Wednesday, 15 April 2009
Chapter 2 Chiswick Driving School
Before attending the London Transport driving school at Chiswick I had to apply for the job of Bus Driver at London Transport headquarters in London.
As I said earlier, when I left school with a reasonable amount of qualifications I became a research engineer with the GPO research station at Dollis Hill North London. For the last three years I had been involved in research into digital communications and micro processors, which by a small quirk of fate would eventually lead, forty years later, to this lap top computer on which I am now typing this manuscript. However the big red bus proved to be too alluring.
I took a half days leave and attended a job interview at London Transport headquarters. One entered a very large room which had various desks with signs on them saying, Bus Conductors, Underground Train Drivers, Train Guards and Bus Drivers. I was very tempted to apply for a job as a train driver, but knowing that train drivers at that time were required to have exceptionally good eyesight, I decided to walk over to the bus drivers desk. I had at the age of sixteen been turned down by the RAF because of my eyesight not meeting their high standards. Even any standard was to be sorely tested very soon!
Having signed a job application form and given a brief interview in which I was asked “what on earth are you applying for this job with your qualification” I said I really enjoyed my preliminary drive and thought I would like working for London Transport. This appeared to satisfy the interviewer. One thing I didn’t know at the time was that my pay as a London bus driver was to be higher than that of a research engineer. The GPO paid me ten pounds a week where as a London bus driver earned twelve pounds a week. The ensuing years would see this pay differential swing completely around and see bus drivers wages fall below average earnings.
I was told to go into the medical examination room. Here I had my blood pressure taken and given a brief examination. I was then told to go into an adjoining room and stand on the yellow line. Not knowing what this was for I walked into the room, saw a yellow line on the floor and stood on it. Next a young lady walked in and said “would you mind turning around so that you face the eyesight chart and not the door!” I hadn’t even seen the eyesight chart, what a start to my driving career.
Fortunately I did pass the medical and eyesight test and was allocated to Edgware garage. I was told I would be sent a letter and travel voucher telling me when to attend the driving school at Chiswick.
When I told my parents that I wanted to be a bus driver my mother went mad. She said she wouldn’t talk to me again, and told me I was throwing away all my education. I tried to pacify her by saying that just because I was taking a preliminary test did not mean I had to become a bus driver. However once having been accepted as a driver after my interview in London I then had to put in my resignation to the GPO. I told my mother that even then I could return to the GPO within six months with out loss of my position. This did not pacify her.
A cousin who was visiting from Australia said to me that I had to do what I wanted no matter what other people wanted of me. Thanks to Sally, my future was set. Whenever I see her even forty years on she still asks if I’m doing all right as if she were personally responsible for me becoming a bus driver, but I am still glad I took that advice of hers, and it is one I have passed on to my own children.
I was now partially disowned by my family; my father would still talk to me, although as he worked all day as a cost clerk at Hendon Town Hall and in the evenings worked as a telephone operator at Stonegrove telephone exchange Edgware, I didn’t see him very much.
On the morning Tuesday July the 4th 1967 I set off for Chiswick. Although I had never been in the Army I have been told by many ex servicemen that London Transport was run on the same lines as the Army and Chiswick proved to be no exception. There was a very large parade ground which was dominated by drivers and conductors in there smart uniforms of light weight summer dust jackets in silver with either blue or green cuffs and dark navy or dark green trousers topped of with a smart cap with a shinning badge denoting your rank. Manoeuvring amongst these ranks of drivers and conductors were the Red Buses of the driving school of which I was soon to be driving. But first the class room. Into this room were herded all the new potential drivers and conductors of that weeks intake. We were given numerous forms to fill in, most seemed to be about who we were going to leave our London Transport pension funds to in the event of our death. There were forms about pensions, benevolent societies, sports clubs and one for joining the Transport and General Workers Union. All of which I duly signed up to. I now belonged to the Union, I had a pension, I could join all sorts of sporting activities and if I were to fall sick I could claim sickness benefit, all I had to do now was to learn to drive a bus to the standards required by London Transport and pass a driving test to obtain a Public Service Vehicle licence.
