Friday, 31 July 2009

Chapter 18 Return to Hemel Hempstead 1979

It was good to be back and my entrance into the canteen was warmly welcomed by my ex Tring colleagues and those older Hemel drivers who remembered me from some years earlier.
Both routes and management had changed since I had last worked at Hemel. The kindly father figure of Chief Inspector Reg Goodchild had been replaced by Chief Inspector Arthur Harris. Unlike Chief Inspector ‘Jerry’ Coe who welcomed me to Amersham with a smile and a hand shake, the first time I saw Arthur Harris was on my first discipline. I was most put out that the Chief Inspector could not be bothered to see me and welcome me to Hemel Hempstead and I told him so when I went in for that discipline.
I did not do any route learning as the long distance route like 330 to Welwyn Garden City and the 347 to Uxbridge had not changed. The town service had been revamped to one man operation but for this I just opened up the map in the timetable and followed that around the town. After awhile Hemel Hempstead became more familiar to me than my home town of Aylesbury. After two years away it seemed strange to be driving over the routes I first encountered on my return from Australia.
Although I was not officially due to start at Hemel until the Monday, due to their staff shortage of coach drivers, I was asked by the duty inspector at Amersham if I would care to work my rest day on the 708 Greenline to Victoria on the Saturday. Well I knew the route so why not.
No one had told me that from October 1977 the 708 went via Brent Cross Shopping Centre.
I turned left at Staples Corner and was completely bewildered. Fortunately one of our bus drivers, ‘Lofty Price’, was on board. “Hey Lofty give us a hand, show us the way into Brent cross will you” Lofty came and stood beside me, soon we were both lost. “Talk about the blind leading the blind” called out one of our passengers who then proceeded to guide me into Brent Cross shopping Centre.
Originally both the 708 and the 706 used to go along the Edgware Road via Cricklewood and Kilburn. At the end of Kilburn High Road was a Zebra crossing and with people crossing all the time delays were becoming more and more frequent. To help speed up the journey times all coaches were now sent along the North Circular to turn right onto Hendon Way and then right onto the Finchely Road. Ironically just after this new routing was instigated pedestrian lights were installed on the crossing in Kilburn solving the long hold ups.
Now all shopping centres are horrendous for traffic especially on Saturdays and Brent Cross was no exception. It reached the point where it was taking as long to get into and out of Brent Cross as it was for the rest of the journey to Victoria. Management then wisely stopped the coaches going into the shopping centre and instead had us stop close by on the North Circular Road.
Over time most routes have minor changes to them because of new housing estates or new railway forecourt developments. One day while still at Tring I was asked to work a rest day at Hemel Hempstead on route 330 to Welwyn Garden City a route I had driven over with Routemasters when I started there in 1972. Hemel now had RMCs on this route, a Routemaster which had doors at the rear. I met the conductor in the conductors room and said I should be ok even after a few years away from the route. After leaving Hemel my first stop was up near Bennetts End Road. I pulled up and waited for the passengers to get on. I could see them in my nearside mirror and wondered why they were not boarding when I heard a tapping on the saloon window behind me. The conductor was frantically waving his hand about and pointing at some buttons beside my right hand. On close inspection I saw these were door operating buttons. Well I didn’t know only the driver could open the rear doors on the RMC although the conductor could close them. After that hiccough I continued all the way to the terminus at the QEII hospital at Welwyn Garden City. Climbing down from the cab I went back to see the conductor and said “well I found the way ok after all this time.”
“Nearly mate, except you missed out St Albans railway station, why do you think I was waving left as we went over the bridge.” I had thought he was just reminding me to bare left at the end of the road. Unbeknown to me St Albans city council had built a bus and rail interchange at the station which we now serve by turning into the station, well not on that journey we didn’t.

