Friday, 25 September 2009

Chapter 26 End of the Road for Jetlink

Driving through London during the 70s there were often diversions and hold ups due to IRA bomb threats. Perhaps because I was young this did not worry me very much although Annette has since told me she would often worry about me especially when I was late, remember no mobile phone in those far off days. But one day the tables were turned when Annette along with other mums and teachers took some school children including our son Mark to the Royal Tournament at Earls Court and there was a terrorist attack in which some soldiers and horses were blown up in Park Lane. I was at home and had to sit worrying until they all turned up safely.
One morning a group of terrorist decided to plant a bomb under the M25 at Kings Langley. You can imagine the chaos this caused. All the roads around Hemel Hempstead were grid locked. At first nobody knew why. I took over my coach at Hemel Hempstead loaded with passengers from Luton who were going onto Heathrow and Gatwick, I tried for several hours trying to get to Watford, often passing other buses in very narrow back roads. Eventually the word filtered through that no vehicles were allowed to pass under the M25 and therefore we were trapped between Hemel Hempstead and Kings Langley. I explained this to the passengers and said all I could do was to take them back to our garage at Hemel Hempstead. When I arrived back, three hours after leaving, I explained the situation to our Garage Manager Neil Instrall who, to give him credit, gave all the passengers a free breakfast before arranging for them to be taken on to Hemel Hempstead railway station or in some cases back to Luton bus station.
Well after nearly thirteen years on the Jetlink and the last of the original four drivers things were, unknown to me, beginning to take their toll. I found that every time I went onto the M25 motorway at Heathrow I would begin to feel apprehensive. Sometimes I would even feel a bit dizzy. It reached the point where I thought I might have some sort of brain tumour and eventually voiced my fears to Annette. Bless her, she sat me down and explained to me that after all this time of motorway work I was almost certainly suffering from stress. Stress is of course something that most men would not admit to suffering from. Fortunately I believed Annette and once accepting I was suffering from stress the symptoms began to recede and driving on the Jetlink became more enjoyable again.
With the Jetlink services becoming more extensive now running to Brighton in the south and Cambridge and Norwich in the north and with the greater involvement of the parent company National Express there seemed no need for the involvement of two other separate companies. Hemel Hempstead was operated by Arriva and Stevenage was operated by Sovereign Bus. It was therefore decided that as from 1st January 1998 all Jetlink services would be operated from the new dedicated Jetlink depot at Ashford in Middlesex. The old Staines garage would operate buses only.
All of the drivers I've ever spoken to have agreed that the 747 Jetlink service was the best route that we ever had, and it was. Pride in the job, I was always telling my bosses, was something that had been gradually eroded over the years. I believe that the Jetlink, had for thirteen years, restored some of that pride.
During my spell on the Jetlink the 708 Greenline had been finally withdrawn. Many years earlier back in the early 70's Annette and I would visit my Mother in Edgware by travelling on the 706 from the bottom of our road direct to Edgware. Our baby son Mark in his bassinette would just fit neatly into the luggage compartment of the RF. After the 706 was withdrawn in 1975 the 708 was extended to Aylesbury, but during the early 1980's even that service was withdrawn and we found it harder to get to Edgware. By the 90's we had to travel by rail from Aylesbury to Harrow on the Hill then travel by bus from Harrow on the Hill to Edgware. More and more the travel market concentrated on commuters. In 1988 with the success of the 758 commuter route from Hemel Hempstead to London it was decided to operate a commuter service from Aylesbury to London via Amersham the 788. To operate this service the old British Road Services depot at Aston Clinton was converted to an out station of Amersham garage. Now I had to decide whether to transfer to this new out station a few minutes down the road from where we lived or continue riding to Hemel Hempstead on my motor bike and remain on the Jetlink rota and stay with my friends. That April Annette and I took Mark and Heather to visit their grandparents in Australia. I spent a lot of that time pondering over whether to transfer to the new out station. It was finally my daughter who persuaded me not to transfer, I think she realised how much I enjoyed being on the Jetlink. This in the end was a good decision as Aston Clinton depot only lasted a couple of years and all the staff had to transfer back to Amersham. Whereas I remained at Hemel Hempstead and continued on the Jetlink until its withdrawal from our garage on 31st December 1997.
Once more the question of seniority arose, was I entitled to a position on the 758 rota. Luckily by now I was near the top of the seniority list and as there were vacancies to be filled on the ever expanding 758 rota I was soon back driving on the Greenline.
After thirteen years on the Jetlink it was very strange to drive up to junction eight of the M1 and to turn right towards London rather than left to Luton. In fact one or two of the regular commuters had remembered me from my earlier days on the original 758s and reminded me to turn right, for a while I had to make a concerted effort to go the correct way.
Well since starting with London Country at Tring garage in 1972 I had completed thirteen years on Greenline, I had just finished a thirteen year spell on the Jetlink, only thirteen years to go until I retire.

