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  • Bristol A Portrait 1970-82 by Stephen Dowle

    This book first appeared in September 2016 in a large format edition which enjoyed a brisk sale. It is now re-issued in a more compact size and enlarged by the inclusion of extra photographs, bringing the total to nearly 150. I have tried to supply chatty captions giving personal observations and recollections: accordingly there is quite a strong "authorial voice" which, I hope, provides a more entertaining read than a mere recital of facts.

    The granary and flour mill at Buchanan's Wharf, built in 1884, was converted to flats in 1988. (Bristol A Portrait 1970-82, Amberley Publishing)

    The photographs were taken between 1970 and 1982, when I was between the ages of twenty and thirty-two. Most of my contemporaries were either at the stage known as "sowing your wild oats", or had embarked upon its customary sequel, "settling down". The former mode of living struck me, even at that age, as a waste of one's precious time on Earth, whereas marriage, child-raising and mortgage-repaying were, in my case, to be deferred for some years. Taking photographs was one of my favourite pastimes, at first using a primitive pre-war camera my father had passed on to me when I was about twelve. Once I'd left school and could afford film and processing I began to travel around taking photos of the rapidly disappearing industrial townscapes of the Midlands and Lancashire. Those few who knew of it clearly regarded this as an eccentric occupation and I learned to be evasive about it. The photographs, in the form of 5X3½-inch "enprints" processed through my local branch of Hodders, the chemists, were mostly pretty dreadful. Nevertheless some of my favourite shots were taken in those early days with that first camera, and in recent times, with the aid of a flatbed negative scanner, it has been possible to improve greatly on the originals.

    Britol's pre-war shopping district. (Bristol A Portrait 1970-82, Amberley Publishing)

    In the book's Introduction I relate how, in April 1970, I became a bus conductor and saw the newly flattened ruins of Bristol's Newtown district from the top deck of my bus. To me, still at an age when experience has a hormonally-fuelled intensity and over-heatedness, there was an uncanny beauty in the scene. I had been powerfully subject to nostalgia from an age when, logically speaking, I had not yet anything to be nostalgic about. I can only state that this was so: my surroundings were dear to me and any changes in them, even something as trivial as the felling of a tree or the realignment of a kerb, had the power to distress me. Within days of first seeing Newtown I went back with my camera to roam wretchedly among the weed-choked foundations and shattered pavements, filled with hopeless longing for what had gone and could never again be seen. I had sufficient self-awareness, however, to realise that in this experience pain was intermingled, more or less equally, with a morbid pleasure.

    Although I must have passed by often without taking any notice, I could not remember Newtown when it had been standing. I reached back into my memory but could never quite grasp hold. The most fascinating historical period is always that just beyond the reach of one's own recollections. By this time we, of the post-war baby-boom generation, had become accustomed to the process called "redevelopment". Having limbered up with the rebuilding of areas devastated by wartime bombing, the local authority planning departments – whose principle motive, as with any bureaucracy, is self-perpetuation – turned their attention upon other areas that could be regarded as in need of renewal. All this coincided with a boom in the value of property, a growth in demand for office space and, of course, a great increase in road traffic. Georgian squares and Regency terraces disappeared to make way for roundabouts and dual-carriageways, as working class "inner city" areas were flattened wholesale and their residents rehoused in tower blocks or grim estates at the city's edge. Not only Newtown, but also neighbouring Easton had been razed in the late sixties, and now as the seventies opened the Council flattened all the lower part of Totterdown for a road scheme that was abandoned even as the final demolitions were taking place. There were a number of specific outrages: the University and Royal Infirmary, between them, were allowed to violate the picturesque slopes of Kingsdown; the bombed Castle Street shopping centre was rebuilt, not on the same site, but a few hundred yards to the north in the old streets around Broadmead, which had been largely untouched by the air raids; St James's Square was destroyed for the enlargement of a roundabout. A scheme to construct a shoebox-shaped hotel on the slope of the Avon Gorge just below the Clifton Suspension Bridge, was only narrowly averted.