Friday, 24 July 2009

Chapter 17 Greenline comes to Amersham

As I had mentioned earlier when I arrived at Amersham there were no Greenline services but that was now about to change. It was decided by the powers that be that a new service, the 790, should run from Amersham via High Wycombe and Uxbridge to Victoria. I had missed the Greenline coaches and applied for a position on the new rota. Not many of the Amersham drivers wanted the hassle of driving into London so the majority of the coach drivers on the new rota were ex Tring drivers. Soon a brand new Duple bodied AEC Reliant appeared in the yard ready for type training. Unfortunately the driving school were in dispute with management and were refusing to undertake any driving instruction. However mindful of public safety the Chief Driving Instructor Mr Durelli took it upon himself to allow us cab training. This meant we could sit in the cab but not start up the vehicle and we could familiarise ourselves with the controls. We were however each given a handout showing us all the various controls.
Fortunately we had done route learning although in an MB bus. I remember pulling away from Victoria with the Inspector who was showing us the route saying to the rest of the drivers, now watch how David does this as he is an experienced coach driver, that was a feather in my cap.
The first day of operation, a Monday, was a damp foggy day. Mr Durelli had decided to travel with each driver between Amersham and High Wycombe so
that the drivers could sort out any problems before continuing to London. With the passengers already on board I made myself comfortable at the wheel and proceeded to get out the hand out and in full view of the passengers and set about starting up the coach and turning on the lights. At this point I turned to Mr Durelli and said “Where are the fog light switches”? much to the amusement of the passengers. Equally amusing was Mr Durelli’s reply, “I don’t know, I don’t even know if this coach is fitted with fog lights, I’ll get out and have a look” As it happened there were no fog lights and therefore no fog light switches. The fog soon lifted and I really enjoyed driving to Victoria. Driving into Uxbridge brought back many memories, of my time there when Annette and I were first married and to see on occasions Hemel Hempstead drivers on the 347s from the days back in 1972when I first started at Hemel garage. It was a pleasant drive to Victoria and back and two trips a day were not too arduous.
There is always an exception to the rule. Throughout my driving career Annette has always come out for the odd ride or two when I’ve been driving and we thought it would be a nice ride out for her and the children if they all came for a ride with me to London and back. Mark was five years old and thoroughly enjoyed himself, Heather who was a one year old did not. We pulled into Uxbridge and Heather was crying for a feed so to help Annette I held her on my lap at the steering wheel and fed her a bottle. But soon after departure Heather was crying again wanting to get on the floor, and then back on Annette's lap and then on the floor again, her nice clean clothes getting dirtier all the time. After an hour of crying and playing up we finally arrived in Victoria where she received a smack on the bottom for misbehaving and promptly fell asleep for the return journey. Even the revenue Inspector, Bob Gilbert, who boarded the coach just as we left Victoria remarked on how well behaved both children were.
We were now entering the era of efficient management. This in reality meant more work for the same pay for the drivers. One of the casualties was the Greenline workings. To make it more efficient the drivers were to work less hours and get paid less. This appealed to some of the older drivers but with two children and a mortgage I could no longer afford to stay on the Greenline. So back to bus work.
I mentioned earlier when Tring closed six drivers transferred to Hemel Hempstead and six of us transferred to Amersham. With the alteration to the coach rota three of the drivers left. Soon another driver transferred to Hemel Hempstead. After a while I found I was the last driver from Tring at Amersham. What with no Greenline work and the feeling that most of my former Tring colleagues were at Hemel Hempstead I decided to transfer to Hemel Hempstead, the garage I started at upon returning from Australia.

Saturday, 18 July 2009

Chapter 16 Who is watching over you?