Next the kitting out shop. We were marched to this building and moved like a conveyor belt along this long counter behind which stood formidable persons who supplied us with our uniform.
“What size hat do you wear?”
“I don’t know”
“This looks like it’ll fit son”
“Try these; they’ll stay up with braces”
“You look skinny this jacket should fit m’ lad”
All of sudden we were out of the room with our uniform in a kit bag ready to meet our driving instructors. At this point drivers and conductors were separated never to meet again until your first day in service at your garage.
As drivers we went into yet another class room where we were to meet our respective instructors. There were four of us drivers allocated to Edgware garage and our instructor was a wonderful instructor called George Martin.
George was short in stature and balding with a surrounding halo of ginger hair and ginger moustache to match. I only realised he was balding when I first saw him with out his resplendent cap with its Blue badge denoting him to be an instructor. His first instruction to us was to make our way to the canteen for a quick cup of tea before commencing our training.
On the way to the canteen I was accosted by this large gentleman in a suit and trilby hat. “Excuse me lad, if you want a job here to-morrow I would suggest you get your hair cut this evening” not knowing who he was I just said yes and continued over to the canteen thinking bloody cheek. George, who had witnessed the incident, asked me what was said, so I told him.
”Do you know who that was? That was the chief of the driving school! So you’d best get a hair cut”
Oh well of to a good start then. A hair cut then meant almost a short back and sides. Thank goodness that rule was to be forgotten as time passed.
After tea we went out to meet our bus. We were first shown all around the bus familiarising ourselves with the position of mirrors, radiator caps and learning the correct procedure for climbing into the cab. Having learnt how to get into the cab correctly we then had to learn how to get out correctly.
As time progressed I soon learnt that London Transport had a correct way for doing everything and that the London Transport way was the right way.
Although as a very young inexperienced driver I often fell way short of those standards as later chapters will show.
Now I could get into and out of the cab safely I was now shown how to start and stop the bus smoothly without throwing any potential passenger to the floor.
After about an hour's instruction it was time to head off to Edgware Garage. For the second time in my life I was about to drive a bus on the open road and this was not a quiet Sunday morning but rush hour on Chiswick High Road. On the training bus the window which separates the drivers cab from the saloon of the bus had been removed so that the driving instructor could shout directions at you from his position two seats back from the front nearside of the saloon. Although in George's case shouting was never necessary. His quiet confident manner would put you at ease and shouting was never needed. I was soon headed out along the Chiswick High Road and eventually arrived back at Edgware Garage.
Each morning I and the other three drivers would meet at Edgware Garage and await the arrival of our instructor. On the bulkhead of the bus was a small blackboard with the words “Accidents are caused, they don’t happen” Over the course of the next two weeks I was to learn that this was in fact the case. I was taught how to look ahead and read the road, to look for potential hazards, to always be aware of what was around me and always to concentrate on what I was doing.
Each morning it was a pleasure to walk to the garage. The mornings were clear and fresh with the promise of a warm day to come. Each day we would take it in turns to drive for a couple of hours ending up around lunch time at Chiswick or even some ‘foreign garage’. After lunch, if we were at Chiswick, we would practice reversing manoeuvres. As the reversing part of the driving test was taken within the driving school at Chiswick it was impossible to fail the reversing exercise, why? Because we could cheat.
The parade ground on which we practices reversing was laid out with large sections of concrete some what like a large chess board. There were also numerous spots of dried oil on the floor. To reverse a bus one had to drive the bus in reverse and perform a left hand turn and place the bus parallel to a line of cones. This all being done by mirror observation. But if you had listened carefully to your instructor you will have been told that whilst reversing, a quick glance out of the cab will show you a small patch of oil, or the intersection of two slabs of concrete and when you are along side this point put full left hand lock on your steering wheel and your bus will line up with the cones. Of course don’t let the examiner see you do this!
