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A Century of Transport - Passenger Transport Executives
The Transport Act of 1968, produced by Harold Wilson's Labour government, included the creation of Passenger Transport Executives in four major British conurbations. Three further PTEs were subsequently created in 1974. This article looks particularly at the West Midlands.
Each PTE was managed by transport professionals carrying out the policies of a Passenger Transport Authority comprising elected representatives from local authorities.
Their task was '....to secure or promote the provision of a properly integrated and efficient system of public passenger transport to meet the needs of that area....'
The initial tools were the municipal bus undertakings in the relevant areas. The West Midlands PTE thus absorbed the Corporation buses of Birmingham, Walsall, West Bromwich and Wolverhampton with effect from 1 October 1969. The largest contribution to the new WMPTE came from Birmingham City Transport, accounting for around two-thirds of the new 2100 strong fleet and 8500 employees. Birmingham's dark blue and cream buses were well constructed and maintained so the new PTE operations began life in good condition.
West Bromwich's superb livery of cream and two shades of blue, lined out with black and gold, was justly famed, if not frequently repainted by Birmingham's standards! Walsall's fleet was painted bright blue all over and its trolleybuses became the only ones to be operated by a PTE. They were replaced by motorbuses in October 1970. Walsall had enjoyed the benefits of acquiring secondhand trolleybuses and equipment from other fleets that had abandoned the 'silent servants'. Wolverhampton's corporation buses were green relieved by yellow. Wolverhampton had been an enthusiastic operator of trolleybuses in earlier years but all had gone by the PTE takeover.
The largest of the PTE fleets was that created around Manchester. Initially known as SELNEC (South East Lancashire North East Cheshire), it became Greater Manchester PTE after local government reorganisation in 1974. SELNEC broke away from its municipal inheritance by painting its buses in then trendy orange. In the West Midlands, however, the PTE basically adopted the colours of the principal operator, Birmingham, but with the brighter shade of Oxford blue.
The first new buses were delivered to the PTE in 1969-70 and were Daimler Fleetlines with Park Royal bodies ordered by Birmingham and Wolverhampton. They were 33 feet long, causing them to be known as 'Jumbo's, but these longer double-deckers were not as reliable as earlier deliveries. By this time new buses were intended for driver only operation as conductors were phased out. Each 'Jumbo' had an additional centre exit door designed to speed unloading but a fatal accident caused a timelag device to be fitted which actually made them slower. Thus when the new PTE standard buses began arriving in 1971, they reverted to single entrance door and more reliable 30 feet length, and featured a revised destination layout, based on practice at Walsall, West Bromwich and Midland Red. Thus evolved the standard WMPTE double-decker of the 1970s, many hundreds of which were bodied by Park Royal and Metro-Cammell on Daimler (later Leyland) Fleetline chassis between 1971 and 1979.
The revolutionary Travelcard was introduced in October 1972 which allowed unrestricted travel on West Midlands bus services (except the premium fare night services) for four weeks, initially for only £4, a boon to regular travellers and permitting the speedier loading of driver only vehicles. It was an immediate success and the launch was assisted by redundant buses acting as additional sales points and promotional vehicles.
An agreement for significant control over the local services of British Rail was signed in January 1972. Buses between the towns, however, were generally run by Midland Red, owned by the National Bus Company created under the same Transport Act. Negotiations to achieve integration led to the purchase of Midland Red's local services in December 1973, bringing in a further 1400 employees and 413 buses.
The takeover of Midland Red's West Midlands local services meant that integration of operators' services could begin in earnest. There followed a period of considerable revision and development of the region's bus and train services. This was slightly hampered by the revising of the PTE boundaries from those logically based on 1960s transport studies to those of the new West Midlands county, created in 1974. This brought in the corporation buses of Coventry.
Most of the Coventry fleet was built in the city by Daimler. By this time WMPTE was suffering from the deteriorating condition of some of its acquired buses and industrial unrest around the country meant that deliveries of replacements were running late. Coventry's buses were in excellent condition and around twenty 1957-8 Daimler CVG6 models were transferred to Birmingham for a time, primarily for the Outer Circle.
A single-decker bus had been evolved by Leyland and the National Bus Company for the latter's many bus operating subsidiaries, as well as other markets. This bus was known as the Leyland National. 33 had joined the fleet upon the Midland Red transfer and this type of bus became the WMPTE standard single-decker too. Some of the 1977-8 deliveries were to semi-coach specification to attract private hire opportunities but their usual role was limited stop bus services. They had a distinctive livery with more cream, the remaining blue being relieved by gold lining.
