Saturday, 27 June 2009

Chapter 13 Decline

During the seventies there was a steady decline in coach passengers and I believe two things contributed towards this decline.
Green Line has always been there for the long distance commuter. We had many passengers who not only travelled from Aylesbury and Tring to London but many who went on to South London and Croydon. It was often the case in the evening peak at Aylesbury that upon pulling up at the departure point you would have to tell waiting passengers that you could only take those travelling to Berkhampstead and beyond, any one else would have to board the 301 bus which duplicated our route as far as Watford.
Because of falling revenue Watford council came to an arrangement with London Country which allowed old age pensioners in Watford to use their passes to obtain half fare travel on the Green Line coaches towards Hemel Hempstead and Aylesbury. We managed to keep to time all the way from Croydon to Watford, making sure the 142 red bus was in front of us at Stanmore Station as local bus passengers would grab a coach ride up to Bushey Heath given the chance. With a full load on by the time you had climbed up to the Alpine Restaurant at Bushey Common the cab would resemble a sauna with steam from an overheated cooling system pouring into the cab. Now we were severely held up by many old age pensioners getting on the coaches and of course being older and slower we would then lose time to Tring. Some would use the coaches for the longer journey to Hemel Hempstead or Aylesbury, but many would use the coach for shorter journeys instead of getting the local buses, therefore our punctuality began to suffer.
The second major cause in the decline of patronage was the introduction of the Leyland National bus. This mass produced cheap fit all bus was intended to replace the aging RT fleet. It was a very innovative bus and quite unlike anything we had ever driven before, it was a very noisy bus and should never have been placed onto Green Line coach workings. It had hard plastic covered seats and only by sitting at the back of the bus could you get a decent view, however if you sat at the rear of the bus you couldn’t hold a decent conversation because of the noise from the rear mounted engine. The heating could only be controlled from a panel at the rear of the saloon. I say controlled, it was either on or off, if it was off you froze and if it was on you cooked. People deserted us in droves.
The original Leyland National was 11.3m in length. All of the drivers at Tring had a days instruction on this vehicle under the watchful eye of Bob Spence who was now the Chief Driving Instructor. Of course Bob was quite happy to correct many of the bad habits that we had picked up over the years.
Tring was the second garage to be allocated the Leyland National, and in March 1973 the 706 lost its comfortable RF coaches. So uncomfortable were the LN buses that upon arrival at Two Waters, Hemel Hempstead passengers would ask us if the 708 was due, the RF was still allocated to the 708 at that time, and rather than get on us they would wait for the 708 to London.
In due course some one at the top must have had a twinge of conscious as in October 1974 Tring received an allocation of the shorter 10.3m Leyland National with coach seats installed. This was only a minor improvement to this noisy vehicle. As well as the noise and the heating there were two other odd design faults which would often throw the driver.
The gear change lever was situated on the right hand side of the dash board with the hand brake situated right below the gear lever. The hand brake was fitted with a very sensitive spring and could be applied with very little pressure. The placing of the brake in very close proximity to the gear lever could produce a most alarming and puzzling occurrence when pulling away from a bus stop. Immediately after pulling away you would normally change from first gear to second, a small movement of the hand on the gear lever, unfortunately the drivers hand would then come into contact with the hand brake and the bus would suddenly come to a halt. Wondering what on earth had happened the driver would then see that the hand brake had sprung on, make some spurious comment to the passengers, release the brake and then proceed as if nothing had happened.
The other fault, equally alarming, was the fact that both the hand brake and the gear lever were held on by a small screw and washer, underneath which was a strong spring. After some hours of driving one of the screws would invariable come lose. A loud bang would occur and pieces of hand brake or gear lever sleeve along with screw, washer and spring would go flying around the cab.
The exhaust system was another weak point in the Nationals design. It was prone to snap off. One day I arrived back at Tring to be met by the Garage Manager and a mechanic. “where is your exhaust pipe driver?”
“Underneath where it’s supposed to be”
“No it’s not” they both said “it’s in Cricklewood garage, it fell off as you went past and one of their engineers went out into the road and retrieved it.”
After a while we had at Tring 10.3m Leyland buses some with plastic seats and some with coach seats and also 11.3m Leyland Nationals.
