Friday 30th July 2021
I first met Ben Colson in 1977. He was working for Eastern Counties in Norwich and I’d been posted there for three weeks to undertake what was called ‘comparative training’ with the jointly managed West Riding and Yorkshire Woollen bus companies where I’d been working on the National Bus Company’s two year management training scheme.
Ben was so friendly making me feel very welcome in East Anglia and it immediately struck me how knowledgable he was not only about the company but also the wider bus industry and the external influences on it. Now, 44 years later, I know why. I’ve just finished reading Ben’s recently published book entitled A Journeys End. It’s an absolute treasure trove charting how economic and social changes in his beloved East Anglia impacted the highs and lows of public transport provision across the region over a fifty year span between 1920 and 1970.
The very readable free flowing narrative is a mix of detailed historical research, anecdotes from those there at the time as well as Ben’s own personal experiences, including from a young age in East Anglia, and his more recent interviews with people having direct experience of buses in the region during earlier years.
It’s not a book for bus enthusiasts who want detailed route chronologies and fleet lists; nor for those who like their transport books full of photographs. This is something for those interested in the links between society, communities, workplaces and transport. However it does contain an incredible amount of detailed information in copious tables showing how the Eastern Counties of 1970 emerged from a series of mergers, acquisitions and nationalisation as well as bus routes operated by outstations, peak vehicle requirement changes, buses to villages from town centres to serve different markets and many many more, all demonstrating trends and social changes rather than specifically documenting bus route changes per se.
Ben explains how the 1930 Road Traffic Act and 1944 Education Act hugely impacted the industry as well as the demise of each of the many railway lines across East Anglia which closed during those five decades with details of the consequential replacement bus services. The impact of major societal changes during the ‘roaring twenties’ and the ‘swinging sixties’ as well as the Second World War are described, as are changes to the working week, the move from agricultural based employment to manufacturing to service industries. In each case Ben has thoroughly researched the impacts and chronicles changes to bus provision as a result.
He highlights the varied operating environments across the region from city operations in Cambridge and Peterborough through rural areas of Suffolk, coastal resorts, urban centres in Ipswich and Norwich and smaller towns such as Kings Lynn. Eastern Counties certainly comprised a fascinating and varied mix of different markets. The long distance express and coach day excursion markets are also discussed.
Ben also describes company structures and isn’t very complimentary about managements following World War Two, bound as they were into not taking risks as a result of what he describes as absurd conditions created by the 1930 Road Traffic Act. He shows how this increasingly led to a mismatch between demand changing in the sixties and the way it was provided for (or not). He also takes a swipe at “government’s pathetic attempts to understand the role of the country bus between 1950 and 1970 and the appropriate way to fund and regulate it“.
Ben also encapsulates the drawbacks of the National Bus Company’s centralised structure introduced towards the end of the 1960s and just to prove nothing is new looks at the issues of central versus local decision making. He is particularly complimentary about the way Bill Jelpke, appointed as Traffic Manager towards the end of the period under review along with his Assistant Peter Lutman, were a breath of fresh air when they arrived at the by then NBC Subsidiary, Eastern Counties had become, tackling many of the underlying issues that had bedevilled the company for years including ultra slack running times, complex timetabling, poor industrial relations, staff shortages, inefficient scheduling, mechanical problems and spare parts shortages, not keeping pace with a changing markets and in particular a declining rural market and not exploiting the inter-urban market ….. to name but a few.
It truly is a fascinating account and many managers grappling with challenges and issues in today’s bus companies could do well to read a copy and learn from mistakes from the past as well as what worked well which Ben rightly highlights.
Ben’s wealth of industry experience across his long career spanned many NBC subsidises as well as key roles in the private sector with Stagecoach but he is best known in later years for his purchase (along with shareholder colleagues) of Kings Lynn based Norfolk Green, turning it into one of the country’s most successful independently owned bus companies of its time. Reading Ben’s book you see how and why he made Norfolk Green such a renowned award winning company – based on his well grounded experience in the East Anglian bus market from such a young age as well as extensive knowledge of what works and what doesn’t.
After his retirement from Norfolk Green in 2013 Ben was awarded a well deserved MBE for services to the economy and community in Norfolk in 2015 and the Lifetime Achievement Award to the Bus Industry at the UK Bus Awards in 2014. He was appointed Chairman of Bus Users UK in 2018.
A Journeys End costs £25 and all income over Ben’s direct costs are being donated to three charities: a UK-based charity which develops low-tech transport solutions for healthcare issues in sub-Saharan Africa, a local charity devoted to getting homeless people in West Norfolk back into mainstream work and accommodation, and to the restoration fund for the Church in his home village, built in 1310 very close to the site where Christianity was first introduced to the northern-folk of the Saxon kingdom of East Anglia in 632.
So that all income can be used to maximum effect for these charities Ben is distributing the book himself and will respond to email requests to purchase a copy with details of the bank account to which purchasers can deposit their £25. Contact Ben for a copy at firstname.lastname@example.org.
It’ll be £25 very well spent.