The difficulty of attracting people in affluent areas to public transport led to the experimental introduction in 1975 of Dial-a-Bus in Knowle and Dorridge, subsequently extended more widely in Solihull. High telephone ownership was vital as passengers contacted a control room, unless pre-booked every day. They would be collected as close as possible to their homes and delivered to another point on the Dial-a-Bus network, often Solihull or Dorridge railway stations for a fast trip by rail to central Birmingham - all by Travelcard, of course! The Dial-a-Buses were Ford A types with Alexander (Belfast) bodies, assisted in due course by a couple of small Commers originally purchased for the Birmingham Centrebus service. The experiment was assisted by the Transport & Road Research Laboratory but the control room incurred high costs so, in due course, the area reverted to ordinary bus routes.
WMPTE invested heavily in bus stations, the first opening in West Bromwich in 1971. Other significant expenditure was on bus/rail interchanges of which Solihull remains today arguably the best example of an interchange.
The PTE also believed its employees should have good working conditions and invested heavily in rebuilding bus garages which, in turn, assisted the maintenance of the fleet. One of the most striking was the complete reconstruction of the Cleveland Road premises in Wolverhampton as a two level depot.
The initials WMPTE became 'Wumpty' in popular parlance and, in due course, the PTE acknowledged that if you can't beat 'em, join 'em and introduced a gnome-like inspector bearing the name Wumpty on its publicity!
High wage costs and slow deliveries led to a search for secondhand rear-engined buses to speed progress on driver only operation. However everybody had the same idea and good quality buses were hard to find. The 1975 purchase of 14 1960 Leyland Atlanteans from Kingston-upon-Hull Corporation were the only secondhand purchases until London Transport started selling its DMS class Daimler Fleetlines in 1979 at only seven years of age. LT found it could not get on with these buses but WMPTE removed some of the LT modifications and got several years good service out of them.
The National Exhibition Centre opened in 1976 and a notable early success was to capture the Motor Show from Earl's Court, London. The PTE provided all the shuttle buses in the earlier years to overflow car parks which involved a large number of vehicles. The first Motor Show was in 1978; the PTE was able to benefit from the experience of senior managers who had handled major exhibitions whilst with London Transport.
The election of Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government in 1979 in due course brought massive change to the transport industry. Subsidies designed to modernise the industry declined, the metropolitan County Councils were disbanded and the 1985 Transport Act was passed. This allowed for any suitably qualified operator to introduce bus services in competition with established services and the privatisation of buses. Like all the PTEs, the buses were separated from the PTA and PTE in 1986 in readiness for privatisation. To this end a new operator was created, West Midlands Travel, which was subsequently privatised and is known today as Travel West Midlands.
Standard bus from 1979 was the Birmingham-built MCW Metrobus of which 931 were received by the time the buses were hived off to West Midlands Travel in 1986. Most had Gardner engines but 22 were powered by Rolls Royce engines.
WMPTE had extended its operations in March 1984 into the coaching market by purchasing Central Coachways of Walsall. Most of WMPTE's managers knew they would be transferred to the soon-to-be-privatised West Midlands Travel and come under attack on local services from established and new operators. They looked for new opportunities and, in March 1986, WMPTE commenced a luxury express coach service to London, operated jointly with London Buses. This competed with National Express, ironically now the owners of Travel West Midlands as it is known today. Amongst the last deliveries to WMPTE were three MCW Metroliners with similar vehicles going to London Buses.
An exceptional experiment around this time was the guided busway in Short Heath, Birmingham, opened in October 1984. It was intended to prove the technology of unsteered buses operating between steel guide rails. It was estimated that such buses could use 25% less road width than conventional buses with obvious benefits in congested areas. Privatisation meant that the experiment was not taken further and the guided busway closed in September 1987. The guided buses had special silver and black colours which was evolved into the first West Midlands Travel livery, replacing the familiar blue and cream.
Local rail had been extensively developed by WMPTE in the 1970s, including introduction of the Cross City line. The system, however, remained heavily dependent on trains dating from the late 1950s and this remained unfinished business at the time of the 1986 split.
Whilst the buses have been separated away, the PTA and PTE retains today all the other integration functions such as sourcing socially necessary bus services through competitive tender, administering the split of concessionary fares, modernising and managing bus stations and shelters, and managing a contract with Central Trains (one of the privatised successors to British Rail). The PTE in this revised guise is nowadays known as Centro.
©Copyright 2018 Malcolm Keeley for the Transport Museum, Chapel Lane, Wythall, Worcestershire B47 6JA, England.
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