I won’t say I remember it as if it was yesterday, as that really would be an exaggeration but it seems impossible to believe today marks the 50th anniversary of London Transport’s revolutionary Bus Reshaping Plan hitting the streets of Wood Green and Walthamstow as well as a plethora of new Red Arrow routes criss-crossing Central London.
The Plan certainly looked impressive.
It was full of interesting statistics and artists impressions of how things would look much better when the whole of London had been reshaped. Here’s a flavour ….
For an impressionable teenager with a growing interest in London’s buses it was a game changer. Aside from RFs, the beloved GSs in the Country Area and the first experimental XMSs on new Red Arrow route 500 introduced in 1966, fifty years ago London’s buses were all double deck and mostly RTs and RMs at that (ok some were ‘L’ and ‘W’ variants and also a few RLHs and XAs for added spice). So a fleet of gleaming single deck buses with two doors seamlessly interchanging with revamped trunk routes and the Underground really did capture the imagination.
The idea was to limit the impact of traffic congestion on long routes while introducing cost savings through one person operation on the new shorter localised routes with a revolutionary 6d flat fare. All the new ‘satellite’ routes (as they were futuristically called) were centred on Wood Green and Turnpike Lane Underground stations and shopping area in the first scheme introduced on 7th September 1968.
I grew up in Winchmore Hill located at the north end of the new W4 route. This replaced the well established 141 (previously Trolleybus 641) north of Wood Green having originated in Moorgate.
As well as Winchmore Hill, new shortened routes went to Edmonton (W1) and Alexandra Park with Crouch End and Finsbury Park in the peaks (W2) and oddly a long established route from Northumberland Park via Wood Green to Finsbury Park (233) was simply renumbered W3 and converted to flat fare MBS vehicle operation. It was shortened and split into two sections on Saturdays with a W5 and W6 meeting at Wood Green and both continuing south to Turnpike Lane along the High Road shopping area, but as that was a congestion hotspot on a busy Saturday the arrangement didn’t last long and the W3 soon became daily. Unlike the others it hasn’t succumbed to any route change since 1968 and is the only route still operating exactly the same fifty years on!
It all must have seemed a very sensible idea on paper when LT’s Board Members gave the go ahead but sadly the wheels soon came off the whole Plan.
The MBS class was not best suited to London conditions and engineering staff were ill prepared. Mechanical and electrical problems weren’t helped by the buses being stored for months in damp wet conditions as negotiations with trade unions over their use had become protracted.
Drivers weren’t used to their longer length particularly in London’s congested traffic and manoeuvrability was a problem.
Passengers certainly weren’t used to the front entrance door (nor the centre exit) and particularly not the fiendish looking ticket machines protecting the turnstiles (yes, turnstiles) which were almost impossible to pass through if encumbered with shopping. I witnessed many shopping bags being pushed through and reaching the far side of the turnstile while their owners became stranded on the entry side. Children had to push an audible button on the ticket machines to alert the driver they were only paying 3d to release the turnstile.
The buses soon gained the ‘cattle truck’ nomenclature as the lack of seating forward of the centre doors meant most passengers had to stand with very little to balance against or hold on to in the central area away from the windows. After a short while seven individual seats were retro-fitted in this area.
The 6d flat fare was welcomed by those who’d previously paid more (8d, 1/-, 1/3), but regarded as extortionate for those making shorter cheaper priced journeys (4d), or in those pre-Travelcard and Hopper Fare days, had previously travelled through on a newly curtailed long trunk route without paying a separate fare at all.
Reliability, far from improving, plummeted as all these problems compounded to leave long gaps between buses.
Over in Walthamstow, the new bus station in Selborne Road alongside the just opened Victoria Line Underground station wasn’t ready so buses had to decamp to neighbouring unsuitable residential roads to turn, with dolly stops making for a chaotic introduction of the new flat fare circular route W21 and a whole host of truncated and changed longer distance bus routes to take account of the smart new tube trains; albeit they only reached Highbury & Islington for the first few months with Victoria itself only reached the following March 1969.
Other areas of London received flat fare routes later in 1968, including Bermondsey/Rotherhithe (October) and Ealing (November) as these plans were well advanced by September 1968 but it was soon back to the drawing board for later schemes.
With the benefit of hindsight and being positive and kind, the Plan suffered from being ahead of its time. Shortened routes in a congested Capital City make sense; indeed TfL are still shortening routes for exactly the same reason fifty years on. One person operation was eminently sensible to reduce operating costs, it’s just that ticketing technology freeing the driver from handling fares and cash has really only become available relatively recently. The 6d flat fare was certainly ahead of its time. And was remarkably cheap. In today’s money it would be around 45p. TfL’s flat fare, admittedly on longer routes across the whole network is currently frozen at £1.50. Better interchange between the shortened ‘satellite’ routes at Underground stations was another forward thinking aim; an improved bus station was built alongside the Piccadilly Line station at Turnpike Lane, which has since been further expanded and improved in the intervening years, as have impressive interchanges right across London.
As highlighted above route W3 is noteworthy for running unchanged between Finsbury Park and Northumberland Park fifty years on exactly as it did when introduced on 7th September 1968 (and as it had done since October 1949 as route 233 before that) while Red Arrow 507 also still runs between Victoria and Waterloo pretty much as it’s done for the past fifty years except for a minor rerouting via Vauxhall Bridge Road from May 2011.
Also noteworthy is route E3, part of the Ealing scheme introduced on 30th November 1968, between Greenford and Chiswick also running pretty much unchanged today.
There’s a brilliant new book just published by Capital Transport – Reshaping London’s Buses by Barry Arnold and Mike Harris. It’s extremely well written and full of fascinating background and detail; well worth a purchase and a read.
Finally if you’re reading this on publication day take a trip over to North Weald on Sunday (9th) for a unique line up of preserved ‘Merlin’ and ‘Swift’ buses organised by the Epping Ongar Railway.
Roger French 7th September 2018
I used to run a bus company but in retirement enjoy Britain’s splendid scenic delights travelling by bus and train, and commenting along the way.