Friday, 18 September 2009

Chapter 25 A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To

As we were now going to Stanstead and Gatwick some duties comprised of journeys from Hemel Hempstead to Stanstead and back to Hemel Hempstead while other duties were from Hemel Hempstead to Gatwick and back and we even had duties at the weekend which took in all four airports.
One afternoon the inevitable happened. I took over my coach and set off for Stanstead. Having left the bus station at Hemel Hempstead I set off up the MI to Luton. Approaching Luton town centre an Asian gentleman started telling me he had a return ticket to Heathrow, I explained to him that yes he’d been to Heathrow and I was now returning him to Luton, he was becoming quite agitated, and I was trying to point out to him that yes he’d been to Heathrow and I was now heading to Luton. It wasn’t until I pulled into Luton bus station along side another Jetlink coach and the driver, my friend ‘Taffy’ from Stevenage, called across to me “where the hell are you heading to”
“Stanstead” I replied
“Well shouldn't you be going to Gatwick”
The unfortunate Asian gentleman had boarded the coach an hour earlier at Luton and was heading for Heathrow and I had taken him and the other passengers back to Luton. It is really amazing how passengers will not tell you when you’ve gone wrong. Usually ten minutes after you’ve gone wrong they call out “is this a new route.”
So here I was at Luton when I should be nearly at Heathrow. Nobody but the Asian gentleman had said a word. After leaving the change over point at Hemel Hempstead garage I should have gone along the A41 to Watford Junction and then back along the A41 onto the M25. Fortunately non of the passengers required Watford Junction, whether any body at Watford Junction wanted Heathrow or Gatwick I’ll never know as I quickly departed Luton bus station and went straight back to the M1 and down to Kings Langley and onto the M25 arriving at Heathrow only twenty minutes late.
You know when you get that feeling that something has gone wrong but you pretend it hasn’t well that happened to me one morning after leaving Gatwick North Terminal. As I was going around the roundabout outside the North Terminal I glanced across to my nearside mirror and thought I saw a bird flying away from the side of the coach, another quick look told me that one of the side locker doors had swung open. I pulled up just off the roundabout, got out, looked into the luggage compartment and all the cases seemed to be there. I walked back to the roundabout but could see nothing. I made sure the locker was firmly closed and proceeded on to Heathrow. At Heathrow Central bus station I unloaded all the luggage for Heathrow. It was then that I noticed a Japanese gentleman looking puzzled. “where is my luggage?”
Oh dear that wasn’t a bird I saw at Gatwick that was a piece of luggage.
“it may still be at Gatwick” I lied. I went over to the Control Inspectors office to report the incident. Funny he was expecting me. “You’re bloody lucky driver, a passenger on the shuttle train between North and South Terminal at Gatwick saw the case fly out of the locker and reported it to the Gatwick Controller whose told the next coach to pick it up off the roundabout, he should be arriving over at Terminal 2 about now”
I ran over to the worried passenger and told him that his case had been located at Gatwick and was ready for collection at Terminal 2 where I drove him straight away and collected his case off the driver of the following coach. The gentleman was so pleased with me for locating his case. I was lucky that day.
Some days not so lucky. Heathrow bus station was being rebuilt at one point and it was very awkward manoeuvring in and out of the arrival and departure bays. Right behind the Jetlink bay was a wall and a large brick air vent from the Piccadilly line tube station. One morning I was reversing out from the bay when the coach seemed to get stuck, I revved the engine and let the clutch out but still I couldn’t get the coach to reverse. “it’s no good driver” a passenger at the back called out “you’re stuck up against the wall.”
