Monday, 30 March 2009

The Bus of the Future

A vision of the future from the 1968 I-Spy Buses & Coaches...

The Bus of the Future, 1968 style

In the future buses will probably have automatic fare collection. This one is operated by one-man – the driver – and you pay him as you enter; or you put tokens, bought beforehand, into a machine to get your ticket.

I-SPY a train-like front – rather like a diesel; a low windscreen; and a small glass panel, low down at the side, to let the driver see the curb.

This Leyland Panther rear-engined bus has a front entrance and centre exit.

Who ran the 'pay-as-you-enter' bus you saw?

Score 50

Sunday, 29 March 2009

Buses and blogging

Man runs for bus

You can find technology all over the average modern bus. There'll be an electronic ticket machine, possibly a destination indicator that uses the latest in LED technology. Inside there may be a digital CCTV system in order to capture naughty behaviour, and you may even be lucky enough to have Real Time Information screens at the bus stop that attempt to tell you how far away the next bus will be, tied into a complex system of timetables, driver rotas and GPS. So how apt it is that people with an interest in the public transport system can read all about it on the internet.

It's fair to say that Omnibuses blog is the leading UK blog devoted to all things buses, with regular postings for the past four and a half years. Written by a mystery editor based somewhere near Bournemouth, it takes a look at the whole spectrum of topics – from industry news and thoughts on marketing to more specialised topics such as bus photography and south coast goings-on.

There are some good regional based bus blogs as well. Manchester Buses is aimed at a broad audience, with news items, features and funnies making up the majority of its content. Plymothian Transit keeps an eye on the south west region, albeit with more of an enthusiast angle, again with news items but also featuring a lot of photographic content. London Reconnections is a generalist transport blog which reports on major changes to bus services in the capital, but tends to find more news related to rail-based schemes – those with a political slant may find Boris Watch's watching brief on bendy bus replacement to be of interest!

The bus companies themselves have perhaps not woken up fully to the potentials of blogging, but there are a few exceptions – ironically both based on the south coast and so close enough for Omnibuses Blog to have picked up on! Velvet Bus and Southern Vectis both have their own blog, offering rare glimpses behind the scenes of the local bus garage, and how bus services are planned in the background. There's also representation from the front lines – blogs by bus drivers. Fair play to them as it must be a difficult path to follow if management ever disapproved of a personal opinion. One of my favourites is Bus Driver Jimmy - perhaps I may even bump into him on my last day of travels, when I catch the Coastliner service (link to PDF map) between Havant and Brighton.

Do you know of a good blog related to buses? Drop us a tweet or leave a comment.

Image credit: Pensiero on Flickr

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Less than a month to go

Blogging on the bus

One month before I start my journey. Thank you to everybody who has donated so far – if you haven't but you could spare a few pounds for a worthy cause then you can donate online at my Justgiving page.

There's a few more articles I'll be blogging here in the run-up to B-Day (Bus Day &ndash Sunday 19th April 2009). In the meantime, if you're not already following me on Twitter then please do, as I throw together carefully research some fascinating BusFacts every day prior to departure – when the real fun should begin. Go on, you know you want to!

If you have been following me on Twitter, you'd already know about the little photo-shoot a couple of weekends back. Here's a picture of me pretending to blog on the upstairs back seat on my local route in Manchester. What fun!

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

My favourite bus journey

Deer and hall at Dunham Massey

Given the way in which the north west doesn't feature a great deal in Great British Bus Journies, it seems only fair I address the balance by writing about my own favourite journey. Although there is strong competition from the roller-coaster ride up (or down, depending on the direction of travel) Hala hill in Lancaster, service 5 in Warrington will forever be one of those journies inextricably linked to happy childhood trips to visit nan and feed the ducks.

Heading out from Warrington town centre, the bus travels south over the Mersey crossing at Bridge Foot, over the steep incline of the railway bridge that replaced the notorious level crossing in the sixties, and past the bus depot on the left. Down Wilderspool Causeway, a glimpse of the old rugby stadium can be seen down the terraced side streets. Further on along this wide tree-lined road and we come to the heart of the old Greenall Whitley Land, now no more. The distillery on the left "vere dey made ze Vladivar vodka" was burnt down in a fire several years ago, and whilst the fine brewery buildings on the right still stand, they are now converted to flats and offices. Even the flagship pub opposite the brewery, The Saracen's Head, is now run by J.W. Lees.

