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.