No matter where or when, there is always someone watching you. Most of the time it is uniform inspectors. The first time I encountered this phenomena was the Gold Badge Inspector who boarded my bus when I was training back in 1967. There was no excuse for not knowing about being observed, you were told in the driving school that either plain clothed or uniform inspectors would check your driving during you first few months. I was driving the 706 Greenline from Chelsham, when arriving at Croydon, Mr Durelli the Chief Driving instructor boarded my coach. Well I considered my driving up to scratch and continued driving forgetting all about Mr Durelli sitting at the back. However whilst sitting at the traffic lights on Streatham Hill Mr Durelli came forward and informed me that since he had boarded at Croydon I had not once engaged neutral gear. Oops, even with a pre-select box you are supposed to engage neutral when standing for any length of time. I have since discussed this with engineers who actually differ with this line of thought saying it puts less strain on the gear box if it is left in gear.
I have already mentioned being caught out by Inspector Ron Wright who happened to be on duty at midnight at Tring and booked me for running four minutes early. I imagine I have had my share of plain clothes revenue inspectors board my bus but I suppose my driving and issuing of tickets must have been ok. There have been many times when passengers have, after sitting down, come back to me and told me I did not give them a ticket. This is often said with inference that I had pocketed the fare. My usual response is to ask them if they had taken their ticket. I then get up and check all the passengers tickets and sure enough you will find that the passenger complaining had not taken their ticket and the following passenger, without bothering to check their ticket, has taken two tickets much to the chagrin of both passengers.
Well who checks the Inspectors, well somebody does. There was an Inspector at Amersham who had a side line in a taxi service which would have been ok if he had kept this side line to his off duty time. However he would often inform the office that he was just popping out to do
a bit of checking but would go and do a little bit of taxi work. Someone must have got wise to this and one morning whilst on duty, he received a call to go and pick up someone at Chalfont and Latimer Station. Unfortunately the passengers to be picked up were company officials who had made the phone call. Result, instant dismissal.
There were occasions when doing a second job could prove to be handy. One driver also had a hand in running a private coach company. During a period of severe fuel shortages (I cannot remember the reason for this) his company had fuel to spare and we ended up ferrying our buses over to his depot to fuel our buses, a very nice little earner for him. I cannot see to-days management agreeing to anything like that to keep the buses running.
Someone at Hemel Hempstead should have been keeping an eye on one of our inspectors (I will not mention his name but many will remember the incident). Part of the yard was being replaced and the contractors had left a compressor in the yard over the weekend. On the Sunday morning two workers turned up and asked if the inspector could move a couple of buses so that they could remove their compressor as they needed it for another job.
Red faces all around when on Monday morning the contractors turned up and asked who had stolen their compressor. Yes poor old Inspector ****** had helped a couple of thieves take away the contractors compressor.
Why was the yard being replaced? Well water used to wash the buses use to run down the yard and out into the road. To stop this concrete ramps were placed across the bottom of the yard. Over a period of time the ramps became worn with the iron reinforcement poking through. One dark evening one of our drivers was walking down the yard with his ticket machine box under one arm and his cash tray under the other. Catching his foot on the broken ramp he fell down and tore both ligaments on his shoulder.
Now how the company thought they could get away with not admitting liability I don’t know why but they tried. The first thing they claimed was that there were no ramps there in the first place. Fortunately another drivers had been taking photos in the yard the day before which clearly showed the ramps and the condition they were in.
After a long time and many solicitors letters the company finally admitted liability and our driver received compensation for his injuries. As I said someone must keep an eye on the watchers.