The busy crossroads in Stockton Heath

And so we cross the Manchester Ship Canal by one of the town's notorious swing bridges (which even today cause traffic mayhem whenever a ship passes through) and into Stockton Heath village centre. This is the first of the north Cheshire villages we pass through on our journey. Stockton Heath isn't much of a village these days – it's the "local centre" for the affluent southern suburbs of Warrington, and the combination of ships and Chelsea tractors makes the area prone to congestion. The bus turns left at Victoria Square, with its bars and restaurants, and heads into leafy suburbs.

Passing under the old Warrington–Timperley railway (which is now an off-road section of the Trans Pennine Trail) the bus comes out on Thelwall New Lane, next to Latchford Locks on the Ship Canal. Where Stockton Heath bustled, Thelwall is an altogether more sleepy village, the type of place where Morris dancers still ply their trade outside the village hall. Another little quirk is the Thelwall Ferry, a little rowing boat across the Ship Canal that operates as required in the "rush hour" and at lunchtimes – though it's hard to imagine that it's ever particularly busy.

Horses' heads peek out of stables just before the route runs under the M6, almost under Thelwall Viaduct, but only services on the "bottom road" via Statham get that honour for real. Instead we pass through a seperate underbridge, alongside the Transpennine Trail, which subsequently dives off to the right and then back under our feet. This is very much a route of bridges, canals and old railways, as the Bridgewater Canal is crossed shortly after via a greater-crested bridge – also known as the humpback variety.

Narrow boats on the Bridgewater Canal in Lymm

Picturesque Lymm is the next destination. The village centre is nestled in a little sandstone ravine, which we cross on the "top road" across the manmade Lymm Dam – the flooding of the valley resulting in a lake that is popular with anglers, with the steeple of St Mary's Church looming above. Turning left down narrow Rectory Lane, we arrive in the village centre next to the Cross. There is a choice of duck-feeding locations to be found, with the Lower Dam and the Bridgewater Canal being popular destinations!

This was where my childhood journies would end. We alighted here whilst the blue and cream double-decker would heave out of the village centre over another Bridgewater Canal humpback bridge in order to turn round at Warburton. This village is perhaps best known for its toll bridge (originally over the Mersey, but these days supplemented by a high-level bridge over the Ship Canal) although gained a certain notoriety in recent years playing host to that episode of Time Team where they didn't find very much at all. Today the route continues past this terminus, replacing the old Altrincham bus service withdrawn in 2006 at double the old frequency.

Winding through country lanes past small clumps of housing, the route passes over the Transpennine Trail one last time, and then under the Bridgewater Canal. The underbridge at Dunham once forced bus companies to buy buses with a specially contoured roof such was the tight fit. No such problems these days as the bridge was rebuilt many years ago, but you couldn't fit a double decker under it without losing the top deck, so the route is firmly in the hands of standard single deckers. Dunham Massey Hall is a beautiful old house, with grand tree-lined avenues, a working sawmill and deer wandering around within the outer brick wall. There's also a brewery and a scout camp on other parts of the estate, both of which I am happy to recommend. This is nice, easy walking country, with views out to Winter Hill over the old Carrington refinery where grandad worked.

Affluent Altrincham is our final destination, home of the Manchester Phoenix ice hockey team, located at the new ice rink. Rackhams department store used to be a popular shopping destination for people in Lymm, although perhaps these days shoppers are tempted to hop on the tram to Manchester.

What's your favourite bus journey and why? Leave us a comment or a link to your blog.

Image credits: Christopher Elison, Guy Hatton and Sony200boy on Flickr

Monday, 16 March 2009

Splendid deviations

When I was working on my route, the main consideration was to find a way from Far North to South Coast, but additionally to keep things reasonably straight forward. Here are a few deviations that could be made along the way for someone with copious amounts of time to spare:

Ring of Brodgar, Orkney


Tantalisingly close to Thurso – a mere 90 minutes ferry ride over the Pentland Firth – Stagecoach operate services on the Orkney mainland from Stromess and Kirkwall which they acquired along with the rest of the Rapsons business purchased last year. Students of neolithic and military history will be equally at home here, with the ceremonial stone rings of one era contrasting sharply with the concrete barriers of another.

Isle of Arran

Connect from the bus service in Adrossan onto the ferry to Brodick on the Isle of Arran, from where there are bus services all the way round the island via the coastal road, or across the mountainous centre of the island. There's even an open-top bus service during the summer to Brodick Castle.


Catch one of the four return trips operated by Stagecoach on service 685 from Carlisle, running parallel to Hadrian's Wall, in order to reach the urban operations in Tyne and Wear. Take a trip on the bright-yellow Quaylink hybrid electric buses serving the Baltic Centre and the rather-more-successful-than-its-London-counterpart Millennium Bridge. Unfortunately there are no valid routes south along the coast to link into the Teeside network, so Middlebrough remains isolated.

