London Transport lowered their standards again in an attempt to fill staff vacancies, lowering the age of new drivers from twenty-four to twenty-one years. It was easier for new recruits to pass the medical examinations and quite a few men and women were accepted that would never have got beyond the first interview in the old days and discipline became even more lax in the garages and on the road. Passengers began to complain about bad time-keeping and some of the new drivers sailed past request stops totally disregarding intending passengers. The long-serving staff resented the newcomers who were bringing the job into disrepute and the new intake did nothing to hide their contempt for the conscientious crews, calling them “governors’ men”, “boot lickers” and similar insulting names. Morale in the garages hit a new low which took years to recover.
In time, of course, the worst of the offenders were sacked and gradually the happier atmosphere of the garage returned but the question of discipline still causes many heated discussions, the younger ones believing it is still too strict while those of us with memories that go back thirty years or more consider discipline to be practically non-existent today. I suppose the truth lies somewhere between the two. The rule book is substantially the same as it always was and any breach of the rules must be subject to disciplinary action of some kind. It is the job of the inspectors to discover when rules have been broken and to decide whether the circumstances warrant an official “booking” or a warning. Once the “booking” has been made it is then the duty of the Garage Chief Inspector to decide whether it can be dealt with at Garage level or passed on to the District Superintendent. Should the crime be sufficiently serious it can be brought to the notice of the Board of Management and the offender can appeal against any of these actions at all levels and can be represented by a Union Official who sees “fair play” is allowed to his member. The breach of a minor offence is usually settled in the garage Chief Inspector’s office with the offender getting nothing more than a verbal warning and probably a short lecture, although this offence is noted down for possible further reference it is not entered on the permanent record which is kept throughout the career of every member of the staff. Only serious offences are entered on the permanent record so that a clean sheet over a period of many years can go a long way in favour of any driver or conductor unfortunately accused of a really serious crime.
I should think it must be about twenty years since my one and only entry on my permanent record was made - and it still rankles. Let me explain. From time to time a road inspector will board a bus and check the tickets of all the passengers. This is not only to make sure that everyone has paid his or hr fare and is not over-riding his ticket but also to ensure that the conductor is performing his duties properly with regard to the payment of correct fares and the issue of the correct tickets. One morning, at shopping rush time, I was only one stop away from the Staines shopping area and feeling quite pleased with myself knowing I had cleared the bus even though I had a full standing load. To my horror, the road inspector discovered an old lady was holding a penny-ha’penny child’s ticket instead of a tu’penny-ha’penny adult. I had been ringing off tu’penny-ha’penny and penny-ha’penny tickets at a great rate as the majority of my passengers had boarded only a couple of stops down the road and were mostly mothers with young children and, somehow, I had rung off a penny-ha’penny instead of a tu’penny-ha’penny without noticing what I had dome. In vain, I protested that it could not possibly have been done intentionally, I was “booked” and had to see the Chief Inspector.
I expected a lecture, after all I had given a wrong ticket and issuing undervalued tickets was considered very serious, but surely no Inspector in his right mind would believe that I had done it deliberately? No conductor “on the fiddle” with around fifty fares to get in in a space of five minutes or so would race round at full speed and be content to make a measly penny! The usually method employed by “fiddlers” is to work as slowly as possible so that passengers gave their fares on the platform or at the top of the stairs - the conductor issues on ticket for about every four passengers and puts the extra money in his pocket or else issues and throws on the floor undervalued tickets for every passenger. The road inspector knew this and so did the Chief Inspector but, nevertheless, I had issued an undervalued ticket and down on my permanent record it went! If a similar incident occurred today I think the whole garage would walk out on strike: there lies the difference between then and now.