Friday, 10 July 2009

Chapter 15 Amersham Garage

Monday 3rd April 1977 saw myself and five other Tring drivers assembled in the canteen at Amersham garage. We didn't feel out of place for too long with many of the Amersham drivers coming over to our little group and introducing themselves. A few minutes later in came their Chief Inspector ‘Jerry’ Coe who introduced himself with a warm smile. Jerry explained to us that as well as route learning all of us would have to take another full PSV test so that we could drive the Bristol BN buses that served Amershams’ rural routes. My greatest disappointment on transferring to Amersham was to find that although Amersham had taken over most of High Wycombes bus routes there was to be no transfer of its Greenline route, 711 High Wycombe to Victoria. Amersham had lost its own Greenline service 710 Amersham to Baker Street on the 13th October 1972. At that time the need to regain my full PSV was more important than going back on the Greenline.
Rather than take a new test on the current Bristol BN, a short bus, it was decided that we should be tested on a full length vehicle. To our surprise it turned out to be a Harrington bodied vehicle used on coach tours with panoramic sky lights and an entrance door set back from the front of the vehicle. Our instructor had had two weeks to go before his retirement and had the unenviable task of getting six drivers, who over a number of years had become set in their ways, through a full PSV driving test. A full day was used just to become accustomed to driving a vehicle with a crash gear box. Then when we were asked to perform a gear box exercise a deathly hush descended up the bus. “Have you never heard of a gearbox exercise?” No one had, and so began the slow process of finding a very quiet road and driving up and down it first changing up through the gears and then changing down through the gears, a long and arduous task, remember this coach had no synchromesh gear box. Eventually we got the hang of it and then proceeded on to the finer points of driving, like continually checking mirrors and reversing. Each time I’ve taken a PSV driving test, and this was to my third, the procedure for reversing has been different. Some times you had to reverse using mirrors only, at other times you were allowed to look out of the cab when reversing on the offside. This time when drivers were having difficulties in reversing the instructor told them to poke their head out. “Ah so it’s ok this time then”
So a week later I found myself back at the training school in St Albans garage, remember RF training five years earlier? To day global warming is in the forefront of weather conversation, well I have noticed that over the years the winters have become much shorter, but it was no surprise to me to find it snowing a couple of weeks into October 1977. Amongst us six drivers from Tring we had to decide who was going first and whether the snow was going to ease up or get thicker. I opted to go first. With the snow settling fast I was glad to get the gearbox exercise and the emergency braking over with early on in the test. Putting my head out during reversing had its own problems, I didn’t want my glasses getting covered in snow. After about forty five minutes I arrived back at St Albans to be questioned on the Highway code and to be told I’d successfully past my test. I had now regained a full PSV license.
Back to Amersham and back to driving buses. Apart from the 353 Berkhampstead to Windsor, the 305 Uxbridge to Chesham and the 336 Watford to Chesham all the other routes at Amersham were short distance routes serving small villages around Amersham such as Lee Common, Ballinger, Chesham Moor and Missenden. Then there were all the routes that Amersham had absorbed from High Wycombe. These were mainly High Wycombe town service routes. I believe it was these routes that finally drove me to return to Hemel Hempstead two years later. A lot of the duties at Amersham consisted of dead running (out of service) to High Wycombe bus station and then spending the rest of the day going in and out of High Wycombe bus station each time on a different town service, which meant each time you came into the bus station it was at a different stop from which you had left, very confusing for both driver and passengers whenever I got it wrong which was quite often.
A prime example of getting it wrong was on route 362 High Wycombe to Chesham. In the evenings we would bring back a group of ladies who had been to bingo in High Wycombe. The A404 is a long fairly fast road between High Wycombe and Amersham and I was driving along at a good pace when all of a sudden the bingo ladies all called out “Hey you’re one of those new Tring drivers” “How do you know?” was my reply. “You’ve just gone pass the turning for Holmer Green like all the other Tring drivers”. Fortunately I was able to take the next left turn and go through Holmer Green the wrong way round.
