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Saturday, 30 March 2013

Armchair ramblings

I was delighted to receive in the mail "Ramblings from my old Armchair" by John W Watts cataloguing, over 232 pages of the history of Armchair Passenger Transport, the famous London operator.

For the greater part of the story of Armchair, it was led by Simon and Ann Newman - very old friends of mine who were smart and brave enough to keep going through tough economic times by continually shifting the balance of their operations, whilst maximising the benefits of long and trustworthy long-term relationships with both suppliers and customers. Those relationships, described in detail in the book, helped enormously towards the success of the company.

Continued attention to quality in a consistent way was a hallmark of Armchair. It never gave way to a snazzy livery or joined the legions of operators buying even more outrageous foreign coaches for a market which was always sensitive to price. Foreseeing lean times in coaching it diversified into buses and went on to capture new areas of coaching business both with the cruise market and for commuters. I had a small part to play in the latter, which is also acknowledged in the book.

John Watts goes into significant detail quoting extensively from Simon's personal archive of diaries as well as official material. His style is very chatty - one feels like one is being read a story. What sets this book apart is a refreshing inclusion of the names and personalities which are part of the Armchair story, rather than a catalogue of dates and vehicles usually found in transport books. This one talks extensively about the people and how they were involved. How chance encounters with people at airports delivered new business; how Simon's extensive networking through CPT (where he was President 1988-89) and elsewhere was rewarded; and so on, all painting a colourful and enjoyable picture of the story of Armchair.

No one in the industry would have begrudged Simon and Ann's retirement after a successful trade sale. The book describes the heartache not only over the sale itself but the harsh change of policy by the new owners which led to the dismantling of the entire coach operation, the disbanding of the team and the disappearance of the familiar Armchair name and the distinctive orange vehicles.

So whilst Simon and Ann were able to realise their investment and enjoy their retirement, the book expresses the sadness as to what became of the business they had nursed and cherished for so many years and at great personal cost.

As with all authoritative books, once it is in print it will be regarded as definitive. The author does go off into one or two areas of fantasy which could be mistaken for fact. It is, for example, an interesting notion that Ian Fleming gave James Bond his '007' codename because he saw East Kent coaches on route 007 go through his home village of Bridge showing that number. However historians will know that this route number was only adopted years after Fleming's death so cannot possibly be true.

Nevertheless, I did enjoy reading the book. Armchair is a piece of London transport history.

Available from John W Watts, 47 Woodgate Road, Liskeard, Cornwall, PL14 6ET

£20 including postage

Saturday, 16 March 2013

Red noses

"The highest paid bus crew in London"
The much-trailed Red Nose Day dawned wet and miserable in London but the spirits of Londoners weren’t dampened as they came to work in their pyjamas, carried out sponsored events, made collections and raised money.

In London we ran the Commissioner’s RM1005 on route 24 all day, raising several hundred pounds in the process from delighted passengers. The bus ran between Hampstead Heath and Pimlico just as route 24 has done for just over 100 years.

For the final round trip at 1500, Peter Hendy and I crewed the bus and were followed by a TV camera crew who are making a programme for broadcast in a few months time. It is about staff and passengers of course so surprised and delighted members of the public and bus enthusiasts all got the chance to appear on camera. Friday’s shooting will form part of one episode focussing on buses.
Our TV Producer in front of the camera
for a change, as a bus conductor

The characters and reactions rewarded the film-makers’ patience with the young and old spontaneously commenting on “this nice old bus” whilst I observed it was probably the highest-paid bus crew in the history of London Transport - whether or not driven by a 'Knight of the road'!

The smile says it all..
Children and adults all wanted to use the 1950s Gibson ticket machine and eventually even our TV Producer decided she wanted to try her hand at being a conductor. When it dawned on her there were two decks and a stop every other lamp post, she really did appreciate what a busy job it is.

Eventually night fell and RM1005 went home to bed. Londoners went home and switched on their televisions to Comic Relief. By the time it ended a record £75.1m had been raised which is an amazing total in such difficult economic times. For us – all in a day’s work!