Pier Head, Liverpool


The X2 from Preston runs fast to Southport and then further along the sandy stretch of coastline, ideal for a golfing retirement in Formby and Birkdale. Artistic types may be more interested in Antony Gormley's statues on Crosby beach. Liverpool city centre has a range of delights, despite the fact that the year of culture has come to an end.


From the North Lincolnshire towns of Grimsby and Scunthorpe, there are links over the Humber Bridge and into the city of Kingston-upon-Hull. The city is represented by ex-Deputy PM John Prescott and current Health Secretary Alan Johnson, whilst the fishing port of Grimsby is represented by Austin Mitchell – who once changed his name to Austin Haddock by deed-poll in order to promote fish.


There are two ways to get to Warwick. You can sneak in the top way from Northampton via Rugby and Coventry, or up from Oxford via Chipping Norton and Stratford-upon-Avon. A very pretty part of the world, full of quaint villages that you can imagine Shakespeare may have lived in. Even Coventry – beautiful, misunderstood Cov – looks full of promise on a sunny day.

Tewkesbury Abbey, Gloucestershire


Doctor Foster didn't have much fun when he went to Gloucester. In fact, the whole soggy experience put him off a repeat visit. Perhaps he'd have enjoyed himself more if he'd gone to see the gee-gees in Cheltenham. Of course, he'd have got the number 51 bus from Swindon, "way out west where the west is one hell of a lot of fun," as Lorraine Bowen once sang.

South Wales

Heading further west from Gloucester, we can travel via Chepstow to Newport or up to Hereford, where there are connections to literary Hay-on-Wye, Brecon and its Beacons, and down into the Welsh valleys by way of Abergavenny, Ebbw Vale, Merthyr Tydfil and Pontypridd, eventually arriving in Cardiff, unlikely home of intergalatic Time Lords and secret alien investigation units.


An isolated pocket of operations in the far south-west of England – but South West Trains do operate services from Basingstoke to Exeter. Once there, bus services radiate out in all directions. The so-called English Riviera (Torquay and Paignton) lies to the south, and was home to a high-speed Stagecoach catamaran trial last year. Plymouth can be accessed to the south west, with Exmouth and Sidmouth to the east. And to the north, there are links to Barnstaple, Bideford and Bude.


You'll struggle making it to this outpost of the empire – at least since Brighton & Hove took over the routes to Lewes, Uckfield and Eastbourne in 2004. Once you've made that leap there is a decent-sized network, recently expanded to include Eastbourne, that follows the Kent coast round from Hastings to Whitstable and most points in between. Dover may have been the perfect symbolic place to finish my journey, the symbolic last point of Britain before you reach the continent. Ah well.

Image credits: Shadowgate, petecarr and nick.garrod on Flickr

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Blogging from the Outer Circle

Travel West Midlands bus going round in circles

I'm not unfamiliar with the bus service in Birmingham as I regularly visit on business. It was confusing the first time, because in these parts the ticket dispenser seems to be located behind the driver rather than next to the ticket machine – leaving unwary outsiders searching for the source of that printing sound in vain. (I'm happy to report that it gets easier with practice.) The overwhelming majority of services are operated by Travel West Midlands, who are in that funny period in the middle of a corporate rebranding (as National Express West Midlands – or is it just plain simple West Midlands?) where it seems as if they're not sure what they're called anymore.

One of the most high-profile routes in the area is service 11. This is no ordinary route: it is the erstwhile Outer Circle, a circuit over 26 miles long around the suburbs of Birmingham whilst avoiding the city centre. A whole loop takes around two and a half hours, although with the magic of the internet you can now do it in five minutes. It is – in theory – of infinite length as another journey begins as soon as the last one ends, but in practice that lofty ambition is impeded by such mundanities as refuelling and nighttime. There is a clockwise service (11C) and an anti-clockwise service (11A), both at frequent intervals. Vehicles that won't complete a whole loop seem to display their early termination in the same manner regardless of whether they are heading clockwise or anti-clockwise (11E).

Last year, a group of individuals decided to spend up to 11 hours going round and round on the eleven on 11/11. Blog items ranged from more standard travelogues and a busman's holiday to psychogeographical reflections and more. There are a whole host of pictures and videos as well as mentions on the BBC Midlands Today and website, as well as in the Birmingham Post. I was particularly taken with Michael Grimes' eleven hours of live-blogging, especially the bits where the journey starts passing through the same places – again, and again. Comedy mention to the wonderfully evocative Acocks Green, though who am I to criticise growing up in a town with a shopping centre called Cockhedge?