So two weeks of intensive training soon passed, during which time we were told to use our own cars as little as possible so that we could get use to the pre-select gear box of the RTW bus. One of the tricks the instructor had to make you aware of your vehicle width was to take you up Church Street, Kensington which ran between Kensington High Street and Notting Hill Gate. This was a narrow road and often very congested with parked vehicles. However the number 52 bus negotiated this road on its long journey between Victoria and Mill Hill. I was very familiar with this route. As a young boy I would often use it to go to the Science museum in Kensington, although on one occasion I remember approaching Hyde park Corner feeling a little travel sick, my mother noticing this, quickly removed me to the rear platform of the bus and promptly gave my stomach a good squeeze, leaving a trail of vomit for the following taxis and cars to plough through. At least I arrived at Victoria feeling a bit better. My mother was a nurse from a very young age you know!
I digress; the trainee driver would be driving up Kensington Church Street and following the route 52 bus which would just have enough room to drive between parked vehicles when all of a sudden the instructor's voice would call out “you are six inches wider than him!!” As I said earlier the service vehicles were generally RT types which were seven foot six inches wide where as the RTW type we were learning on was eight foot wide.
At some point near the end of our two weeks instruction our examiner would ask us to pull up at a bus stop and pick up, another instructor. If we had looked carefully we would have seen that this instructor did not have a blue badge on his cap but a beautiful gold and red cap badge. This was a Gold Badge Inspector, one not to be messed about with. His purpose was the reverse of the instructor, he was not on board to put you at your ease, but to try and upset you. He would criticize your driving, make loud remarks to your instructor, in fact anything to get you flustered. In one instance I remember him telling a fellow trainee that his seat was positioned incorrectly. Within the next few minutes that driver who up to then had been driving without any faults had managed to clip the kerb a couple of times, all because he had allowed the Gold badge Inspector to irritate him. After that experience which we all went through George pointed out that we must learn to ignore those things on the road which could easily distract us from driving our bus safely. Some how as the years have passed these things have become more numerous, bad and inconsiderate driving by others, and of course now we have become one man operators, sorry one person operators, we now have passengers shouting at us or yelling into mobile phones or generally doing things which distract us from driving those same passengers safely to their destination.
Finally the day of my driving test. Over the last two weeks I had taken in all George had told me, I’d familiarised myself yet again with the Highway Code, last looked at four years earlier when I’d passed my car driving test. I had become accustomed to driving the same bus every day. Unfortunately one small surprise awaited me. George told me that our bus had to go in for servicing and that I would be taking my test with a group of trainees from Leatherhead Garage. Help! I would be driving a strange bus and be with other drivers who I did not know, country drivers at that.
London Transport Buses was divided into two groups, Central Buses, the Red Buses of London and London Country Buses whose buses were of the same type but were painted in Lincoln green and operated from garages in such far flung places as Tring in the north, East Grinstead in the south, Windsor in the west and Dartford in the east. They also ran the Green Line Coaches which provided fast journeys from the Home Counties into and through central London.
I boarded this unfamiliar bus and sat upstairs whilst the first trainee climbed into the cab and began his test drive under the watchful eye of the examiner. The examiner told the trainee to pull up near Marble Arch and told him to turn off the engine and alight from the cab. I was called down to the saloon where I was told to climb into the cab and follow all instructions given to me, if I was unclear as to the instructions I was to ask again. The bus did seem a little different, as of course no two vehicles are the same. I drove along Bayswater Road and was instructed to turn right into Park Lane and follow the directions for Victoria; this meant negotiating Marble Arch which was always very busy. As if often the case no sooner had I turned into Park Lane than the traffic came to a standstill. The examiner leaned into the cab and said quietly “forget Victoria driver take the next available turning on the right and we’ll head back to Chiswick” To do this required me to cross four lanes of traffic, but in those days cars did seem to give way to buses and I was soon driving back up Park lane and heading back towards Chiswick. After what seemed like hours I was told to pull up at a bus stop, turn off the engine and come back to the saloon. I climbed down from the cab and another nervous trainee took over.