The thing is unless you can get full lock on as soon as you start to reverse you’ll hit the wall which is in your blind spot. Well no problem, pull forwards and try again. I pulled back into the bay, got out to see if there were any scratches on the rear bumper, oops no bumper, it had fallen off. After an apology to the passengers I off loaded the luggage and transferred them onto the next service. I put the bumper in the boot and rang up our engineers at Hemel Hempstead who said to bring the coach back to Hemel. Before leaving I had a close look at the wall and the air vent, both were covered in a multitude of different colours from various coaches, City of Oxford blue, Jetlink green, National Express white. Upon arrival back at the garage the engineers and myself had a close look at the brackets that had held the bumper on, they were completely rusted through, the slightest knock would have seen the bumper falling off, so no fault there. I still had to see the Garage Manager. When ever you went into see Bill Bailey you knew you were guilty until proven innocent. It was rumoured that Bill had been a former Redcap in the military police. Bill certainly had an instinct for knowing who was guilty, but if an incident was not your fault he would go out his way to help you. In this instance he sent Inspector Barry Madams down to Heathrow to look over the bus station. The day before Barry was there an Oxford coach had collided with a reversing National Express by the Jetlink bay. Fortunately for me Barry was able to tell Bill the unsuitability of the temporary bus bays and the danger it imposed upon all the drivers.
All modern coaches and buses have powered assisted steering unlike the old RT type buses I drove in the early days. When you are driving along you do not consciously think about the powered steering, however late at night driving at 100kph (62mph) along the M25 when it fails you are certainly aware of it and it’s pretty scary. Approaching Heathrow the drain nut on the hydraulic fluid reservoir had become loose and finally fell out along with all the fluid. As another coach passed me I went to move the steering wheel to correct the movement caused by the passing coach, nothing. My coach started to move into the next lane and only by quick thinking was I able, with great effort, to pull the wheel over to the nearside. Gradually slowing right down I steered the coach along to the motorway exit for Terminal 4. Having at times to almost stand up to pull the steering wheel around I got the coach to Terminal 4. Having already having suffered from a hernia I didn’t want a second one. I transferred the passengers were transferred onto the following Jetlink service and then waited for young Ian Scott our engineer to come out and rescue me.
For reasons only known to those who run the bus industry we were either short of drivers or short of buses but rarely at the same time. For more years than I care to remember we were always fully staffed about Xmas time when you really needed the overtime and a bit of extra cash, and during the summer especially nice hot ones when you could do with having a rest Inspectors were always pleading with you to do a bit more. Mind you, you got use to the times when there were vehicle shortages, you could sit in the canteen for at least half a shift some days and then not feel like going out when the engineers managed to get a vehicle patched up.
So on occasions we actually ran out of coaches on the Jetlink and so every now and again we would get a mini bus on the 7474s. When we did the bus enthusiasts would soon find out and be waiting at strategic points. One Saturday due to a mechanical failure I was given an MCW mini bus to go from Hemel Hempstead to Stanstead Airport. Although only having a top speed of just over 50mph which meant loosing time on the motorways you could gain time by cutting across country. I had arrived and departed on time from Stanstead and was making good time down the M1 towards Hemel Hempstead when just a few hundred yards from Junction 8, the Hemel Hempstead turn off, the mini bus sputtered to a halt, it had ran out of diesel. The engineers had overlooked the fact that the minis have smaller fuel tanks and this one had already been out on the road most of the morning. Fortunately I only had one elderly gentleman on board who was on his way home and he took it quite well as we had to wait some time as the engineers had to go north along the M1 to the A5 turn off so as to return on the south bound carriageway.