The journey on my motor bike between Aylesbury and Amersham took about twenty five minutes and was through lovely countryside. Unfortunately coming home late one night along the unlit Missenden by-pass I met one of the hazards of the countryside. Driving along in the pitch dark all of a sudden in the head light there appeared a solid wall of brown cow hide. As I hit the cow my motor cycle windshield shattered, then my crash helmet visor shattered then finally my glasses, my bike and I went sailing through the air. Fortunately I had a soft landing on the grass verge. When I recovered consciousness I wiggled my hands and toes and found nothing amiss but then my ears detected the movement of big hooves and mooing all around me, Oh no don’t tread on me cows. Eventually I managed to get to my somewhat shaky legs and look around. Not much to see as it was very dark. Then I saw a police car coming along, the police driver never saw the cows either and ended up coming to rest up on an embankment with a bent police car and torn trousers. He came across the road to help me and to call for an ambulance, which I declined. He called his colleagues for assistance and soon we saw another police car coming along in pursuit of another car and using his blue light and flashing his headlight to try and warn the car of the bovine obstruction. Again to no avail, this time the lady driver found the cows to be tougher than her car which had all of its nearside wing taken off. Having located my motorbike and straightened the steering out the police officer asked if I’d be ok to drive it home. I said I’d be ok but could he ring my wife to let her know I could be a bit late, (no mobile phones in1978). When I finally arrived home instead of finding Annette waiting to comfort me and attend my injuries I found she was asleep in bed. Apparently the message she received from the police officer was that I was helping the police with a traffic accident which Annette had interpreted as there had been an accident in which I was not involved but I was in some way helping them as a witness. After this minor misunderstanding I was soon being comforted. It was not until the morning that I soon found how bruised and sore I was. The motor bike had a dented fuel tank where my right knee had hit it and the headlight had cow hide embedded in it. When I took the bike in for repairs the mechanic diagnosed my injuries from the state of the bike. My right arm and shoulder would hardly move and my right knee was badly bruised as were both my eyes and face. Annette joked that it looked like she had been hitting me about. My Doctor advised me to take a couple of weeks off but as we did not get paid for the first three days of any sick leave it was imperative for me to get back to work. So after only a couple of days off, during which my children would not look at me because of the state of my face, I went back to work. Fortunately I was able to borrow my mothers’ car whilst my motorbike was being repaired. Unfortunately I was unable to claim any compensation for the repairs to the motorbike or myself as, even with the help of the police, I was unable to trace the owners of the cattle. The police told me the day after the accident that if any of the cattle were injured they would have been taken to be slaughtered straight away. It was too dark that night to follow the cattle and they would have gone back to the fields from which they had escaped.
Although feeling pretty sore I convinced Mr Coe the Chief Inspector that I was fit to drive. Well I thought I was until I drove into High Wycombe bus station. As you drive down from the road into the bus station you put on the saloon lights and on the MB type buses this requires the driver to stretch his right arm up to the switches above his head, and my arm just wouldn’t move up. Once in the bus station I had to stand up in the cab and put the lights on, needless to say I left them on for the rest of the duty.
Breakdowns as I said earlier were a rare occurrence but as newer vehicles replaced the reliable RT, RM and RF breakdowns became more frequent. Vehicles were no longer purpose built as was the RM for London traffic, with the crew in mind, and the RT although slow could climb almost any hill. The new AEC Swifts and Merlins had a tendency to overheat when shown the slightest incline fortunately when the overheat warning buzzer became to annoying it could be turned off from a switch in the cab, this was ok as the water temperature would revert back to normal when going back down hill. However if the temperature increase was due to low water or even a leak then with the warning buzzer turned off disaster was inevitable. But even so the mechanics at Amersham were nothing if not resourceful. Whatever the breakdown they would come fully prepared with a wooden mallet and a screwdriver, and get the bus going again. I’ve had a bus stuck outside Amersham garage with a jammed starter motor, a screwdriver to open up the access panel in the saloon, a hefty whack on the starter motor casing and the screwdriver to short circuit the starter and off we'd go again.
Bad weather was always a hazard of driving, whether it was torrential rain, fog, snow and ice we would always try and get through. One of the strangest weather phenomena I came across was one morning whilst driving a BN (Bristol crash gear box bus) in Amersham. It was about nine o’clock in the morning and I pulled up near the kerb, a foot away perhaps, pulled the hand brake on and selected neutral when the bus just slip sideways into the kerb. People were slipping over everywhere. It had up until then been a mild damp morning then there was a very sudden drop in temperature causing both roads and pavements to become covered in a fine film of ice. Driving back to the garage was quite a feat. When I got home later I told Annette about it she said she also had problems, she had to hang onto the pram whilst taking young Mark to play school otherwise she and Mark would have fallen over. Within the hour the temperature had risen and all was well again

