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Railways and Buses

How Buses Have Affected Railway Services

A LNWR motor bus exhibited at the London Motor Exhibition in 1905

A LNWR motor bus exhibited at the London Motor Exhibition in 1905

THERE has always been a tendency to think of the bus as a main rival of the railway but this is not wholly true. It has often been used by the railways themselves to supplement facilities, to test new territories or, in recent years, to replace lines that do not pay. It is often suggested also that the railways in their development ruined the stage-coach business, as well as canal traffic, both freight and passenger. That view overlooks the participation by a number of stage-coach owners in railway financing and how much of the railway traffic was due to the attraction of the facility and so was in fact of new generation.

In fact the siting of many stations at some distance from the centres of the towns they were intended to serve led to the development during the nineteenth century of many local horse-bus services. Some were instigated by the railways and aided by subsidy in one form or another and a few were provided by railway companies themselves directly or through contractors. With the advent of mechanical transport, however, many of the railways found that they had no legal powers to work such services and that, even if they sought them, they were not always easy to obtain. In a few cases the necessary steps were taken and in other cases it was decided to press ahead and operate services regardless of the lack of powers and to hope for the best.

As it happened the need had tended to diminish so far as local transport was concerned because of the development of street tramways. Although using horse or steam traction initially, electricity was more and more widely employed as the twentieth century progressed, both for the conversion of existing systems and for newly constructed ones. Railway companies in Britain mostly eschewed tramway operation on their own account, although there were the Burton & Ashby electric service of the Midland Railway, the Cruden Bay line - short but also electric - of the Great North of Scotland and the South Eastern’s horse line between Hythe and Sandgate, to cite a few instances.

Roundly a score of railways had introduced motor buses in the British Isles by 1910, although, in truth, several had been so discouraged by the results that they had again abandoned their bus services before that date. But a few had really taken up bus operation seriously. Most notably they were the Great Western Railway, the London & North Western Railway, the London & South Western Railway, the Great North of Scotland Railway and, in one respect uniquely, the Great Eastern Railway. The distinction of the last-named was that it was the only railway to build its own complete buses. Not surprisingly several made use of their carriage works to provide bodies but only the GER went the whole hog, producing a dozen vehicles in all to a particularly robust design.

After starting a service in Cornwall between Helston and The Lizard on August 17, 1903, with two second-hand Milnes-Daimler wagonettes, the Great Western had about 300 buses on 168 services when its operations were at their peak at the beginning of 1929. The original motor vehicles emanated from a company which was a subsidiary of the narrow-gauge Lynton & Barnstaple Railway, which had used them to replace a horse-coach service between Ilfracombe and its station

at Blackmoor the previous June, but had found local prejudice and police antipathy insuperable and therefore sold the vehicles. The GWR service was intended to sample the traffic possibilities of a light railway, for which there was strong local demand, and there is some significance in the fact that the railway never materialised. A similar reason lay behind several of the other services which were started and traffic was sometimes so sparse in the upshot that even bus operation, let alone a railway, could not be justified. A second service, from Penzance to Newlyn and Marazion was begun on October 31, 1903, and soon afterwards it was decided to develop the service and an order for 30 Milnes-Daimlers was placed in 1904.

A Great Eastern Railway motor bus operating in central London

A Great Eastern Railway motor bus operating in central London

Some of the routes begun in the early days remain today in original or extended form as testimonials to the perspicacity of their railway initiators. That from Wolverhampton to Bridgnorth was started in November 1904, and transferred to Wolverhampton Corporation on July 1, 1923. It passed in turn, with the rest of that undertaking’s operations, to the West Midlands Passenger Transport Executive. The Penzance-Lands End and Penzance-St Just routes, which have been a Western National responsibility for more than 40 years, were both started by the GWR in 1904, a year which saw also the commencement of a Slough-Beaconsfield service.

In common with the other three mainline railway companies, the Great Western Railway obtained comprehensive road transport powers under its Act of 1928, which brought about a considerable change in its policy so far as passenger transport was concerned. It should, however, be stressed that it had previously taken a number of chances to reach agreement with major bus operators in various parts of its territory. In little over three years almost all the former GWR services had passed to operators in which the railway had a financial interest, although one of the last, that from Slough to Beaconsfield, was handed over to London General Country Services Ltd. Last of all to go was the Weymouth to Wyke Regis service, worked by the railway on its own behalf and that of the Southern Railway, which passed to the Southern National bus company on January 1, 1934.