Thursday, 14 March 2013

Last day in Hong Kong

For several years in the 1990s, I paid broadly monthly visits to Hong Kong - then governed by the British - whilst my company Capital Citybus was a wholly-owned subsidiary of CNT Holdings. It had a number of business interests of which we were one.

Those were heady days - booming economy, expansion, and with the return of the colony to China some years away.

Fellow subsidiary Citybus, under the direction of venerable British (Welsh, actually) busman Lyndon Rees, was breaking into the franchised bus market at the expense of China Motor Bus and bringing hugely improved standards at the same time. Lyndon would often recall that when he arrived there in the 1960s every bus had two axles and two conductors. He succeeded in making sure they had three axles, no conductors and air conditioning as well!

After my management team and I bought Capital Citybus ourselves my trips to Hong Kong were far less frequent and more recently hardly at all. So it was very exciting to be able to visit again this past week, flying in from Sydney and using it as a base for my visit to BYD in Shenzhen (see last blog).

I did have a couple of hours between meetings to explore some old haunts. Back in the 1990s I did drive on Citybus route 260 between Central and Stanley - it caused a real stir as Europeans certainly didn't do jobs like bus driving in those days. I recall Lyndon following me in his car for a bit such was his anxiety. So I retraced those steps - as a passenger this time. What a contrast from my first ever trip - a white knuckle ride on a China Motor Bus DMS driven by a white-gloved racing driver. Now with highbacked seats and air-con, we travelled with ease, but no less speed, the winding roads past Repulse Bay and into Stanley.

The village itself has been transformed (and not in a good way in my opinion) - the world-famous market is still there but the rocky beach area now has a broadwalk, with a Starbucks, McDonald's and Pizza Express. A few old landmarks are still there but it has gone the way of tourist destinations. I retreated to some nearby, unspoiled locations, needless to say.

There was barely time to catch up with my old friends in Hong Kong but I did reflect on the changes which have taken place since I last visited. The Star Ferry is exactly the same but it now has an App; so do the trams. The MTR is building more railway at a great rate; and the road network into China is better.

But essentially the place remains buzzing with huge volumes of people all urgently travelling to and from work, play and home. Container ships crowd the docks area, bamboo scaffolding still supports unbelievably tall constructions, and tailor's shops sit side by side with electronics retailers in Kowloon.

And lastly - one other improvement since the 1990s. Improved diplomatic relations mean civil aircraft can take a more northerly route, and since the world is narrower at the top than in the middle, journey times are now faster. A late plane out of Hong Kong is now the first arrival into Heathrow. So a final contrast - from the 'new' Chep Lap Kok airport (actually opened 1998) to Heathrow's 'new' Terminal 5 - neither of which were in existence when I first headed east. And next time - indeed by the end of the year flight BA28 will be in the hands of the new British Airways Airbus A380....

This ends my series of blogs relating to my recent trip. Although I have been updating this every few days the trip itself was done in six. Indeed I have been back for over a week. Thanks for all your messages!

Saturday, 9 March 2013

Electric city

Here I am with the BYD E6 passenger car
shortly before taking it on the test track

Another day and another city – I am in Hong Kong. However my true destination was the Chinese city of Shenzhen, a two hour car journey.

The previous time I made this journey I was with Lyndon Rees, MD Citybus in Hong Kong. We were aboard a Leyland Olympian three axle double decker on an inaugural cross-border service linking the two cities. 

Many years later the former British colony is now part of China but as a Special Administrative Region. It still has a border as there is no automatic passage between the two which have different political systems. Last time I came here the border was a hut and a couple of officials. Now it resembles the vehicle approach to the Channel Tunnel - a modern, multi-laned arrangement. 

Soon to be seen in London the standard BYD
single-decker model

I'm here to visit BYD - the company building two electric buses for use on routes 507 and 521 this summer. BYD has extensive experience in battery technology. If you have a booster battery for your mobile phone then chances are BYD made it. 

