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Tag Archives: Stephen Dowle

  • Bristol Lodekkas by Stephen Dowle

    By the mid-1970s the FLF Lodekka was well into the second half of its lifespan, but it was still a familiar sight almost everywhere. Alder Valley's Gardner-engined No. 676 (GRX I44D) leaves Reading for Newbury on WEdnesday 18 th February 1976. (Bristol Lodekkas, Amberley Publishing)

    The design problems of double-deck buses were basically two: to keep the height as low as practicable and to maximise seating capacity within the available dimensions. In the early days of the motor bus a full-width cab was placed behind the engine and the passenger-carrying bodywork was simply grafted onto the chassis behind them. This primitive configuration, known as 'normal control', squandered much passenger-carrying, revenue-generating space: in the years before the Second World War it gradually disappeared, to be replaced by a new spatial arrangement known as 'forward control'. In this, a half-width cab was placed alongside the engine, allowing the upper deck to be extended forward over the top of it.

    This optimised the use of space, but the difficulty of headroom remained. Damage to bodywork caused by overhanging branches was the least serious aspect of the problem: almost every bus operator had to contend with low railway bridges, which made it impossible to operate double-deckers on certain routes. This meant using single-deckers at more frequent intervals, with all the associated extra costs. To reduce height a very unsatisfactory alternative layout was developed: the gangway of the upper deck was placed to the offside and recessed into the ceiling of the lower deck. Not only did this imperil the heads of those passengers who were incautious in rising from the seats beneath, but the four-abreast seating of the upper deck was inconvenient for conductor and passengers alike. This, the hated "lowbridge" layout, made such buses, sometimes known as "skittle-alleys", about a foot lower than the standard height.

    The NBC's standard 'leaf green', even when fresh, was not the most beguiling of liveries and always looked dowdy by the time a trip to the paint shop was due. (Bristol Lodekkas, Amberley Publishing)

    It was to address the "lowbridge" problem that the Bristol Lodekka was developed. Bristol Tramways constructed two prototypes, which took to the roads in 1949, one in the company's own operating fleet and the other with the West Yorkshire Road Car Co. The new vehicles great innovation was a re-designed transmission in which the propeller shaft was offset to one side and drove a drop-centre, double reduction rear axle. The lower deck gangway no longer needed to clear the shaft and could pass through the dropped middle section of the axle. The step from the entrance platform to the floor of the lower deck was eliminated (in the early days many passengers came a cropper when attempting to mount this vanished step) and the entire vehicle could be correspondingly lowered. It became possible to provide conventional upper deck seating within "lowbridge" dimensions. The lowbridge bus became obsolete overnight.

    The prototypes (which I know only from photographs) must have been the ugliest buses ever constructed. They had massively wide radiators, a bizarre front bumper, ill-considered window-spacing and their reduced height did not conduce to shapely proportions. The first production vehicles, dubbed the LD-type, appeared in 1953. The body builders, Eastern Coach Works of Lowestoft, had espoused the 'new look' front (a lamentable fad in post-war bus design) in which the engine, radiator and nearside wing were enclosed within a rounded structure called a cowl. The squat, bulbous lineaments of the bus gave it a faintly toad-like appearance, but in the late 1950s new regulations permitted the construction of 30ft double-deckers, and a facelift of 1962 resulted in an improved frontal treatment. These changes considerably improved the vehicles looks. By the time production ceased in 1968 extended bodywork, which mostly went to Scotland, had made the Lodekka a handsome and imposing bus, able to accommodate 78 passengers. It was also made available with semi-automatic transmission and a larger engine, the 10.45-litre Gardner LX.

    The upper deck interior of an Alder Valley FLF with coach seating. (Bristol Lodekkas, Amberley Publishing)

    My book, Bristol Lodekkas, is a selection from photographs I took during many enjoyable journeys around the country between 1975 and 1980. The Lodekka was clearly nearing the end of its tenure, but as the period opened was still a familiar sight almost everywhere. In Scotland, where well-tried types had tended to be ordered for as long as they were available, the earlier versions were still numerous. I give an account of the motives that led me to take the photographs, and of my long association with the Lodekka as both passenger and professional busman.

    The Lodekka represented the final form of the half-cab, front-engined, double-deck bus that was a familiar feature of the streets for fifty years and an 'iconic' British vehicle recognised the world over. Alas, it required a crew of two and the economics of the modern industry made it obsolete. Bus operators, or their accountants, now demanded vehicles suitable for driver-only operation. The need to place the passenger entrance alongside the cab entailed the rear transverse-engine layout that remains with us to the present day. Mechanically, this configuration is far from satisfactory and I imagine many of today's bus company Chief Engineers must repine for the simple, rugged workhorses (such as the Bristol Lodekka) available to their counterparts forty years ago.