At one time anyone signing on more than two minute late would not only be “booked” but sent home and lose a day’s pay. The same fate would apply to a man arriving unshaven or not wearing a tie or a uniform cap. From 1st May to 30th September was officially “summer time” and the men were issued with white linen cap covers which had to be worn throughout that time: a man could lose a day’s pay if this cover was missing or dirty too. The punishment for “bookings” made on the vehicle was quite frequently up to three days’ suspension without pay and all of these offences would be entered on the permanent record too. A Public Complaint, if upheld, would invariable result in the sack in the “good old days” whereas today the Chief Inspector usually writes a letter of apology to the passenger concerned and delivers a lecture to the offender, only taking stronger action should he or she be a persistent offender. It is this more lenient attitude a good thing or not? O know that I’ve always glanced at every ticket I’ve issued to check the value since being booked all those years ago.
In the Autumn of 1968 the new rotas were posted and emergency working came to an end. Then it was realised how much damage the strike had caused and how much mileage and passengers we had lost. Many journeys on the coach roads that had once been duplicated in the rush hours were now running without extra coaches and still not with maximum loads. The cover the loss in revenue up went the fares and down went the number of passengers once again - and public transport has been on this downward spiral ever since. I have had several arguments in the canteen, and even on the buses, on this issue and, although I can see that putting up the fares does lose a certain number of passengers, I do not believe that putting the fares down would bring them flocking back - a view that is widely held. I think the best way to illustrate the point is to examine the staff car park at every garage. I would say that ninety-five per cent of busmen these days own a car and use to travel to and from work. With the exception of very early and very late duties, there is no necessity for this - we are still issued with free passes. If people who can travel completely free won’t use the buses - who will? Of course, people not only went to work in their cars but went out for pleasure too. Special journeys laid on to take the public to London for the Sales, the exhibitions at Olympia and Earls Court, theatres and the West End all slowly disappeared as did the special service on the 701 coaches for the Royal Ascot Race Meetings in June. When I first started at Staines Garage there were coaches leaving Victoria every ten minutes for the race course at Ascot. The duty Inspector would load up a coach to full capacity and then send it off closely followed by an empty coach to pick up passengers along the road. We used to love this work as we could proceed at any speed we liked, provided we picked up passengers until we had a full load. Most of the passengers wanted to arrive before the first race so that they could get in a full day’s enjoyment and we all did our best to get them there as soon as possible. Whole families would pack sandwiches and go off for the day, arriving in plenty of time to cheer the queen as she rode round the course in her open carriage, then settle down to see the races and picnic on the heath. Once our journeys were finished and the racing started we would park our coaches and either go on the race course ourselves or sit in the mobile canteen in the bus and coach park until the people started queuing up to go home and we had to report for duty once more.
I have worked overtime and rest days throughout Royal Ascot Week dozens of times over the years but I think the day I picked up Alf and Daisy in the freshest in my min. It was a gorgeous day and my driver and I were on our normal service duty, 701 from Gravesend. I guessed the young couple who boarded us up the Old Kent Road were off to the races - best clothes and a paper carrier bag holding a warm cardigan, sandwiches wrapped in greaseproof paper and a lemonade bottle full of cold tea practically shouted “out for the day at Ascot” - and so it was. They sat about half way up the coach, making a start on the sandwiches almost immediately after paying their fare. Alf had done the trip before and kept telling Daisy how quickly we should travel once we had left the London traffic behind and what a great day they were going to enjoy. Daisy was very quiet until we had crossed the river at Lambeth Bridge and approached Victoria. Then, obviously in strange country, began to ply Alf with questions - “Where were we now?”, “How much further on was the race course?”, “What was the great big building over there?” Although he had made the trip once before, I suspect that Alf had probably been more likely to be studying form in his newspaper than looking out the window at the passing scene but he rose to the occasion nobly and when he didn’t know the answer to a question he promptly made up one of his own. Thus I learnt that St. George’s Hospital at Hyde Park Corner was “some big toff’s house” and Hyde Park Corner itself became Marble Arch! Every time I passed up and down the coach collecting fares I overheard more of this highly amusing conversation and I must admit I began to see the route in quite a different light from that day on.