After a faultless long drive in a real electric taxi my
driver insists on being photographed with flag!
They are already producing electric vehicles. Multiple production lines of passenger cars are making thousands and their home city has a fleet as taxis. Local drivers praised the E6 model and they are operating very successfully. Taxi drivers are a sceptical bunch all over the world and Shenzhen is no exception. The arrangement here is that BYD hires them to drivers to protect them from any unforeseen costs. However the vehicles have been so successful that the drivers are asking to buy them so they can benefit from the exceptional fuel consumption and low running costs.
Here by the Shenzhen central bus terminal
four single deckers all on charge.
Full-size single deckers are also in production. They are familiar in the city and elsewhere - increasingly around the world. The one I rode on was inevitably quiet but otherwise very normal.

EVs are coming into their own now as battery technology is developing as is the software to manage them properly. Carefully managed batteries last for years if they are used correctly.

Buses provide a particular challenge for EVs. The huge demand of auxiliaries (air conditioning, doors, demisters, etc can exceed the power requirements for traction. And there is the problem of heating. Using battery power to generate heat is wasteful, whilst carrying a small diesel generator to do just that rather defeats the object of no engine/zero emissions in the first place. However these technical issues are being addressed and each new version of the vehicle is a marked improvement on the previous one.

 So after a fascinating day seeing all of BYD's activities and discussing with their experts the science and where it is going, I headed by car back to Hong Kong - and my last day.

Friday, 8 March 2013

Kenny Ball RIP

I interrupt the description of my recent trip to the southern hemisphere to express my sadness at the death of Kenny Ball, who – with his Jazzmen – were stars of the 1960s and 70s and who died yesterday aged 82.

He was born in 1930 and worked for 60 years as a professional musician. He had several Top 10 hits in the 1960s but Midnight in Moscow reached No2 and became his signature tune. He toured the UK with Louis Armstrong. Even in 1981 he was active – playing at Charles’ and Diana’s wedding reception.

I worked with him in 1977. He – and the Jazzmen – were booked to play daily on open top bus RTL1050 promoting Littlewoods (the pools, not the store). I personally drove him on many occasions. Those summer days were always hot and sunny (amazing how your memory does that!). Across the UK the sound of Kenny and his music grew louder as the bus approached; people in the street stopped and smiled. “Hello Kenny” they would shout, and I learned that live popular music like this, head and shoulders high on the top of a moving 48-sheet billboard, was a star attraction for any advertiser.

RTL1050 was owned in those days by Ted Brakell, sadly now also gone, having been in the Richmond fleet of Continental Pioneer. It was used for trips to Europe and then on bus route 235 – a short route between Richmond and Richmond Hill. Not restored by London Transport after the 1958 bus strike this local operator ran this route for decades afterwards. It finally ran in 1980, operated by the former EC1, the first 'Executive Express' owned by British European Airways.

Ted parked his buses in Pioneer’s yard and RTL1050 became his promotional open-topper. That summer of 1977 had us on an expedition and we turned up at countless towns adorned with Littlewoods’ material. Ted hired me to drive on many occasions.

Most afternoons followed a similar pattern. Kenny paused from his spectacular trumpet playing and banged on the side of the bus by my head. “Leon!!”, he would shout, “there’s a pub over there, with a car park and no height restriction!” We would park up, and Kenny plus entourage would retire, until long past closing time. As the driver I was unable to participate of course.

Later, Kenny and his Jazzmen would stagger out of the pub and now their playing would be even more adventurous as we made it into town. He was hugely approachable and the same in person as on stage. I clearly recall being in Finchley and receiving a playful punch in the stomach as he exited the bus to play solo for the assembled crowd - leaving me doubled-up (more surprise than pain) behind him.

A kind and generous man with amazing musical talent. He could play back to back in complete unison with his clarinetist using only telepathy and the music. Playing a wind instrument on a moving vehicle has its risks: as his driver he often reminded me of the value of his front teeth to their music and my insurance. He died, I am pleased to say, with his dentistry and my reputation intact.


Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Now with photos!

I'm glad to say I have been able to upload some photos so scroll down to see them!

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Saturday in Sydney

It’s Saturday, which means it must be Sydney. I had several meetings during the day, but managed to steal a couple of hours or so to look around the Opera House, take a ferry to Darling Harbour, ride a bus out to Bondi Beach and ride on the light rail line.

But of more significance, I had several rides on the Sydney monorail, which sadly is 4 months from closure.

Built in the late 1980s the decision to build a monorail (as opposed to light rail) as part of the Darling Harbour redevelopment was a hugely political one.