    Stephen Dowle's new book Bristol Lodekkas is available for purchase now.

  • The National Bus Company by Stephen Dowle

    The National Bus Company (14) Eastern National's no. 3019 (SMS 45H), new to Alexander Midland and registered in far-off Stirling, was snapped in Chelmsford on Tuesday 15 March 1977. (c. The National Bus Company, Amberley Publishing)

    The modern bus industry is, to me, a foreign country where they do things differently. 'What on earth must it be like now?' is a question that occurs to me often as, dodging Big Issue sellers and drifting, inattentive pedestrians absorbed with their mobile phones, I observe the outlandish vehicles of today's bus operators, whose names are mostly unfamiliar to me. The vehicles themselves seem to look and sound all alike and their poor drivers, sitting in high-vis jackets behind vast expanses of windscreen glass, have a hangdog look.  I would guess that there is little of 'job satisfaction' to be had.

    The National Bus Company (133) In standard poppy red, but with mudguards in what appears to be Western Welsh's pre-NBC colour, that company's no. H1563 (904 DBO) waits at its stand in Cardiff bus station on Riday 7 January 1977. (c. The National Bus Company, Amberley Publishing)

    The modern set-up really dates from 1986, when the state-owned part of the bus industry was dismantled, deregulated and sold piecemeal into private ownership. With hindsight one can see that preparations were being made from about 1980 onwards. My knowledge of the industry is out of date but good of its period, and that watershed year of 1980 fell at precisely the mid-way point of my twenty-year stint 'on the buses' – the first six as a conductor and the remainder as a driver. Until that date, although certain innovations – notably one-man operation – had crept in, the industry was still grounded in methods that could be traced back to the very earliest years of the motor-bus. Afterwards everything changed.

    The National Bus Company (170) Standing on the setts on Saturday 14 October 1978 was Devon General's no. 1337 (JFJ 502N), a 1975 Bristol LH with Plaxton 7-foot, 6-inch body, made for sunken lanes and tours of Dartmoor. (c. The National Bus Company, Amberley Publishing)

    The National Bus Company had come into existence on 1st January 1969. It had a complicated gestation, but was essentially a merger of the Tilling and British Electric Traction groups under the Labour government of Harold Wilson and its Minister of Transport, the auburn-haired she-devil Barbara Castle. Early on there was a certain amount of 'rationalisation' and territorial redistribution as some of the lesser companies were merged and anomalous small subsidiaries were absorbed by their larger neighbours. The old company identities had disappeared as a standard livery, in its red or green variants, with a new lettering style and staff uniform had been established in the interest of 'corporate identity'. My book The National Bus Company: The Middle Years looks at the settled period that followed and takes us up to the eve of the great upheavals that followed in the first half of the eighties. These, the mature years of the NBC, afford us a poignant backwards glance at the 'old days' of the industry, or at least the state-owned part of it, when there was still a substantial amount of two-man 'crew' operation and alongside new, standardised, types – notably the Leyland National – older buses of Tilling and BET provenance were still a familiar sight. Viewed from the present day, through the wrong end of a telescope, it seems a golden age of variety and interest.

    The former Tilling fleets were overwhelmingly of Bristol-ECW manufacture; BET, largely the legatee of tram and trolleybus operators in the more urbanised parts of the country, had more varied fleets dominated by Leyland and AEC chassis. There was a score of body builders from which to choose, and operators often felt bound by a duty to patronise the local firm. The innumerable permutations of chassis, body, engine and company spec made the study of buses endlessly fascinating. Almost all these home-grown builders have disappeared in the years since and with them much of the appeal of the subject. I hope the book will provide an enjoyable nostalgia fix to those who remember the period and give younger readers a savour of that most tantalising era, the one that immediately preceded your own.

    9781445664842

    Stephen Dowle's new book The National Bus Company: The Middle Years is available for purchase now.

  • Class 52 Westerns: The Twilight Years by Stephen Dowle

    The British Railways Modernisation Plan of 1955 brought many innovations, but most visible to the layman or ordinary rail passenger was the replacement of steam by diesel locomotives. It should have been a time for clear vision, decisiveness and a firm hand on the tiller. Instead, screeching and clattering over the points went the bizarre twenty-strong Metro-Vick Co-Bo class and the ten 'Baby Deltics', which proved too heavy for the lines they were intended to operate. There were others.