Friday, 3 July 2009

Chapter 14 Closure of Tring Garage

As 1977 approached we began to hear ominous rumours of impending closures, but it couldn’t be Tring, surely not, the painters had just finished painting the whole garage. Ah don’t be fooled by those clever management techniques. We were called to a union meeting in the local village hall where it was announced that the Union had done all it could to avoid the closure of our garage but unfortunately the county council had to keep control of subsidies for public transport and Tring garage would close on Friday 31st March 1977.
Drivers and conductors were given the option of redundancy with appropriate payment or relocation to another garage with a disturbance payment for two years or help with house moving to another location near to a garage of your choice.
I believe all the conductors took redundancy. Of the drivers only twelve chose to remain with the company. Of the rest some drivers took redundancy and a few took early retirement. One driver however was very fortunate and that was Johnny Herculese. John who had taken me route learning on the 706 some five years earlier decide to take his redundancy money, and join the local Aylesbury bus company Red Rover. A few years later Red Rover were bought out by the major bus operator in Buckinghamshire, United Counties, When the eighties arrived and bus companies were being sold off at knock down prices United Counties became Luton and District under a management buy out. Time moved on and Luton and District took over what had been London Country North West. LCNW was of course operating the 301s out of Hemel Hempstead, and John was working out of Aylesbury. Luton and District being the main controlling company saw fit to transfer some of Hemel Hempstead 301 workings to Aylesbury. And so it came to pass that many years later I would pass John, smiling away, driving the same 301s he’d been driving at Tring.
As the fateful day approached we were interviewed by management with a union official present and asked to make a decision on our futures. I had already decided I wanted to stay with London Country, but I did not know whether to transfer to Hemel Hempstead, Amersham or High Wycombe. During the last week rumours had been flying around that either Amersham garage or High Wycombe garage was also to be closed. At an early morning meeting with management and a T&G 0fficer, we as drivers pointed out that it was no use transferring to either Amersham or High Wycombe only to find ourselves in the same position a few weeks later. We were told that management would get back to us after mid day.
By mid day, due to our pressure, High Wycombe garage learnt of its fate. High Wycombe was to close on the last day of the following September, six months later. How long this information would have been withheld from the staff is any ones guess, but at least it was now clear to us Tring drivers, we had three choices, Hemel Hempstead, Amersham, or redundancy.
Both garages were the same distance from my home in Aylesbury, 15 miles, a journey time of about twenty five minutes on a motor bike. The main incentive to transfer to Amersham was that Amersham operated the Bristol BL buses which were crash gear box vehicles.
As I has said earlier upon my return to the UK the Traffic Commissioners had made the obtaining of a full PSV licence only possible to those drivers who had passed their tests on a crash gear box vehicle. As I had taken my second test on an RT pre-select gear vehicle I now had a restricted licence. This then was an opportunity to regain a full PSV licence, for it was a requirement of the transfer agreement that all drivers would be upgraded to a full licence.
So papers all signed it was a sad farewell to Tring and all my friends and colleagues. Many drivers chose redundancy and took up other jobs. Two of the depot inspectors, Pete Letissier and Vic Cooper took up positions with London Underground, some took up work with local coach firms, my good friend Ted Goodchild went back to his first love, engineering. Of the remaining drivers six transferred to Hemel Hempstead and six transferred to Amersham. The odd thing was that of the six, including myself, who transferred to Amersham all left within two years, I being the last to leave. Whereas all the six who transferred to Hemel Hempstead stayed until they retired.
A few weeks before Tring closed our second child was due to be born. I wanted to be there at the birth as I was with Mark. So I carefully arranged with the other coach drivers to change my duties so that I would be resting when baby was due. Well baby had her own agenda, a false labour and then at the last minute 'here I come'. I finally changed to the last duty of the day in case baby came during the 27th Feb. But no, there I was at Watford at midnight and baby Heather was born at a quarter past midnight on the 28th.
Fortunately Annettes mum had come over from Australia to help out so when I came home at 1 o'clock mum was there to greet me with the news that I was the proud father of a baby girl. Now as it was late at night and Annette would be resting I thought it would be better to meet the new addition in the morning. Unfortunately Annette thought I would be so thrilled that I'd go and see her baby and straight away, so while Annette was awake waiting for me I was fast asleep. Never mind Mum and I took Mark around to meet his new sister first thing next day.
I was resting on the last day of operation of services from Tring but on that last day, 31st March 1977, I took my wife, our four year old son Mark and our new four week old daughter Heather (who much later accompanied me at another garage closure) along to the garage to say goodbye to all my old friends. The previous evening I had brought my last 706 from Chelsham to Tring, and now it was on to pastures new.