London Country Bus Services

by Jonathan Wilkins

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National Omnibus and Transport LCBS started operating on January 1st 1970 at the time when the Greater London Council took over responsibility for
LONDON TRANSPORT 'Red' buses. It formed part of the National Bus Company, which operated provincial services across the country. The 'green' London area of suburban and country services had previously been administered by the LPTB and its predecessors since about 1912, when operating agreements were made between London General Omnibus Company and the East Surrey Traction and National Omnibus and Transport Companies. These agreements were simply to prevent those companies, and other 'independents', from competing in the cherished metropolitan area. The LGOC was owned by the powerful Underground group, and consequently the move would be regarded as monopolistic and anti-competitive today. Also, it may be suggested that the Underground group had powerful allies in parliament and the police, who effectively used them as agents of control over the burgeoning bus industry.

East Surrey The nature of the operating agreement allowed East Surrey services to enter the southern, outer '30-mile' zone, but not to trade entirely within it, except on behalf of General. The National company (which had previously been booted out of London in exchange for General services in Bedford) was not allowed to run any service within the northern zone unless on behalf of General. Other independent companies, such as People's Motor Services(Luton) and Harvey and Burrows (Ware) were ruthlessly hounded or bought out in a process which continued into the 1930's. The curious part of the arrangement was that LGOC provided both vehicles and operating premises. In this way, the traditional (and largely unique) buses of London became a familiar sight in rural Hertfordshire and Surrey, far from Big Ben and Charing Cross.

London General Country Services In 1932, the arrangement was ended by the incorporation of a new company called London General Country Services, and the competition from companies operating express services from the Home Counties was neatly curtailed by the formation of the Green Line company. The livery of two-tone green with orange wheels did not last long, as the debate over public ownership and control was finally resolved.

The London Passenger Transport Board

On 1st July 1933 the LPTB was formed, and found itself responsible for bus, tram, trolleybus, coach and train services over a wide area. The Country Bus and Coach Department took charge of country area and Green Line coach operation - a legacy comprising 66 independent operators and 246 routes.

London Transport The use of the LONDON TRANSPORT fleetname began in 1934. The remaining pre-war years were a time of consolidation, as operators, routes and engineering facilities were welded into a coherent whole. The war years were a difficult period, but mileage operated increased as a consequence of general dislocation and curtailed private motoring. At the end of 1947 the whole empire was taken into public ownership, under the London Transport Executive, a wing of the British Transport Commission, who also controlled the nation's railways.

Very little changed in the early post-war years, the emphasis was on rebuilding and modernising the vehicle fleet. During the '50s London's country became dominated by the RT and RF family of vehicles, with a sprinkling of small GS buses for lightly-loaded rural routes. From the mid-fifties the department was occupied by the transport provision for the burgeoning New Towns of Crawley, Harlow, Hatfield, Hemel Hempstead, Stevenage and Welwyn Garden City. Passenger-mileage reached its peak in 1955, and then began a steady decline - worsened by the six-week strike of 1958, when no vehicles left any LTE garage.

Political change was again felt in 1963, when the British Transport Commission was wound up, and services were transferred to the London Transport Board, which answered to the Minister of Transport. The relentless decline in passengers continued, not staunched by the metropolitan focus of the Board. They were preoccupied by their own 'Reshaping Plan', which had major effects on vehicle policy. The Country area was not well served by 'city' buses, despite the arrival of 100 of the much-loved RM class. The dominant trend was, however, to eliminate conductors and reduce costs. The 1968 Transport Act introduced 25 percent grants for approved (potentially one-man) buses, and funding from local authorities for strategic services was introduced. A fleet of high-capacity, one-man, single-deck buses was introduced in the shape of AEC Merlins and Swifts for town services and there were experiments with automatic fare collection machines.

London Country Still argument raged over how to run buses in London, and from January 1970 the country area found itself suddenly on its own, with a clapped-out, unsuitable fleet, no maintenance infrastructure and no local management with real commercial experience. 563 new vehicles were acquired between 1970-3, all One-Person-Operated, and mostly Leyland Atlanteans and Nationals, with Bristol VR and LH types coming later. Fortunately the venerable RT and RF fleet were kept running more easily than their replacements! Reliability reached terrible levels and alienated both passengers and staff.

National Bus London Country From 1972 the corporate image of the National Bus Company became mandatory, and to many observers the presentation of the country's buses sunk to an all-time low. All vehicles would henceforth be a dull red or a sludgy green (known in the trade as Leaf Green) with white relief. The few original LT vehicles remaining looked particularly forlorn. I clearly recall the green LT staff uniform being replaced by unrelieved grey - it looked very drab and industrial.

London Country SuperBus During this period a number of innovative schemes were implemented, with a view to providing services that met local transport needs. The forerunner was the LT Blue Arrow scheme in Stevenage, whereby fast pre-booked journeys were offered between out-lying residential areas and the industrial area. It was not a great success, and was quiely dropped when the Stevenage SUPERBUS network was established. High-frequency services with branded vehicles ran over routes from the New Town centre to the Industrial and residential areas. Flat fares were charged (4p at first) and no tickets or change were given. Three vehicle types were used as a comparison: Leyland National (two of the first few in service nationwide), Metro-Scania and AEC Swift. Double-deck vehicles of the AN class quite rapidly appeared on Stevenage and Harlow Town services. The success of the scheme led to similar efforts in St.Albans (1976), Hemel Hempstead (1977), Crawley (1978) and Watford (1979). SUPERBUS was rebranded Stevenage Bus in 1980, and Harlow buses became TownBus in the same year.