Well that part of my test was over, one more part to go and for that I had to wait until I got back to the driving school. We waited in an anti room whilst each trainee went into the examiners room to be questioned on the Highway Code and finally told whether he had passed or failed. I entered when my name was called, went in and was told to sit down. I was asked a number of questions on the Highway code which I answered correctly. The examiner then went over my test drive. The only criticism he had was that I had been diving rather cautiously towards Turnham Green. I told him that it was a vehicle from Leatherhead, different from the one I had been training on. His reply was “well driver, you’ll be driving different vehicles every day at your new garage”
That was it, I knew I’d passed. It was a wonderful achievement as I was then the youngest driver with London Transport. The examiner handed me a form which had to be taken to Penton Street Public carriage Office near Kings Cross, so that I could obtain my Public Service Vehicle drivers licence and badge. I went over to the canteen were I thanked George for all his hard work, and now back to Edgware Garage. Hold on driver, there is one more test that you must take before you leave Chiswick. Of course every day when we were at Chiswick we would watch safely from the path in front of the main school building the bus on the skid pan doing its crazy gyrations, and occasionally we would lose our nerve and move away rapidly when it appeared some poor driver was going to get it wrong and fail to get the skid under control.
There was at the time an advert for a famous brand of chewing gum which told you that chewing gum would keep you calm under any circumstances, and showed a red London bus on the skid pan at Chiswick. It soon became apparent to me that the Skid Pan Bus Instructor had not seen the advert or had a pathological hatred of chewing gum. “Get rid of that muck before you get on this bus!” so I surreptitiously got rid of my piece of gum and boarded the bus.
No one was allowed up stairs although we were told the bus had only tipped over once in all the time it had been in use. My turn to get up into the cab soon came, which was just as well as one can get a bit disorientated spinning around all the time.
The purpose of the skid pan training was twofold, one was to teach you how to handle a bus which starts to skid and the other was to give you supreme confidence in the ability of the AEC Regent RT bus not to tip over no matter how badly it was driven.
Training commenced by driving the bus through an area being continually sprayed with water with the road surface very wet. The instructor would lean into the cab from behind you and tell you to hit the brakes hard and then recover from the ensuing skid. On my first attempt like all the other drivers I had a bus skidding toward the training school out of control. Soon however with a bit of shouting and good instructing I soon realised that as soon as I heard the wheels began to lock up I had to release the brakes, something that dose not come naturally to a driver. The brakes were then applied in rapid succession until the bus was brought under control. After the instructor thought we had mastered the art of controlling a skidding bus, which could take a few trips through the skid pan, and before we thought we could get down he had one more surprise for us. “Right, now we’ll show you what can really go wrong. This time when we go through the water I want you to take both hands off the steering wheel and keep them off and don’t be afraid to build up a bit of speed”
Once through the spray I took both hands of the wheel as told, the instructor leant through into the cab and pulled the hand brake on and at the same time pulled the steering wheel hard around. This caused the rear wheels to lock up so that the bus began to pivot around its rear end very rapidly The effect in the cab was amazing, there was very little sense of movement within the cab but the whole of the driving school began to rotate around the cab and at one point to tilt over to one side. Upon seeing the school go around for the second time I did notice some of the newer drivers moving rapidly away from their advantage point in front of the school. The bus had spun around twice and gone up on its two offside wheels and bounced back down again and come to a halt all in the space of about a minute. And some drivers volunteered to stay on the bus for another round trip. Not me, I was ready to go back to Edgware with George and see what awaited me as a fully fledged driver.