It has already been mentioned that the London & North Western Railway was among the more-ambitious operators of motor buses, which perhaps was only right since it had been a substantial operator of horse-bus services in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Its routes were, however, developed more slowly than those of the GWR and when what proved subsequently to have been the peak was reached in the summer of 1914 there were 40 vehicles at six depots. In fact 20 were at Watford, nine at Llandudno Junction, five at Mold, three at Brownhills, two at Holyhead and one at Tring. In some cases buses were out-stationed, as for example those from Watford used on the Boxmoor Station-Hemel Hempstead service, which called normally for one bus and a standby. This service, extended in 1929 from Hemel Hempstead to Harpenden as a railway branch-line replacement, and that between Tring and Tring Station were to endure and to pass in due course to the London Passenger Transport Board.

What might be termed the true Watford workings had, in fact, begun to disappear before the 1914-18 war. The Watford-Harrow service, started in the summer of 1906, was given up eight years later when the London General Omnibus Co Ltd began a new route between South Harrow and Watford, although the services from Harrow to Harrow-on-the-Hill and to Pinner were maintained. They did not reappear after the war and it is only in quite recent times that a bus service up the hill in Harrow has been revived. Most of the other LNWR services at Watford, such as that to Croxley Green, which had replaced a horse-bus service in 1906, and routes to Garston, Boxmoor and Hemel Hempstead, were covered by the London General Omnibus Company in 1920 and from the following year were operated on its behalf by the National Omnibus & Transport Co Ltd.

As already indicated these were by no means the only North Western services. Those in North Wales, which employed 16 vehicles in 1914, started in July 1905 with the Connahs Quay-Mold route, followed three months later by the service between Holywell town and its station which involved the then somewhat fearsome gradient of 1 in 9. The vehicles were later impressed for war service and the routes lapsed so far as their operation by the railway company was concerned.

The London Midland & Scottish Railway, as heir to the LNWR and to some degree the Midland Railway, was relatively passive in its earlier years but indulged in quite a flurry of bus-service expansion in 1928-29, through acquisition of a number of existing operators and the starting of various new services on its own account. At the same time it was, as were the other main line railways, negotiating the acquisition of interests in existing bus businesses and by 1931 most of its own services had passed to associated companies or corporations. The latter constituted an aspect of interest which was followed also by the London & North Eastern Railway but not by the GWR nor the Southern Railway; it involved the establishment of joint committees. The LMS was concerned on its own account with joint committees at Huddersfield and Todmorden and jointly with the LNER in those at Halifax and Sheffield. The two railways also bought jointly the Hebble bus business based on Halifax and a substantial interest in the Scottish Motor Traction Co Ltd.

Predecessors of the LNER were among the earliest railway operators of motor buses, with the North Eastern Railway starting a service between Beverley and Beeford as early as September 1903, the Great North of Scotland a 17-mile route from Ballater to Braemar - a lengthy service in those days - on May 2, 1904, and the Great Eastern a Lowestoft - Southwold operation in June of the same year. Nor were they the end of their ambitions and the Great North of Scotland had added a further 80 miles of bus routes within the next three years, which were to be maintained and expanded until they passed to an associate company in 1930. The original North Eastern route, which had been extended to Brandesburton, was abandoned in 1925, but other services that were opened in County Durham and developed steadily, had been augmented by the purchase of existing businesses, so that quite substantial operations passed to United Automobile Services and Northern General Transport at the beginning of 1930.

The London & South Western Railway operated a motor bus service between Farnham and Haslemere

The London & South Western Railway operated a motor bus service between Farnham and Haslemere

As was indicated earlier the unusual feature of Great Eastern Railway bus operation was that it employed 12 vehicles of its own make. The routes were somewhat scattered save for a group around Chelmsford begun on September 9, 1905, and transferred to the National Steam Car Co Ltd, as it then was, in July 1913. Earlier that year the original Lowestoft-Southwold service had passed to United Automobile Services, but the last routes to go survived into the nineteen-twenties and included one of the best known from Ipswich to Shotley, which was taken over by the original Eastern Counties company in April 1922.

The London & South Western Railway, which has already been mentioned, began a long service from Exeter to Chagford (19 miles) on June 1, 1904; it was suspended for the winter, but resumed the following summer, thereafter to be maintained more or less uninterruptedly until it was sold in Southern Railway days in 1924. The railway’s other main service from Farnham to Haslemere was worked for it for a year by a contractor, John I Thornycroft & Co Ltd, which built the bus. The results encouraged the railway to buy the vehicle and work the route itself from 1906. Seven years later it was handed over to the Aldershot & District Traction Co Ltd.