    Clifton Suspension Bridge. (Bristol A Portrait 1970-82, Amberley Publishing)

    By the time I'd started taking photographs around Bristol, the early redevelopment frenzy had begun to run out of steam and attract public disfavour. It finally ground to a halt quite abruptly around 1975. This left many parts of Bristol in a kind of limbo: large areas had been cleared but not rebuilt; condemned buildings were reprieved and left empty awaiting a decision on their future; whole districts, such as the older, architecturally distinguished part of St Paul's around Brunswick Square, were left to rot – one suspected until such time as further deterioration would leave them beyond saving. Much though I deplored these things I would concede that they were interesting from a photographic point-of-view; there was no shortage of scenes for my camera to record. Many who read the original edition of the book remarked how shabby Bristol looked at the time. It was not my intention to emphasise this squalid aspect of the city: like most people I have a great affection for my native place and would not wish to do it a disservice. It was in the nature of the times and subject-matter that the book should paint a rather unflattering portrait.

    The preparation of the original book fell during an eleven-year exile in East Anglia, when it was difficult for me to keep abreast of developments in Bristol. I have since moved to South Wales and it has become easier to revisit my old haunts, which I now see as if with fresh eyes. My main impression is of a kind of visual sterility. Much that was distinctive about the city has given way to an even spread of ICLEI-sponsored sustainable development, dockside micro-apartments, low-rise Lego-brick offices, fake street furniture, sanitised “heritage” showpieces, pedestrianised shopping centres, bus lanes, wheelchair ramps, fraudulent retro paving, Veolia wheelie-bins, Caffè Nero outlets that were once post offices or police stations, nonsensical "installations" and rubbish sculpture and, everywhere, surveillance cameras. A worrying point is that every British city looks like this now. Everywhere looks like everywhere else. Local, and even national distinctions, become fewer and fewer. The whole world is becoming as bland and homogeneous as a blancmange, one place fairly indistinguishable from any other unless, here and there, by climate or terrain. Eventually there will be nothing to which anyone will feel any particular connection or allegiance. This, I suspect, is the intention.

    Stephen Dowle's new format paperback of Bristol A Portrait 1970-82 is available for purchase now.

  • British Buses and Coaches in the Late 1970s by Stephen Dowle

    Few dissent from the view that Harrington Grenadier was one of the best coach bodies of its era. This example, on an AEC Reliance 2U3RA chassis, was one of a batch of five new to Bowen's of Birmingham in 1965. (British Buses and Coaches in the Late 1970s, Amberley Publishing)

    "Transitional" is, I suppose, the word to describe the bus industry’s situation in the second half of the 1970s. The transition was from two-man "crew" operation – universal on all but the most unfrequented services ten years earlier – to "OMO", or One-Man Operation, to employ the diabolical gender-specific term used in those far-off, unenlightened times. For us in the industry it was a "soft" revolution: I never heard of anyone being compulsorily made redundant as a consequence of OMO. I was one of many conductors who were re-trained as drivers, and the usual high turnover of staff made it possible to manage the changeover on the basis of natural wastage, retirements and so on. Once the dust had settled the man behind the wheel found himself doing what had, until recently, been two jobs. Much of the camaraderie disappeared and bus driving became a solitary, slightly sadder occupation. Of course, operators were in the business of running bus services, not social clubs.

    OMO was a response to decline. The industry's prosperity had peaked in the decade after the war. It was said that operators typically employed 2.4 people for every bus owned and all bus undertakings eagerly embraced OMO as a means of reducing their wages bill. Many ill-informed theories were advanced to explain the decline. Passengers were especially vocal on the topic and blamed the ever-falling fortunes of their local bus operator on the disincentive effect of higher fares and deteriorating standards of service. This was to put the cart before the horse. It was the age of "affluence", full employment and inflation. At a time when local newspapers were plump and heavy with the weight of Situations Vacant advertising, it is said that you could walk out of a job in the morning and start another in the afternoon, people rejected the shifts, split turns, early starts and low pay of bus work. Many buses were pulled from services because it was impossible to provide crews for them. Attempts to make the job more attractive mostly took the form of pay rises, which had to then be paid for in higher fares. To keep fare increases below the level at which passengers were deterred from travelling was a delicate balancing act. To me it was plain that the industry's reduced circumstances could be attributed mainly to the great increase in car ownership. Once they could afford to, people naturally preferred to travel in their own cars, door-to-door, at times of their own choosing. This led not only to a fall in the number of passengers, but to an increased problem of traffic congestion. Another factor was that people now stayed indoors watching television where once they would have gone out in search of recreation. The decline of public transport was a natural consequence of increased prosperity.