Friday, 11 September 2009

Chapter 24 A New Garage

Rumours had been rife for some time that Hemel garage was to move to new premises and most believed it would entail a move to the industrial area of Hemel Hempstead at Maylands Avenue. At this time I was the TGWU Garage Representative (1995) and one bright summer morning my garage manager Neil Instrall said “come on I’ll take you to the new garage site.” I got in his car expecting to go up to Maylands Avenue, about ten minutes drive, instead we drove out of the garage, turned left, crossed the traffic lights and turned left again into Whiteleaf Road and drove up a steep hill to the old GPO maintenance depot, a one minute journey. I must admit it was a lovely site, very spacious, plenty of room for the drivers and the engineers and a lot newer than the old garage which had opened on the 10th April 1935
The old garage closed on July 22nd 1995 and my daughter Heather, who was now 18, was there helping with the clearing out, travelling with bits and pieces between the old and the new garage. Heather even made sure I had the best locker in the new conductors room. The name continues to be used to day even though we no longer have conductors.
With the new garage came new vehicles for the Jetlink, well as with Hemel Hempstead things were rarely new just other garages old vehicles. In this case a couple of crash box Volvos.
When I first took a PSV test the RT bus had a pre-select gear box but it entitled me to drive a crash gear box bus. London Transport lost a lot of new drivers who passed their tests on the easier pre-select box and then went to the provincial bus companies whose bus fleets were mainly crash gear box vehicles. To stop this haemorrhage of staff the new drivers passing their tests on a pre-select box could only drive a pre-select bus. As I mentioned earlier I had transferred to Amersham to regain my full license. Now I was the only driver in Hemel garage who held a full license and the only one entitled to drive the new Volvos. Being entitled to and being able to was in fact worlds apart as I soon found out. All the other drivers who had reason to drive the Jetlink coaches had to be upgraded to a full license which meant for them another PSV test. All that was required of me was to drive the vehicle around Hemel. With Vic Edwards, chief driving examiner, in the front seat we drove around Hemel. By the time we received these Volvos the gate in the gear box was already well worn and getting any gear was a hit and miss affair to say the least. For the next fifteen minutes all one heard was a load of crunching of gears and cursing from me. After a while Vic said “never mind you’ll get the hang of it by the time you’ve driven to Gatwick and back a couple of times.” As Vic said earlier he couldn’t fail me as I already had a full license, and he was right I soon got the hang of it. Mind you with such a worn gate if you pulled forwards onto a stop as at Luton bus station when you reversed out you let the clutch out very slowly just to make sure you were not in forward gear which could easily happen. I have followed other drivers including one of our Inspectors and always when pulling up behind them kept well back as when the lights changed to green the Volvo would reverse until the luckless driver would realise his mistake and quickly find a forward gear.
Soon everyone had settled into the new garage. It was nice to have a new canteen and after some initial shifting of furniture we manage to partition off the smokers from the food area, this was of course before the complete ban on smoking in all enclosed premises came into force. It must be a hierarchy thing but Neil Instrall the garage manager had a large office on the top floor whereas Bill Bailey the operations manager had a small office on the ground floor and the Union office was in the small first aid room.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Chapter 23
747s On the Road

