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A Boyhood Ambition Not Quite Realised!

by John Walker

As anyone who has read any of my bits and pieces on Glasgow Corporation Transport will realise, my boyhood ambition was to be a corporation bus driver. During a working life that involved a plumbing apprenticeship, bus conducting with Glasgow Corporation and Eastern Scottish, service in the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy, then a long career as a police officer, I have always regretted the fact that I failed to achieve that ambition.

In any event it could never have happened, as I hadn’t yet reached the required age of 21 to hold what was then a PSV Licence, by the time the Corporation Transport Department was no more. I am eternally grateful, therefore, that I at least managed to work as a conductor with the corporation for a brief time. I was extremely disappointed when all of the country’s Corporation transport systems were confined to the history books in the 1960s and 70s at the insistence of the Government. The corporations took pride in their local identities and in many cases developed their own particular style of bus. It is perhaps unfortunate, but it was not until the arrival of the Leyland Atlantean, love them or hate them, that we finally got a “standard” Glasgow bus.

In Scotland only Edinburgh has managed to retain some of its past atmosphere with locally owned buses still serving that city’s streets in the old corporation livery of madder and white. However, recent trends in Edinburgh have seen buses carrying route branding and the latest liveries mark what appears to be the beginning of the end for the immediately recognisable Edinburgh bus.

The decision to form large Passenger Transport Executives perhaps made sense, particularly in the Manchester area, where no less than 49 of that corporation’s services were operated jointly with 7 other corporations, as well as with the North Western Road Car Company, and the independent operator, Mayne of Manchester. Some services were operated by as many as 4 different operators and only local travellers could have had any real chance of knowing which corporation or company bus went where.

In Glasgow things were rather different, and the company buses mainly operated their Glasgow local services from the city centre to districts in the county areas just outside of the city boundary. A notable exception to that was the operations of the Eastern Scottish Baillieston Garage, which ran a group of services known as “Parkhead Locals” in the east side of the city. Joint working with the Scottish Bus Group never appears to have been an option and Glasgow Corporation had to contend with various Glasgow local services being operated by Walter Alexander (Midland), Eastern Scottish, Western SMT, and Central SMT. The arrangement appeared to work fairly well with the Corporation enjoying a “protection zone”, which prevented company buses carrying local passengers wholly within the city centre area. I believe that the fares were also protected with company buses having to charge higher fares in the Glasgow area where routes ran along the same streets as those served by corporation buses.

It has to be said that this was the situation immediately prior to the end of Glasgow Corporation Transport, as before that there were also several independent operators who served parts of the city. However, by 1973 these had all been taken over by the Scottish Bus Group.

I suppose when you consider that there were four Scottish Bus Group companies operating local services in Glasgow as well as the Corporation then the matter was bound to be addressed at some point. It was exciting to think that the simple answer would have been to let the corporation take over all of the local services, but for various reasons, probably political and practical, that never happened. So, in late 1973 my boyhood ambition was shattered forever and all I could do was reflect on how it might have been if I had been a year or two older.

Believe it or not the demise of the Corporation Transport Department caused me to lose the inclination to learn to drive but I eventually realised that life must go on and passed my car driving test in Edinburgh at the age of 31, having failed a previous half-hearted attempt in Hove, Sussex, some 8 years earlier. My interest in buses had dwindled as I wasn’t too keen on what was on the road in the 1980s, and I still longed for the old days. I had been a police officer for 8 years before I passed my driving test and soon afterwards I suddenly found myself required to attend an intensive 3 week driving course. I passed it by a narrow margin after only 5 weeks driving experience on the road as a car driver and was advised by the instructor that I may be considered for traffic duty after I had gained more experience. In those days it wasn’t unusual for traffic police officers to be trained to obtain HGV Class 1 and PSV licences and I began to wonder if I would be able to obtain my PSV licence by that means. However, there was also a school of thought which said that by the time I had two or three years driving experience under my belt I may well be considered too old for training as a traffic patrol officer.