Reference should also be made to the Metropolitan Railway which, after being a sizeable horse-bus operator in London (though in later years at least mostly through contractors) appeared with motor buses in the Watford area on November 1, 1927, starting a service linking the High Street with the Watford (Metropolitan & Great Central) station which had been opened two years earlier. Because of inability to obtain road transport powers, operation was transferred to an associated company. Most of the other motor bus exercises by railways in Great Britain were on a fairly small scale and often, for one reason or another, of short duration. But there should be a mention of the Cambrian Railway, which inaugurated a Pwllheli-Nevin route in June 1906 with two Orion buses and maintained it, although with different vehicles, until its sale to the Nevin & District Omnibus Company early in 1913.

Railway bus operation in Ireland has, in general, been far more enduring than in Great Britain and attention has often been called to the fact that one of the few profit-making railway companies in the world - the Londonderry & Lough Swilly - achieves that result without working any trains. It was not, however, by any means the first of the Irish railways to take to the motor bus and the Belfast & Northern Counties actually instituted a steam-bus service between Whiteabbey and Greenisland in April 1902 and continued it until 1913, by when for nearly nine years it had been the Northern Counties Committee of the Midland Railway. An NCC-initiated service at Cushendall endured from 1905 to 1913 and in the south of Ireland the Great Southern & Western indulged in a certain amount of touring coach operation. The NCC, apart from one or two rather tentative efforts such as a Ballymena-Portglenone route in 1919, remained quiet until it obtained full road powers in 1927. From then on its development was rapid, so that it had no fewer than 130 buses when its services passed to the Northern Ireland Road Transport Board on October 1, 1935.

A Fiat charabanc operated by the North Eastern Railway

The Belfast & County Down had 14 buses which were taken over at the same time and its operations had originated with a service from Kilkeel to Newcastle (County Down) introduced on August 1, 1916. Crewing of the bus and its actual operation was by contract at the outset. The Great Northern Railway (Ireland) was in a different situation as it was working both sides of the border from the time its services started in 1929. All but certain cross-border services in Northern Ireland went to the Northern Ireland Road Transport Board, with 50 or so buses, but the routes in what was then Eire were to remain the railway's responsibility for a further 23 years. Roundly 180 vehicles passed to Coras lompair Eireann, itself of course a railway undertaking as successor to the Great Southern Railways, when it absorbed its share of the Great Northern Railway Board on October 1, 1958. The Great Northern Railway had moreover indulged in the construction of its own vehicles - fitting them with Gardner diesel engines - and about 70 of the buses passed to CIE. The Great Southern Railways based its development largely on its acquisition of the Irish Omnibus Company in 1933 after working in association with that company for six years. Partly by purchase, the Irish Omnibus Company had built up an extensive network of services and there were comprehensive arrangements for ticket inter-availability between road and rail. Since then bus services have continued to grow and CIE, which is responsible also for Dublin city services, has over 2,000 buses.

Outside the British Isles the degree to which railways have taken part in bus operation, both horse and motor, has varied a good deal. In North America, particularly the United States, there have generally been legal obstacles to such participation and in Europe there are many variations in practice. In the Netherlands operation in recent years has been through a series of subsidiary companies with which there is a great deal of co-operation; in Belgium the Belgian National Railways has used contractors and the SNCV (Vicinaux), which once had many and still has a few light railways, has a substantial bus fleet of its own which covers former tram routes as well as many others. It can be said that the railways are the largest bus operators in Austria, Denmark, Luxembourg (apart from the city undertaking), Norway and Sweden, and the German Federal Railway also has a very substantial fleet. French practice favours the use of contractors although there are various groups around the country which are based historically on light railway systems that operated in various departments.

The part played by railways in developing many overseas countries is well known and as the reliability of the motorbus improved it came more and more to share in that work. This has been the case particularly in New Zealand and South Africa where, although the railways do not have a monopoly, they are providers of very extensive road services and of tours. Smaller-scale operations by comparison, but nonetheless important, are those of the Mozambique Harbours, Railways and Transport undertaking, the Rhodesia Railways and the East African Railways and Harbours. In something of a contrast the Indian railways generally kept clear of bus operation, although in Hyderabad HEH the Nizam’s State Railway began to develop bus services after it took control of the undertaking in 1930 and had built up quite a network of routes by the time that its operations passed to the appropriate regional undertaking.

Bus operation by railways themselves might have passed its zenith, but it has certainly had a substantial effect on services as they are today.

You can read more on “Britain's Diesel Rail Coaches”, “Coaches for Road or Rail” and “Railways and the General Strike” on this website.