    Class 52 2 IC63, the 13.15 Paddington-Cardiff (Class 52 Westerns, Amberley Publishing)

    The B. R. regions, legatees of the pre-Nationalisation 'Big Four' companies, retained considerable autonomy in the management of their affairs. Three of the four regions adopted the diesel-electric locomotive. This, properly understood, was an electric locomotive that carried a diesel engine to generate its own current ... more flexible and cheaper in infrastructure costs than a pure electric locomotive, which uses current generated at a power station. The Western Region, descendant of the Great Western Railway and noted, like its predecessor, for unorthodoxy ...not to say bloody-mindedness... decided to build diesel-hydraulic locomotives. The application of diesel-hydraulic technology to railways had been pioneered in Germany. The engines and transmissions for the W. R.'s locomotives were of German origin, though built, for political reasons, by British licensees. The first five locomotives, of A1A-A1A axle configuration and wished upon the W. R. by the British Transport Commission, were constructed on heavyweight principles appropriate to diesel-electrics, thereby squandering one of the main advantages of the diesel-hydraulic system, a high power-to-weight ratio. After this false start came three main types, known as the Warships, the Hymeks and, finally, in 1961, the Westerns.

    Class 52 3 DI047 Western Lord (Class 52 Westerns, Amberley Publishing)

    Considered as part of the whole B. R. fleet the locomotives were decidedly non-standard, but they were unlike the numerically small, dead-loss designs that had appeared elsewhere on the system. The Hymeks were perhaps the most successful and enjoyed a good record of reliability and performance throughout their short working lives. The other two classes, like all thoroughbreds, were given to episodes of temperament, but once early problems had been remedied they settled, in their mature years, to a record as good as any contemporary diesel-electric. The Westerns, so called because all were given two-word names beginning with 'Western', were the Region's flagships ... it’s most powerful line-service locomotives and successors to the Great Western's King class steam engines. They were a handsome, clean design that made the diesel-electrics look like their ugly sisters. Much of their appeal derived from the impressive acoustics of their paired, fast-idling Maybach engines. These were a turbocharged and intercooled version of the Warships' engines, crammed, with difficulty, into a body reduced from German dimensions to fit the smaller clearances of British loading-gauge. Unlike the diesel-electric system, which requires power to be applied in gradual increments, hydraulic transmission demands a vigorous application of power at the start. Because of this characteristic, riding behind a Western, especially if running late, could be an exhilaratingly noisy experience.

    I first came to railways in the last days of steam, but lost interest when steam disappeared. I had not kept abreast of developments and it came as a surprise when, one day in 1973, I overheard someone say that the Westerns were being withdrawn and scrapped. As long ago as 1967, I learned, a decision had been taken to rectify the problem of the Modernisation Plan's small and too numerous locomotive types. The diesel-hydraulics, though performing well by this time, amounted to little more than 10% of the BR fleet. Inevitably, they had to go. Even back in my steam days I had admired the Westerns and had assumed they would see out a normal service lifetime, perhaps lasting into the 21st century. A plan formed in my mind and I bought a new camera. It was already too late for the Warships, which had all been withdrawn by 1972; the Hymeks were down to a handful of survivors; but the Westerns were still almost intact and I could assemble a collection of photographs. The intention to eliminate the Westerns (by now officially 'Class 52') by the end of 1974 proved too ambitious and they battled on, increasingly dilapidated but extremely tenacious of life, until the last were withdrawn in February 1977.

    Class 52 1 DI003 Western Pioneer (Class 52 Westerns, Amberley Publishing)

    My collection of photographs now meets its destiny, forty years on, in this Amberley publication. It is very much a 'one man's view' sort of book, giving an account in pictures, accompanied by a chatty text, of the events as I experienced them. However deplorable the early proliferation of non-standard types may have been from the point of view of operational efficiency, it was an interesting time for enthusiasts. Alas, railways are not operated for the entertainment of railway enthusiasts. Looking back and comparing, one is impressed by how packaged, sanitised and generally joyless railway travel has become. Today's traveller, eyes down to his smart phone for relief from the sterility of his surroundings, is packed into high density seating in a sealed, soundproofed, air-conditioned, fiberglass-infested multiple unit of gimcrack appearance, humming along on continuously-welded rails.

    So climb aboard and let the years fall away. Take care, as the heavy door slams with a solid double snap behind you, not to spill your scalding plastic cup of B. R. chicory substitute. Settle your hindquarters, with a jangle of springs, into the deep cushions of the veneer-lined compartment. Lower the upholstered arm rest and turn the heating control knob above your head. With faint ticking sounds, little zephyrs of warmth begin to circulate around your lower legs. Reach for your Lyon's individual fruit pie and sit back for a swaying, lurching trip into the rusty, overgrown sidings of a forgotten railway epoch.

    9781445648989

    Stephen Dowle's Class 52 Westerns: The Twilight Years is available for purchase now.

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