One of the coach duties at Tring was a spread over. It consisted of two trips to London, one in the morning peak and the other in the evening peak. You would also be allocated the same vehicle. Although the 706 normally had the 10.3m Leylands with vehicle shortages it was sometime necessary to allocate a Long Leyland to the London duty. One morning I had gone to London with the 10.3m bus and arriving back at Tring reversed the bus up against the fence in the yard. Later on I returned to do my second trip to London with what I assumed to be the same vehicle, which was parked where I had left it. I duly went to London and back and having arrived back at Tring commenced to reverse the bus up against the fence, only this time I managed to knock down the fence. Some what puzzled I got out, the front end was level with the next coach, unfortunately the back end extended another metre beyond it. During the day unbeknown to me someone had swapped my 10.3m bus for a 11.3m version. I had gone to London and back with out even noticing it, you automatically adjusts your driving to the size of the vehicle, except when reversing it seems.
Mind you I was not the only driver who had problems with the Leyland National. Both the RT and the RM had flat windscreens whereas the Leyland National had a slightly protruding curved screen. With the RT and RM in heavy traffic we would always pull up tight to the bus in front, this way you could lean out of the cab and chat to the clippie on the platform of the bus in front. Unfortunately my friend Johnny Hercules had forgotten this and proceeded to pull up tight to the rear of a 109 bus outside Streatham garage and much to his dismay saw the windscreen slowly disintegrate in front of him. We soon learnt to leave a little bit more of a gap between us and the bus in front.
Being mass produced and cheap it was very light. This was self evident one evening when coming back to Tring garage one night during a very fierce storm. Approaching Tring I could see a large tree had blown down right across the road. The only way to reach the garage was to go along the by-pass and approach the garage from the Aylesbury side. I explained this to the passengers and set of down the rather exposed by-pass. Whenever I encountered a sudden gust of wind the whole of the front end of the bus would lift off the ground leaving the steering useless. This was a very scary experience and something manufacturers should bear in mind when manufacturing rear engined vehicles.
As far as vehicle allocations to the Green Line was concerned the best was yet to come. As the 301 bus route had been converted to one man operation in May 1975 we had spare conductors and conductresses and so in June 1976 RT3530 from Garston garage was allocated to Tring and was put on the 706 spread over duty covering the two peak journeys to London. This wonderful double deck working lasted from June 1976 until February 1977. RT 3530 returned to Garston in September 1976 but we were lucky enough to get RT3631 from Luton to replace it.
Although different drivers worked this duty as it occurred on our rota the same conductress worked this duty all the time and this was Peggy Williams.
Being a spread over duty meant that you would get paid from sign on to sign off and that meant twelve hours pay so for Peggy that became a nice little earner. But for us coach drivers working with Peggy could have its moments.
Having worked with Peggy before as I have already mentioned earlier I knew she was a bit dizzy but this one time really sums up how dizzy she was.
Peggy’s husband David was a driver at Tring and this particular day David was on a late turn and Peggy and I were on the 706 to London. She told me she wanted to stop somewhere and get something for David’s supper. When we arrived at Cannons Corner between Stanmore and Edgware Peggy came around to the cab and said to me,
“I’m just popping over to the shops to get something for David”
A few minutes later she came back with a very puzzled look on her face,
“The man in that butchers shop didn’t half give me a funny look when I asked him for some ham for David’s supper”
“Peggy, look at the name over the shop will you, J. Silvermans, it’s a Kosher butcher, they are Jewish and Jews don’t eat pork”
Poor Peggy a heart of gold but not wise to the world beyond Tring.
Double deck operation of the 706 spread over duty continued until February 1976 and I was fortunate enough to be rostered to cover the last morning trip to London, we had a full bus and were met at every road junction by hoards of photographers who would jump in their cars as we passed and chase us until they reached the next vantage point.
An advantage of the spread over duty was that the driver or conductor was paid from sign on until sign off. That meant about twelve hours pay although one would only work four hours in the morning peak and four hours in the evening peak and have a break of four hours. At Tring as in other garages the same duty would be worked for five days. So you would work five days of the same early turn then two days rest would be followed by another five days of a late turn then following two days rest one could work five days of a spread over. This system meant that every few weeks one would receive a very good pay packet. The schedules representative at Hemel Hempstead, Vic Edwards (later to become the Chief Driving Instructor) following representation from the drivers asked that the week of spread over duties be broken up so that the weekly pay would be more equal yet slightly higher. As a legal 10 hours rest was required between duties it followed that if a spread over duty was worked each week then you would commence the week on an early turn then move to a middle turn then a spread over duty followed by a late turn with rest days no longer consecutive. This made for a very disruptive working life style and we at Tring wanted none of that and voted to keep our old system. Many years later when privatisation came in and money took preference over all other considerations spread over pay was done away with and now we work different shifts every day.

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