“Why is the bus late?” Because they’re not magic!

In a perfect world, buses would run reliably, turn up when they’re supposed to, and get you to your destination on schedule.

Unfortunately we don’t live in a perfect world, and there are a number of very good reasons why buses will often run late.

I felt compelled to write this article after seeing the following post on Twitter / X this afternoon:

Now while it is never nice to have to wait longer for a bus than you should, I’m pretty sure this delay isn’t because “the driver couldn’t be bothered to depart on time”.

The reality is that if an inbound journey gets delayed, then the outbound journey will also be delayed as well, depending on how much ‘layover’ or recovery time is factored in at the terminus and timing points along the route.

I’m pretty sure that most drivers would love to depart on time and complete their duty as scheduled, so they can go home too!

But what causes buses to run late? It amazes me still that many people don’t quite grasp this, but I think it’s a sad reflection on the ‘me me me’ society we have created, where people make a grievance out of being personally inconvenienced, while failing to look at the ‘bigger picture’.

Traffic congestion

Buses have to use the same roads as other vehicles. Roads get congested when there are a large number of vehicles using them. If other traffic is slow moving, then buses will be slow moving as well.

Unfortunately buses don’t yet have the ability to fly over the rest of the traffic.

Bus-only lanes are supposed to and can help with this, but not when they are blocked by parked cars, or as with the Stratford Road in Sparkbrook, where queuing traffic ‘straddles’ the bus lane preventing buses from freely flowing along them.

I’m always reminded of one particular journey I used to make on the X1/X2 from Swan Island to Bordesley station. There was regularly slow-moving traffic along Small Heath Highway (this was a few years ago before the bus priority measures were installed) in the morning peak towards city, and most mornings the buses were reduced to a crawl, alongside the other traffic.

There was this one passenger, who was sat somewhere behind me, who was on the phone to someone, and they were saying something along the lines of “this bus driver is taking the piss, going so slow man”.


Congestion is also caused when you have roadworks being carried out, where you have lanes coned off, or temporary traffic lights in place to manage contraflows. Same volume of traffic, but less road space, equals severe congestion.

Again, buses can’t magically fly over these, they get stuck in the same queues as everyone else!


Road closures can either be scheduled (for major roadworks) or unplanned (traffic accidents). Either way, if a bus has to deviate from its normal line of route, that is going to add to the journey time. Especially if the diversion route proves to be quite lengthy, after all buses can’t just rat run through little side roads like smaller vehicles can.

Excessive ‘dwell’ time

Timetables are designed to factor in the time taken to travel between stops, as well as allowing for ‘dwell’ time at stops. Dwell is the time allowed for passengers to alight from the bus, and for other passengers to board. In most cases, this can happen in a matter of seconds, but on rare occasions you may have a large number of passengers alighting or trying to board.

Dwell time also increases at stops when you have:

  • Passengers messing about with their smartphones trying to buy tickets when the bus arrives
  • Passengers sitting upstairs at the rear of the bus who only get out of their seats and move downstairs when the bus has stopped!
  • Passengers who decide they don’t need a valid ticket to board and ignore calls/requests from drivers who then decide to park up in protest
  • Passengers who haven’t done their homework beforehand and start asking the driver about ticket options and journey planning!

Genuine circumstances

Of course there can be other genuine circumstances where for whatever reason a bus service ends up delayed.

  • A relief driver is late or fails to show
  • A bus has to be taken out of service due to a mechanical fault, vandalism, or health and safety issue
  • A bus is involved in a road traffic accident/collision
  • A road traffic accident/collision occurs and there is insufficient notice for drivers to divert to avoid the incident/area
Aftermath of an accident that occurred on Stratford Road on 4th October where a large number of buses got stuck as a result

It’s not done deliberately!

As I said earlier, it’s never nice when a bus journey is late or cancelled, which causes inconvenience to passengers. But in the vast majority of cases, despite what some people would have you believe, the bus companies and their drivers are not doing this deliberately.

I’m reminded of one evening while waiting for my bus on the Stratford Road in Sparkbrook – traffic was very heavy and slow moving in both directions and had been for some time. I’d been waiting for some time and so had another intending passenger. I finally saw my bus coming down from Camp Hill island, and still took a couple of minutes to get to the stop. While I was quite grateful that a bus had eventually arrived, I was taken aback by this other passenger launching into a verbal tirade against this poor driver, “where have you been? why are you so late?” etc etc.

Sometimes I have to stop myself because one day I’ll get myself into serious trouble, but like with the other guy earlier on the X1, in my own head I am saying “open your eyes and look around at what is going on!”

Be prepared!

Details of current and upcoming diversions and disruptions can be found on the TfWM website. Notices will also be posted on individual bus operators’ own websites or Twitter feeds.

If you have a smartphone, you can use the TfWM app to check on expected arrival times at nearby bus stops. Alternatively there is the excellent BusTimes website where you can see exactly where the next bus is on your route.

Do your homework beforehand! If you’re making an unfamiliar journey, use the TfWM Journey Planner to find your best options. While many drivers will try and be as helpful as they can, they are there to just drive the bus and issue the tickets they are asked for.

Finally, if you do get on a bus that is running late, please don’t start taking your anger out on the driver, after all it is most likely not their fault they are late, and they will be just as equally frustrated as you are.


About WMBU

Stu is the founder of this West Midlands Bus Users website.
He is not a bus enthusiast, but as a regular passenger takes an interest in public transport related matters, having relied on buses to get around for over twenty-five years now.

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