Image credit: Pete Ashton on Flickr

Saturday, 7 March 2009

Tour de Manchester

Welcome to anyone visiting from the glowing write-up I got on the Manchester Buses blog. I'll be passing through Greater Manchester at the half-way point of my nationwide journey, taking the long trip between Bolton and Burnage on the number 22, before making my way to Stockport the following morning for my first little cheat of the trip. I'll be blogging and tweeting as I go, raising some money for Christie's appeal. Any donations gratefully received.

Here's a little picture of the author giving a rather cheesy thumbs-up at an open day in 2002. Thankfully, I'm not allowed anywhere near a steering wheel in real life.

Friday, 6 March 2009

Great British Bus Journies

Double decker bus driving through meadows

What does a former deputy editor and chief leader writer for The Guardian do when the time comes for them to consider retirement? Why, they grab their bus pass and set off around the country to research material for a travelogue on obscure British people and places. "Great British Bus Journeys" was the end product for David McKie, based on a series of disparate bus journies he undertook mainly in Summer 2004.

I remember being aware of the book back at the time of its launch. I may even have thumbed through a copy in my local branch of Waterstones. I didn't buy it at that point: I was rather underwhelmed by the lack of chapters devoted to the north west of England. Where were all my favourite journies? I put the book back, making sure I hadn't left too many rumpled page corners. It wasn't until I decided to do this challenge that I succumbed to acquiring an edition, just to make sure I wasn't infringing too much on journies that had already been made. I needn't have worried.

There are a couple of places where our journies converge: Thurso – Dornoch and Lincoln – Grantham being two sections of route we will both have covered, along with visits to Dundee, Glasgow, Chesterfield, Northampton and Basingstoke. But whereas David's trips are carefully constructed things, structural devices on which to hang the carefully researched historical narratives, mine will be dictated by the need to get from A to Z with some stop-offs along the way. If I were writing a book, it would probably turn out to be the "Round Ireland With A Fridge" of the newly-invented bus travelogue genre – only less humourous.

Image credit: Elsie esq. on Flickr

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

The nationalised bus industry, 1948–1986

Fife Scottish double decker

The idea of a bus company with operations all over the country is not a new one. Attlee's Labour administration took steps to nationalise the railway system in 1948, which had suffered from overworking and a lack of investment throughout the Second World War. With the railway companies came stakes in other transport companies, including road haulage, canals and bus companies: the latter including Tilling Group and British Electric Traction.

The 1950s are considered a golden era for bus travel, but also marked the beginning of decline. There was a huge demand for travel in the post war years as people took up leisure pursuits like never before. The motorbus also replaced tramway systems across the country – but increasing ownership of television and cars was to lead to a decline in passenger numbers. People would not visit the cinema as often when they had their own television, and why take the bus when you had a brand new car to drive? The conductor began to be dispensed with, the driver becoming responsible for collecting fares in an attempt to cut staffing costs, but this tended to lead to slower journey times.

Harold Wilson's first term marked the amalgamation of the government owned bus companies into National Bus Company (NBC) based in England and Wales, along with the Scottish Bus Group (SBG) serving Scotland – both nationalised companies belonging to Her Majesty's Government. Many local bus companies remained in municipal hands, but those in the big cities were merged under the control of the newly-created Passenger Transport Executives. A few pockets of independent bus operators remained, but most of the country was served by publically owned bodies.

Standard single decker in the nationalised Crosville fleet

The seventies were a time of public sector corporatism, perhaps best examplified by the troubles of super-conglomerate British Leyland and the rail blue era at British Rail. NBC introduced its own corporate ethos too. New vehicles orders were standardised as Leyland Nationals and Bristol VRs, with the majority of vehicles painted either poppy red or leaf green. This one-size-fits-all approach saw passenger numbers continued to fall as decline was managed and uneconomic services lopped off left, right and centre. Similar moves were taking place in Scotland at SBG.

Come the early eighties, and things were starting to change. NBC was allowing its subsidiaries to review their networks. Local identities were introduced to help promote and market the bus within the local community, rather than as a faceless corporation based miles away. Minibuses were introduced on some routes at more frequent intervals. Innovation was taking beginning to take place – but it wouldn't be allowed to flourish as it was.

In 1985, Thatcher's government decided to let bus services become a saleable commodity: anyone could run any bus service anywhere (outside London) to make profit, with local councils filling in the gaps by offering subsidies for unprofitable routes where there was a social need. Both NBC and SBG were broken up and sold off.

Image credits: 2E0MCA and iantherev on Flickr