In any event I slogged it out on the street until the last 5 years of my service when I was put out to graze in an office. On several occasions I had contemplated going on a PSV course, but family commitments prevented me from doing so. Then, the advent of the Internet got me interested in old buses again and I realised that I could retire at 51 and perhaps go back on the buses as a sort of semi-retirement job. I didn’t believe I had any health issues but was definitely carrying a bit too much weight, and it probably came as no great surprise when I was diagnosed with high blood pressure (hypertension) in my late 40s. I was placed on various medications, none of which seemed to work and I then had to accept the fact that bus driving was probably not for me. I finally retired on full pension in 2004 but continued to work for the police as a 999 operator. My doctor also placed me on different medication which got my blood pressure down a bit. I also lost about two stone, partly as a result of the new medication, and partly by cutting down on the “bad man’s ginger” (a Glasgow phrase for beer, of which I am particularly fond, i.e. both the phrase and the beer).

In April 2005 I heard that First were looking to recruit drivers in the Scottish Borders where I now live, and I began to wonder if I should give it a go. My high blood pressure was, and still is, a bit of a problem, but I was able to meet the DVLA health standards and made a successful application to join First.

Therefore, along with two other hopefuls, I commenced training on 31st October 2005 in Galashiels. I had thought that bus driving would be a dawdle but I was very wrong. We set about learning in a fully automatic Leyland Lynx, ex First Wyvern. Round and round a local Industrial estate until we knew every lamp standard and got the feel of the bus. Then, as our confidence improved, we had a go on the main road. The first thing you realise is that your bus is almost the same width as the carriageway of most of our local main roads and when you meet oncoming traffic you have to ensure that your offside wheels are on your own side of the white line. If they aren’t, and the vehicle approaching is the same size, or bigger than you, then you can guess what happens next. You also have to learn to let 25 feet of bus move forward before you start to turn a left hand corner otherwise you run up on the kerb or take out parked cars. You also have 6 feet of bus in front of the steering wheels which can make for interesting results if you cannot work out the consequences of forgetting that.

I tried hard to get to grips with the brakes on the Lynx, which like most modern PCVs have a retarder or transmission brake, built in. Even the most gentle of braking would cause the retarder to snatch and the bus would begin to pitch. Then the automatic gearbox would kick down violently and bringing the bus to a jerk free stop was almost impossible. In short, I had great difficulty driving the bus and failed the first test with a fault list like a football coupon. I wasn’t alone and only one of us passed at the first attempt, a chap who had driven buses before, albeit in a non PCV capacity. Was it the bus, or was it just that that two out of three of us had problems with it? When all is said and done, with the benefit of experience, the technique of Leyland brakes has now been (almost) mastered.

Fortunately for the other trainee and myself, the Lynx in which we were due to re-sit our test had problems with a noisy differential and had to be withdrawn. We had “shots” in a semi automatic Leyland Tiger coach in the meantime and eventually our alternative test bus arrived, the day before our second tests! It was a Leyland Tiger fully automatic bus and as soon as we both drove it we could feel the difference in each other’s confidence. A far easier machine to handle despite being a full 12 metre length bus and the door controls being operated with the left foot. On 1st December 2005 we both sailed through our second tests and I managed to achieve it with only two minor faults.

After some weeks with a driver “buddy” I was let loose on my own and had been driving “solo” in service for only a couple of weeks when the photos elsewhere on the site were taken. Sadly, although I am enjoying the job, nothing will quite be the same as the old Corporation. To me, the modern buses have no character. They change gear at the most inconvenient times and each individual bus takes a fair bit of practice to drive smoothly. Indeed, even after a couple of hours of trying, some of them cannot be driven smoothly at all. My favourite bus is an old Leyland Olympian double decker (fleet no 30199). It is ex-Greater Manchester and has a semi automatic gearbox that at least gives you some control over whether to throw the passengers forwards into the windscreen or backwards onto the floor! I believe it is shortly to be withdrawn and will no doubt be replaced by something awful. Some older Volvo Olympians have suspension like a bouncy castle with brakes and gears to match and I am glad I don’t have to do too much city driving with them where I am.