Soon the STL coaches left Hemel and were replaced by Berkoff bodied vehicles which were of a heavier feel but very nice to drive. The Garage Manager Arthur Harris was also replaced this time by two managers. A Garage Manager, Neil Instrall, who was responsible for the financial running of the garage and an Operations Manager, Bill Bailey, who was the real governor as it was Bill who had the responsibility of seeing that the garage ran smoothly and dealt with disciplines. In retrospect all the drivers at Hemel Hempstead agree that Bill was the best Operations manager we ever had, of which more later. The third change was the extension of the 747 to Stanstead Airport. This meant a re-cutting of the schedules and an increase in drivers required on the rota. As well as tips we were also able to take fares in foreign currency and we could exchange this very favourable at Stanstead so the 747 was still a good rota to be on and drivers were now queuing to get on the rota. Unfortunately some of the new drivers succumbed to the temptation of ‘forgetting’ to issue tickets and so opening themselves to instant dismissal if caught. One of my colleagues David ‘Taffy’ Jenkins who was at one time a crew operated driver with me was now an Inspector and almost single handed managed to wipe out most of the Jetlink drivers who he caught with their ‘hands in the till’.
Of course as in all public services, the weather, road accidents or other eventualities on the road according to the public were no excuse for arriving late at the airports.
Saturday August 16th 1987 was one such day. It was the day following the ‘Great Storm.' With trees down and winds still going strong getting to Gatwick was a struggle. A lot of the hold-ups were due to people slowing down to look at the devastation as large parts of the country were now treeless.
Snow was another big problem especially if the first destination happened to be Luton Airport. Getting to Luton bus station was not too bad as the M1 was relatively clear but Luton Airport was built on the top of an escarpment and involved ascending a very steep hill. Often in bad weather you just could not gain access to the airport and would therefore turn at the bus station and go back to Hemel Hempstead. I’ve never had problems getting to Heathrow but to reach Gatwick entailed descending Reigate Hill which was no problem normally but in snow and ice was completely different. Approaching the top of the hill one particular winters day all vehicles were being stopped by the police. Stationed at the bottom of the hill were more police and a recovery police Land Rover. In front of me was a National Express coach. When asked by the police if I was going down the hill I said “if that National can make it so can I” so I waited to see if he would slide off the road, he made it to the bottom so off I went, very slowly in first gear, and thankfully made it.
Unfortunately accidents on the M25 motorway were a regular occurrence. Not with our vehicles but usually cars and lorries. All the drivers on the 747 soon learnt a variety of diversionary routes, in fact one could drive all the way from Gatwick to Luton via Heathrow without even touching the M25 or M1. Some days it seemed a more pleasant drive and could be just as quick. But you could be sure that if there was an accident and you went off line of route some passenger would complain and try to point out that they would miss their flight and you should have stuck to the motorway, you really could not win.
One morning a tanker carrying liquid nitrogen overturned near the junction of the M23 and M25. The emergency services immediately closed both carriage ways of the M25 and within a few hours the whole of the M25 was at a standstill. Phone calls to other Jetlink drivers soon told me that it was pointless to leave the motorway as Staines, Dorking, Guildford and Reigate were all grid locked, and so we sat it out, for five hours. I was fortunate in that I always have a flask and sandwiches with me and the passengers shared their food around. Although fitted with toilets Hemel Hempstead garage did not have disposal facilities and therefore the toilets were permanently locked and so like all the other motorist relieving oneself outside the vehicle was the norm that day.
As with all jobs there are ups and downs so after a bad run, ie traffic or passengers it’s nice to be greeted by a smiling face even when you don’t at first recognise it. After leaving Gatwick South terminal I drove to the North terminal. I pulled up and got out to start loading luggage to be greeted by a voice saying “hello David” who on earth knew me down here. There was this lovely friendly woman, and after a few seconds I recognised my old friend Kathy Smith. Kathy and I had grown up together and eventually gone our own ways, although our families have always kept in touch. I don’t know what the other passengers thought as their driver gave one of the other passengers a big hug. Kathy sat in the front seat and we caught up on old times as we dove back towards Heathrow and on to Watford where Kathy lived.
One face I was pleased to see again was Pat Auger. Pat had been around Hemel Hempstead for a long time and was at one time a driver on our buses, always recognisable with her long red hair. Not long after the Jetlink services started Pat left the buses for pastures new. However one day I was walking down the yard to take over my Jetlink coach when I passed a gaggle of new recruits. “Hey David aren’t you going to say hello” I spun around and there to my surprise was Pat. I ran over to her, put my arms around her and gave her a big hug.
“Will you please put my trainee down” it was the chief driving Instructor Vic Edwards whom I had known for years. It was good to see Pat back again. She eventually went on the Green Line rota and stayed at Hemel for many years only leaving for semi retirement a couple of years ago.
Although most passengers were one off travellers there was one regular who use to turn up, mind you, you could miss him if you didn’t check the rear seats of your coach. On many occasions after leaving terminal 4 at Heathrow I would notice a familiar face sitting at the back of the coach. When I reached the Central bus station I would pop in and see the Control Inspector and ask him to ring the Jewish Old Peoples home in Hemel Hempstead and have a nurse meet me at Hemel Hempstead bus station to escort the old gentleman back to the home. The old boy, often dressed only in pyjamas, would board the coach at Hemel Hempstead, using the rear emergency door, and travel down to Heathrow. Travelling back using the same method.
Some incidents just make you feel great. A while back I mentioned one bus driver who accused the Jetlink driver of having it too good and voted to abolish our £10 luggage allowance. So when he eventually got on the Jetlink rota he was not particularly liked. He soon left the coaches and was promoted to a Control Inspector at Heathrow, and still not liked. One night he really annoyed me. I had just left Heathrow bus station on time and was driving through the main tunnel out of the airport when my phone rang, “driver you have left early and have left a passenger behind.” Well I knew full well I had not left early and there were no passengers in the bus station when I had left. Non the less the Inspector was insistent that I returned to the bus station. Not wanting to let down any passenger I turned around under the M4 and drove back to the bus station. No passengers and no Inspector, what was going on. The next minute out comes the Inspector with his wife. The fact was that they had been in his office when I’d left and she had missed her bus, I was fuming and I told him so in front of my other passengers. He tried to make light of it but I knew I would get him back one day and that day came. When I arrived at Terminal 4 one afternoon a Senior Inspector boarded my coach and checked my tickets and then told me he would travel around to the Central bus station with me. On arrival at Heathrow Central out came this obnoxious Inspector, quite full of himself and said “driver you did not stop at Terminal 4 and you’ve left passengers behind”
“In that case would you mind telling me how I managed to pick up this Senior Inspector at terminal 4 without stopping” oh the look on his face was a site to behold.
With the success of the Gatwick to Luton service it was decided to extend the Jetlink out to Stanstead in Essex. This time route learning was a bit more mundane and consisted in travelling to Stanstead with Inspector Madams in one of the company cars. It was still a nice run from Luton Airport going north to Stevenage and then skirting Ware and going across to Bishops Stortford and finally along the M11 into Stanstead Airport.