A great deal of reorganisation took place under the auspices of Market Analysis Projects, in conjunction with local authorities - who were charged under the 1978 Transport Act with developing transport provision, co-ordination and supporting socially desirable facilities. The results were seen in trading routes and areas with other operators who were better placed to serve them, and vice-versa. Several London peripheral 'red' routes became 'green' at this time. Although LCBS was developed into a better managed network, with new engineering facilities at Crawley and Garston, there seemed nothing to stop the relentless loss of trade. Car ownership in the Green Belt area soared, traffic jams caused unreliability and low morale, and a national trend towards longer-distance commuting reduced the traditional market.

In 1986, there came the final, dreaded bombshell of DEREGULATION. Margaret Thatcher's second term in government saw a reasonable team under Tom King as Transport Secretary, but the cabinet re-shuffle brought about by Cecil Parkinson's highly publicised and hypocritical sexual misdeeds put the abrasive and determined Nicholas Ridley in charge. He hated unions, subsidy, loony-lefties, monopolies and the National Bus Company in particular. It was therefore to be broken up into tiny pieces and sold as fast as possible, rather like the other public utilities - and British Rail later on. The Transport Act of 1985 also did away with the system of road service licensing - henceforward anybody could run a service if they gave 42 days notice to the Traffic Commissioners. From now on, anything was possible unless it smelt of a monopoly.

What did this mean for LCBS? For a start it was considered too big to sell in one piece - so bang went all the painstaking progress of the last decade. Four companies were formed - London Country (North West) was the first sold on 5/1/88, London Country (South West) sold on 19/2/88, Kentish Bus sold on 15/3/88 and London Country (North East) sold on 22/4/88. Of the 72 NBC fragments to be sold they were numbers 57, 61, 64 and 72. Not exactly hot prospects for potential shareholders, then. Thus ended life as we knew it - a story repeated almost across the country.

From now on, the story is almost too sordid and complex to follow, especially as my own tail-end home patch (North East) fared worst of all. Following a disastrous period during which some tendered LT contracts were taken away for poor performance, London Country (North East) was acquired by the AJS Group of mostly Yorkshire-based bus companies. The operations were soon split into Harlow-based County Bus & Coach and Sovereign Bus & Coach, based in Hatfield. In 1990 Sovereign purchased Welwyn Hatfield Line, but sold 60 percent of their Stevenage operation to Luton and District, who also took over London Country (North West), based on the London Country garage at Garston.

In 1991 a new group called Blazefield Holdings was formed as a management buyout of the AJS bus services, but not the property interests, and the managed AJS's Cambridge Coach Services, which they soon bought outright. Sovereign Bus & Coach operated 76 vehicles from garages at Stevenage, St.Albans and Welwyn Garden City. For a while, the separate branding for Welwyn Hatfield Line was retained, but was ultimately abandoned. Sovereign also operated tendered services for Transport for London, but sold out in 2002 to Transdev.

Hitchin and District Luton and District, trading as The Shires with its buses looking uncannily like Stevenage SuperBuses, was in turn taken over by British Bus in 1994. The London Country (South West) company, which had been bought from NBC by a company called Drawlane re-branded itself British Bus in 1992, and bought the owners of Kentish Bus in 1994. County Bus & Coach was sold to Cowie early in 1996, and then in the ultimate coup Cowie bought British Bus in August 1996. In this way almost all the old LCBS area was re-united under one owner after a decade of squabbling - and finally Cowie rebranded itself ARRIVA. Lincoln Green ultimately gave way to designer turquoise! The new trading names were ARRIVA Crawley & East Surrey, ARRIVA East Herts & Essex, ARRIVA The Shires and ARRIVA Kent Thameside, although they have now been consolidated into Southern Counties and Shires & Essex.

Also, by supreme irony I am within the same empire here in the rocky fastness of North Wales, 'served' by ARRIVA Gwasanaethau Cymru, previously known as (and much missed) Crosville Cymru. The bi-lingual designation is hard to spot, since the vehicles are branded in English on the nearside and Welsh on the offside! However, 'Serving Wales' is pure wishful-thinking as there is no presence whatever in the majority of the country.

Throughout this 'private' period the only company carrying the torch for indigenous operation was Sovereign, a company that I felt was the spiritual successor to LCBS in Hertfordshire. At the end they operated 45 buses from depots in Stevenage and Hatfield, and employed 133 people. Operations at St.Albans were disposed of in 2002 to Centrebus, who have opened a depot subsequently in Stevenage! The Sovereign network linked their town services in Stevenage with Hitchin, Hatfield, St.Albans and Hemel Hempstead. As Sovereign's fleet reduced they vacated their Norton Green, Stevenage depot and moved to Babbage Road. Arriva took over the Norton Green site (which had to be augmented to cope with the January 2007 closure of the 'National' garage in Hitchin). Predatory moves against Sovereign by Arriva were referred to the Monopolies and Mergers Committee, though the sale was allowed following a majority vote in favour. There was a feeling among other competitors that their position would improve as Arriva were distant, profits-motivated and poorly-managed on the road, whereas Sovereign had been a tightly-run ship! Their biggest gripe was that the merger would allow Arriva control of Stevenage bus station, with opportunity to use their weight accordingly. The deal was struck in January 2005, and with it for me, London Country finally died.