But the best was yet to come. Within about one and a half miles of our destination the coach had to slow down considerably as the Royal Carriage swung out of a lane in front of us. It was a beautiful sight - the horses groomed to perfection, the silver in the harness winking in the bright sunlight, the panels of the coachwork gleaming with a mirror-like polish and the groom and postillions at the back - very smart in their Royal Livery. Obviously they were going to pick up the Royal Family and take them to the course. Then, from behind me, came the unmistakable voice of Daisy with yet another question, “Why are we going so slow, Alf?” Not being able to see from his seat, Alf got up and walked to the front and I stood aside so that he could see the Royal Coach in all its glory. He took one look and then turned his head back to call out, “No wonder we’re going so blinking slow - we’re behind a HORSE AND CART!”
At least that episode was more amusing than yet another journey on the 701 route. My driver at the time was Tom, a young bachelor of about twenty-five who lived alone in a caravan at Wraysbury. We knew it would be a busy journey, leaving Staines at about 8 a.m. and due in Victoria bout an hour later. The traffic was heavy through Hounslow and Brentford and even heavier when we pulled up at traffic lights near Kew Bridge, alongside Brentford Market, The lights changed to green and the coach pulled away. Seconds later I became aware that strangled noises were coming from the driving cab alongside me. At first I thought that Tom was trying to sing and turned to joke about the quality of his voice. To my horror I saw that he was half up from the driving seat, hands dropped free from the wheel, saliva trickling from the corner of his mouth and eyes bolting from his head. Luckily, his foot had also slipped partly off the accelerator pedal but the engine was still running and the coach travelling at about tn miles per hour towards the oncoming traffic. Without consciously realising what I was doing, I leaned over, thrusting my right arm across Tom to reach the handbrake and struggling to pull the wheel towards the kerb with my left. To my relief, the coach responded, actually mounting the kerb and running some yards along it. Fate was kind that day as it was 4th October and my wedding anniversary and there were no cyclists riding on the nearside at that moment and no pedestrians standing on the kerbside.
Someone opened the door and the driver of a passing trolley bus, who had witnessed the incident, dashed in to turn off the engine while an inspector materialised to ‘phone for an ambulance. The odd thing about the whole affair was that I remained cool as a cucumber until after the ambulance had taken poor Tom off to hospital - even writing out an auxiliary waybill and getting the passengers on the next coach to continue their journey - but as soon as that was accomplished I almost collapsed and had to be half carried into a nearby teashop until I felt fit enough to travel again. I felt a real fool - shaking like a leaf and crying like a baby for almost twenty minutes. A team of mechanics arrived from Chiswick works to examine the coach and, finding everything in order, take it back to Chiswick for a more detailed check-up. Until we knew what was wrong with Tom it was always possible that he had been affected by fumes or even suffered an electric shock of some kind.
The inspector put me on a bus back to Staines where I had to make a detailed report, both written and verbal, to the Chief Inspector and arrived to find the news had gone before me and I was treated like some king of heroine. True - I had averted what might have been a very serious accident, but since I had probably been moved by nothing more heroic than a strong sense of self-preservation I felt rather a fraud. Probably sensing this, Ron Coles, a depot inspector at that time but now the chief, told me the Police would almost undoubtedly be along to arrest me soon on a charge of driving without a licence!
We later learned that Tom had suffered an epileptic fit and would no longer be allowed to drive for us. Apparently, when questioned by the doctors, he could remember waking up on the floor of his caravan on several occasions in the past and had believed that he had nothing more than a restless night. The attack on the coach was the first time that the affliction had manifested itself in waking hours and thus make it possible to diagnose and treat him.
The following day, with a relief driver, I did the same duty and one of the passengers brought me a big box of chocolates. It was a very nice gesture on her part but there was another sequel to the story which still makes me laugh when I remember it. On completing the day’s work I was told that I was to go to London to meet one of the Board Managers who wished to thank me for my actions the day before. Instead of reporting to work I was to present myself at Western House, Oxford Circus at 10 a.m. and even provided with a special Green Line Pass for the occasion. When the news got round in the garage my mates began to speculate as to what form the gratitude would take - a life-saving medal, perhaps? Almost certainly a sum of money - estimations going even as high as twenty pounds.
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