the new Euro 6 exhaust systems to lower the emissions and lower our carbon footprint, and it is quite good, actually, because obviously in the motor trade you’ve got to keep up with the times because, well, if you come off the boil … you suffer,” Budge said.
While Big Bus Tours as a company keeps an eye on the latest environmental legislation in each of the cities it operates in, Budge’s primary focus on a daily basis remains making sure each bus leaves the depot on time and fault-free.
“I mean, at the end of the day, if we don’t get good reviews, we don’t get people buying our tickets, and then it reflects badly on the engineering side,” said Budge.