    The moulded 'St Helens front' was supplied with many Leyland Titan chassis when traditional exposed radiators passed out of favour. Colchester's 43 (OVX 143D) had beennew in 1966 and carried bodywork by Massey. (British Buses and Coaches in the Late 1970s, Amberley Publishing)

    The industry's adaptation to its reduced circumstances took place against a background of stability. The Transport Act of 1968 and the 1974 reforms of local government had brought in changes of organisation, but these were now well established; the greater upheaval of privatisation and deregulation would not come until the mid-1980s. For the period covered by the book it was "steady as she goes". As far as the vehicles were concerned, the introduction of OMO had presented ticklish problems of re-design. If the driver was to take his passengers' fares, the engine would have to be removed from its natural place at the front to a more hostile environment further back. In the case of double-deckers this meant the vertical rear transverse position, never very satisfactory from an engineering point of view, and in single-deckers a mid or rear horizontal underfloor configuration. This made room for a spacious platform and cab ahead of the front axle. The noble front-engined half-cab bus, a familiar and uniquely British vehicle, was doomed, and its slab-fronted, box-on-wheels, one-man successor was taking over. The normal pace of fleet renewal meant that the last front-engined buses, built towards the end of the 1960s, would reach the end of their lives in the early 1980s. So it proved. The photographs in the book were taken between 1975 and 1980, by which time OMO was almost universal. The few remaining pockets of "crew" operation disappeared during the first years of the new decade.

    This unusual Leyland Titan PD3/2 with Alexander body was fitted from new with an experimental fibreglass front made by Holmes (Homalloy) of Preston. (British Buses and Coaches in the Late 1970s, Amberley Publishing)

    I have spoken of "the bus industry". The coach sector, being for the most part in private hands, was proof against government interference and went its own way. Most large operators, however, had a "coaching side" that formed a minor part of their activities; most subsidiaries of the National Bus Company (NBC) contributed white-liveried vehicles to the National Express coach pool. The NBC, my employers, had incurred my displeasure by imposing a particularly insipid "corporate identity", which had led to the disappearance, one might almost say suppression, of previous company identities, liveries and lettering styles. Much the same had happened in the large cities, where the previous corporation undertakings had been absorbed into Passenger Transport Executives, each hell-bent on promoting an up-to-the-minute, go-ahead "image". In the book's introduction I give an account of how pleased I was, on first travelling to Scotland in 1976, to find the streets of Glasgow and Edinburgh thronged with the vehicles of the Scottish Bus Group, still wearing the exquisite liveries and fleetnames of its separate companies. Remote from modish influences, old ways endured in Scotland, for the time being.

    Hurrying around the country by train with my camera to chronicle these developments became a favourite recreation. The matter became increasingly urgent as aged survivors of the pre-OMO epoch, each in its due time, joined the inevitable procession that led to the breaker's yard. Although I was not keen on the direction events were taking, for students of the industry they were undoubtedly interesting times. There was still much variety and what was old was markedly different from what was new: today, I would suggest, the oldest vehicles in service are not fundamentally unlike their newer replacements. Another important difference between then and now is that foreign builders had yet to get their feet under the table of the British market. Fleets were still dominated by the big names among domestic builders, notably Leyland, AEC, Bristol, Daimler and Bedford. Looking back, through the wrong end of a telescope and wearing, as usual, my rose-tinted spectacles, the era seems a miniature golden age. It is a characteristic of golden ages that they never last.

    Stephen Dowle's new book British Buses and Coaches in the Late 1970s is available for purchase now.

  • Bristol Omnibus Company by Stephen Dowle

    No. 2957 (977 DAE), a MW5G dating from 1959, was photographed at Lawrence Hill depot on Wednesday 26 March 1975. (Bristol Omnibus Company, Amberley Publishing)

    The provincial "company" bus undertakings that merged into the Tilling and BET groups included many famous operators with interesting histories, but the Bristol Omnibus Co. was one of the largest and may perhaps be considered the most distinguished. One of the reasons for its eminence was that as well as operating buses it also constructed them, making its name familiar throughout the industry. The operating and construction divisions became separate concerns in 1955, a date which may be taken as the high water mark of the industry's prosperity.  Thus, when I joined the company as a humble conductor in 1970, it had already been in decline for some years.