Monorails are expensive, visually intrusive, inflexible and inefficient at carrying large numbers of people. On the positive side they have a 'wow' factor but that is more at home at Walt Disney World than in urban cities. It does the usual tricks of riding above the congested streets and plunging into buildings with integral stations.

As it happens, Sydney monorail's poor passenger carrying capacity was never an issue: it was never a huge commercial success and its largely symbolic operation will end on 30 June to allow a convention centre development. All traces will be gone by 2014.

The monorail’s only other moment of fame is the 2010 collision between two sets and the evacuation of 100 passengers by crane. The remains of Set 1 can be seen at Prymont Street depot.

The cars carry "Farewell Sydney" and one of a few monorail systems in the world comes to an end. There are still many more - real examples of the futuristic transport solutions depicted in boys' magazines of the 1960s but which never really delivered.

For the record I have used "Sydney monorail" throughout. Its proper title is the "Metro Monorail" but didn't see it described as such anywhere!

Saturday, 2 March 2013


Friday was the day for the Australian Roads Conference and I was there by 0800 to get set up.

These days, I do my presentations straight off the iPad in a way that wouldn't disgrace any Apple product launch. In this one about London's road network and the lessons from London 2012, it has beautifully embedded film footage of the Games themselves and 'fast forward' journeys by Underground and by road as seen by the passenger.

It was well received by my Melbourne audience, where 56 years have elapsed since they hosted an Olympic Games. The city is presently formulating a bid to do so again - 2024 and 2032 are both possibilities.

I was delighted to meet, for the first time, author Tom Vanderbilt. Tom wrote the acclaimed book "*Traffic - Why do we drive the way we do (and what it says about us)" which I have often enthused about.

After the conference I called to see my old friend Ian Dobbs who is CEO of Public Transport Victoria. We couldn't quite remember how many years - we think 21 - since we met on the level crossing at Sawbridgeworth. In his capacity with what was then Network SouthEast he had no trains and hundreds of passengers whilst I had some replacement buses! He then went on to greater things in UK and here in Australia.

Melbourne was hosting the "Longest Lunch in the World" which had 1200 people havinglunch in one very long line across Fitzroy Gardens and all wearing the same straw hats to protect them from the hot sun. I'm sorry that I am still unable to upload any photographs as the 1920s Melbourne trams and the sight of 1200 open-air diners are all worth seeing. I will fix this as soon as I can.

By early evening I was arriving in Sydney for the next stage of my trip, landing right into their Mardi Gras festival weekend which is only second to Rio in terms of size.

A full day planned for Saturday......

Friday, 1 March 2013

Olympic Park open for business

"Olympic Park open for business already?" I hear you say, but this one is. I'm in the MELBOURNE Olympic Park.

The Olympics came here in 1956. Sports venues are still clustered around the former Olympic Park area although mostly with more modern structures. This area continues to develop and represents what the Olympic legacy can look like over 50 years later.

I'm visiting this beautiful city as I am speaking at the Australian Roads Conference 2013. What better way to cure the jetlag than spending this afternoon getting orientated around its public transport.

 Melbourne still has an extensive tram network - continuously since 1884 if you include the horse tram era. Indeed it is (depending on what you measure) the largest network in the world. There are 487 trams in the fleet - the most modern ones from France and Germany whilst a dozen of the W-class fleet (which numbered about 750 in their heyday and date back to 1923) operate on the city circular service.

Public Transport Victoria (PVT) is the equivalent of TfL here and it similarly outsources its requirements to the private sector. There are about 50 bus operators and a fairly recent change in the operator for the trams.

After a long gestation period Melbourne also has its Oyster. It has Myki which has replaced all the 10-trip and season ticket Metcard system and is extensively used now. Shortly it will be valid on other longer distance rail services too.

And as for Friday's conference everyone here is wanting to learn more about how we delivered the Olympic Games and what lessons there are for road space management generally not just for big events. The experience was invaluable. It will help us in London and many other cities as well.

For my part I'm looking forward to meeting Tom Vanderbilt - the author of the world-acclaimed book on Traffic - who follows me on the platform at the conference. His contribution should be very interesting indeed.