The Leyland has that reassuring roar from its engine and the semi automatic gear change is a delight to use, even if you need to use your right hand. The only two criticisms are that the four piece passenger door makes it difficult to see the nearside rear view mirror. Also, the steering wheel fitted is of a material that can blister the hands especially when driving with a full load when the power steering becomes noticeably heavier at low speed. If I had the money, time, and storage space, then I reckon I could see my way to preserving one of these vehicles. We have another similar ex Manchester bus (30206), but it has fully automatic transmission and a quirky panel mounted windscreen wiper switch. One excellent feature of these buses is that all of the control switches are easily reached and identifiable on the driver’s instrument panel. However, like Glasgow Corporation, Leyland will soon be one for the history books as well.

Some advice for motorists in Edinburgh, Carlisle, North Northumberland, and the Scottish Borders (and probably everywhere else)

Look out for me on the X95 between Carlisle and Edinburgh, the 60 between Galashiels and Berwick, and the 62 between Melrose and Edinburgh. I also drive all of the other local routes operated by First in the Central Borders. Please be aware that if a bus in front of you brakes to a sudden halt on a rural stretch of road this will usually be because of an approaching articulated lorry trying to break the land speed record with no consideration being given to the offside windows of a bus in its quest. It hasn’t happened to me yet, but they do keep trying. I’ve already had to put both nearside wheels onto the grass or kerb on several occasions. Most artic drivers are very good at what they do but there are a significant number of them who regularly place morbid fear into bus drivers. They are not much bigger in size but can weigh up to three times that of a fully laden bus, and the tractor units, if not the trailers, can be steered out of danger at fairly short notice. Also, if they have to brake suddenly, they don’t get shouted at by 85 passengers, and are not responsible for any injuries caused to them by so doing. Therefore, they tend not to worry too much about what their trailers might hit or what is around the next blind bend. Some of them rarely worry about the 40mph speed limit. By my own admission I have been overtaken with my foot to the floor at a governed, but still illegal, 56mph by a juggernaut which passed me as though I wasn’t even there. To the uninitiated buses have a maximum speed of 50mph on single carriageway roads, and goods vehicles are supposed to be limited to 40 mph.

Car drivers also please be aware that there is not really such a thing as “your side of the road” or “my lane” under certain conditions. A bus turning left emerging from a junction will often require the whole width of a town street to complete the turn. One of the most annoying things is that on the approach to some large roundabouts there are lane markings which are intended as a guide to the safe separation distance of cars and other light vehicles. It appears to the drivers of large vehicles that some fool with a set of Dinky toys and a play mat will have sat and created his ideal roundabout.

The fact is that on almost every occasion a bus in the nearside lane will require to take part of the lane on its offside, much to the annoyance of the car or van driver occupying it. That driver, nowadays ever likely to be in a “couldn’t care less” company vehicle, will race the bus onto the roundabout and cut across the front of the bus to reiterate what the driver considers to be his or her rightful lane position. This is a worry as most of our buses are 12 metres long, or about 40 feet to we older generations. They do not bend in the middle and there is a growing tendency for our friendly road planner to insist on putting metal pedestrian barriers at the roundabout. Faced with hitting the railings on the nearside or the car on his offside, most bus drivers will go for the soft option as hitting a car at slow speed will cause less damage to a bus than hitting the railings.

Surely bus drivers are guilty of pushing their way through traffic and forcing oncoming vehicles to give way. Of course we are. Car drivers can more easily weave in and out of parked vehicles. Once we get moving we don’t want to have to pull in and out of parked cars as buses have a habit of removing car door mirrors when we try to show consideration for oncoming traffic, or are forced to take evasive action from oncoming Kamikaze car drivers. There is also the issue that a bus often cannot stop safely when the driver has committed the vehicle to the “wrong” side of the road to avoid an obstruction. Reversing a bus is almost out of the question in most instances as we usually cannot do this safely without assistance. We are required to reverse at certain specific locations, most usually in village streets or at termini, but these are in areas where traffic flow is not great.