    The twenty years that followed fell neatly into equal halves. During the first, old ways persisted and the company was still recognisably itself, operating a fleet of mainly Bristol-ECW manufacture. Time-honoured practices survived, the job's management structure was unchanged and many services continued little altered from the earliest days of the motor-bus. The one big upheaval of those early years was conversion to One-Man Operation (OMO) which, by 1980, was essentially complete. In that year the Market Analysis Project was undertaken. This sought to "identify future passenger needs" which, being interpreted, meant identifying loss-making services and getting rid of them. Everything began to change as the industry was slimmed down to make it a more attractive proposition for future privatisation. From 1986 buses would operate for profit, with loss-making services discontinued where the local authorities were unwilling to subsidise them. "Providing a public service" came to be a quaintly old-fashioned concept. When, in 1990, an opportunity arose to leave the job, I went like a flash.

    With FLFs now being withdrawn from the main fleet, No. L8537 (989 EHW) muat have been one of the last LDs to be converted to a driver trainer. (Bristol Omnibus Company, Amberley Publishing)

    But still, for students of the industry they were interesting times – though it was seldom possible to approve of the "interesting" developments. As the number of passengers dwindled year by year and fare increases came barely months apart, the company's activities contracted: service frequencies were reduced, the fleet became smaller, buildings were vacated and depots closed.  In the eternal cycle of any fleet, elderly vehicles were retired and, like mushrooms springing up overnight, long lines of their shiny replacements, reeking of fresh paint, appeared in the yard of the company's main depot and Central Repair Works at Lawrence Hill. It was the impending disappearance of the handsome Bristol KSW, a favourite type of mine since boyhood, when I'd been a notebook-carrying "bus spotter" that first prompted me to take a few commemorative photographs. Finding myself suddenly a driver not long afterwards re-ignited my schoolboy interest in the subject. The photographs in this book date from this period – roughly the second half of the 1970s – before the developments mentioned above killed my enthusiasm.

    There was plenty to keep my camera busy. At the beginning of the period covered in the book the last rear-entrance buses in the fleet were being withdrawn, but the coming of OMO implied the disappearance of all traditional front-engined, half-cab buses operated by two-man crews.  As the period closed the company was persuaded of the need for more buses with high seating capacities – which essentially meant double-deckers – and many fewer small single-deckers. For the time being the short-wheelbase REs and their dual-door longer brethren continued to pound the tarmac: it was not foreseen that they would all be gone in a couple of years, well before their time. The LH-type would also disappear, with some examples disposed of after not much more than a year's service.

    Gardner-engined LD No. L8394 (WHY 947) had been new in 1956 and was withdrawn on the last day of 1972. (Bristol Omnibus Company, Amberley Publishing)

    On Saturdays, when Lawrence Hill's yard was deserted, I sometimes took my camera to work in search of any photo-worthy behind-the-scenes subject, not neglecting the interesting "works" fleet. In 1977 I transferred to Bristol's bus station – as a depot known as Marlborough Street – where routes and fleet were more varied. Viewed through my customary rose-tinted spectacles, the few years that followed return to me as a time of lost enchantment. Although somewhat reduced since the company's great days, the network of rural services that spread out from Bristol was still substantially intact. Beneath the Cotswold Hills, in the Vale of Berkeley or the Chew Valley, little-frequented routes linked villages to their nearest towns; buses called at roadside shelters half drowned in nettles and cow parsley to pick up farmers' wives, or at lonely crossroads where, at the gates of their cottages, old ladies waited, clutching their shopping bags. With hindsight it should have been obvious that these things were at an end. I am grateful that I was in time to experience them during their final years. They have endured with a kind of super-reality in my memory. I was happy but, of course, didn't realise it at the time.

    My tireless camera sometimes accompanied me if I was due to work some obscure service or there was the promise of an interesting vehicle, such as one of the dwindling number of five-cylinder MWs, an "upgraded" LS-type, or one of the vile early LHs the company had acquired second-hand from another National Bus Company subsidiary, Alder Valley. These, with the photographs taken on company premises and others I took "out of uniform" in my spare time, form the basis of my book. I have tried to provide informative captions, giving more that the bare details of bus, location and date. The introduction gives a more complete account of my association with the company. The book covers the last phase of this distinguished company's long existence, before it changed into something different and was broken up into "operating units" to be sold piecemeal into private ownership.

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

  • 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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