Why do buses not pull into stops properly? The answer is usually because of cars parked on the approach to the bus stop, or some idiot has sited the stop adjacent to a road junction or on a bend. More than a few bus stops in small towns date back to the days when buses were all less than 30 feet long, and 40 into 30 simply doesn’t go. Other factors include intending passengers walking onto the roadway in front of the approaching bus, or the danger of the front nearside of the bus colliding with street furniture, particularly the bus stop pole or shelter!

Now, that bone of contention. Why should I give way to a bus pulling out? For various reasons we often have to stop “nose in” to bus stops. This means that we have not got a clear view to our rear in our offside mirror. We therefore must edge the bus out “blind” until we can see what is behind us. Some car drivers anticipate this as us moving out aggressively in front of them and brake sharply to a halt in the belief that the bus is about to pull out in front of them. At that stage all we are doing is positioning the bus to get a look. We then see a stationary vehicle slightly behind us with the driver possibly in an indecisive mind about the next course of action to take. It’s a bit like a game of “chicken” and most of us will take advantage of the car having come to a halt. In fact, some bus drivers may well take too much advantage of that, but all I can say is try driving a bus in today’s traffic and see how you get on if you believe a bus should wait until there is no traffic from the rear before making any movement away from a stop. Remember that a bus doesn’t have a rear view mirror that shows everything that you can see from a car driving position. Indeed in some double deckers, there are no rear windows in the bus at all.

If you are following very closely behind a bus please be aware Sunday, January 12, 2014 1:17 PM nnot see you. Therefore, if an intending passenger suddenly decides to hail a bus just as it is approaching a stop then there is a real danger that the front of your vehicle will be subject to rearrangement, or worse, if the bus driver decides to pull up. One car driver so afflicted shouted at the bus driver that he should have seen his car travelling behind. The bus driver asked the car driver if he could see what had been travelling in front of the bus at the time and the car driver finally got the message.

I nearly forgot that most modern of road users, the aggressive city cyclist. These people are not only a danger to themselves, but to every other person on the road, including pedestrians and bus passengers. In countries where they have made adequate provision for bicycle traffic in city centres then there isn’t a problem, although I once saw a cyclist in the Netherlands being knocked down by a car. The cyclist had decided the cycle lane wasn’t the quickest way and paid the price for cutting across the nose of a Citroen 2CV (remember them?). A considerable number of cyclists appear to think that everybody must give way to them and the rules of the road are for everybody else except them. Unfortunately, in Edinburgh where I have to do a fair bit of driving, they are often consigned to the bus lanes. A modern bus has fairly rapid acceleration and most buses will continue accelerating until their governed speed of 56mph is reached, where permitted. We often have to wait for a wobbly cyclist to move off in front of us and this means the bus will labour in whatever gear it chooses whilst we are holding it back. Passengers’ heads are a great indicator of whether a bus is being driven smoothly and where we see them rocking back and forth it is usually an indication of bad driving or a cyclist in front!

Buses often have to vacate the bus lanes in order to overtake a cyclist into slow moving traffic then fight to get back in just when the cyclist appears at speed in the nearside mirror. During wet weather conditions those of us bus drivers who have had to drive into the city from the sticks have mirrors that are pretty useless due to the accumulation of water, mud and road salt on them. Some cyclists seem to prefer black or dark clothing, perhaps as it makes them look thinner. Some appear so thin that we cannot see them at all. All I can say is if the British Army was comprised of city cyclists during the Great War then it would have only lasted about a fortnight. As soon as the Kaiser saw the cyclists he would have run for his life in terror. First they are in one mirror then they appear in another. The next thing they cut across in front of you forcing you to brake too hard with cursing passengers, who haven’t seen the full sequence of events, unsure of whether it is the bus driver or cyclist to blame.

I have driven left and right hand drive vehicles in France, Sweden, Germany, Denmark, Spain, and Portugal, and reckon that the British car driver is amongst the worst in Europe.

So, before you pull out of a side road in front of a bus remember that it could be travelling about 65mph and even the slowest of modern buses will be belting along at 50mph. And finally remember, that bastard of a bus driver might be me!

Copyright © 2006 John Walker

John Walker Who would love to hear from other platform staff.