Fleetline Farewell!-1/11/97

We bus enthusiasts are defined by the era and the area that we grow up in, with the buses of that era and area often becoming our favourites for the rest of our lives! Therefore, as a resident of the West Midlands County during the seventies (despite a move to Telford in 1977, frequent visits to my Smethwick based Grandparents and other family members meant that the area was always home to me, so much so that I moved back to my Grandparents house in 1985) means that the West Midlands Passenger Transport Executive’s standard double decker bus of the decade, the Daimler, latter Leyland Fleetline, with Metro Cammell, Park Royal or, in the case of examples ordered by Coventry City Transport, East Lancs bodywork, has become my favourite bus.

The Daimler Fleetline was introduced to the market in 1960, as a rival to the pioneer rear engine double decker bus, the 1958 introduced Leyland Atlantean. In it’s early years, the Fleetline scored over it’s rival in reliability but would pass into Leyland’s hands when Daimler’s Jaguar owner sold out to the newly formed British Leyland Group in the sixties. A third Leyland group rear engine double decker would be introduced in 1966 with the Bristol VR. The early seventies upgrading of the Atlantean to AN68 status saw the model’s early reliability problems left behind, causing the Fleetline to be left behind somewhat, especially after the Bristol VR was upgraded to Series 3 status slightly latter. The Fleetline, badged as a Leyland after production transferred from Daimler’s Coventry factory to Leyland, would finally cease production in 1980.

The Fleetline was an obvious choice for WMPTE to standardise on, as all but one of the fleets that it would absorb had purchased Fleetlines (the exception, Wolverhampton, had twenty five thirty three foot long Park Royal bodied examples on order, which were early enough into their build for the PTE to ask for an identical specification to the one hundred similar buses on order from Birmingham City Transport, these becoming known as Jumbos on account of their length.)  Following the delivery of those Fleetlines on order (as well as the Birmingham & Wolverhampton examples, both Walsall & West Bromwich had Northern Counties bodied examples on order), the PTE introduced a specification, loosely based on that of the Jumbos but reverting to a single door, thirty foot length bus, which would become the PTE’s standard bus until 1979, after which the operator turned to the locally built MCW Metrobus.

The acquired examples (which would be joined by ex Midland Red Alexander bodied examples of it’s D11/D12/D13 class after the December 1973 takeover of that Company’s West Midlands services) would be replaced by Metrobuses by 1983, apart from Coventry East Lancs bodied examples (Coventry being the last operator to be absorbed into the PTE, on 1st April 1974) which survived until deregulation on 26th October 1986. By this date, large inroads had also been made into the earlier PTE bought examples, including the demise of the earlier, yellow ceilinged examples (up to 4235, buses from 4243 onwards featuring white ceilings). Deregulation would also see the official withdrawal of all Fleetlines numbered below 6301 (fleetnumbers had jumped from 4799-a Leyland National-to 6300-the one Foden double decker-in 1976 to accommodate the fleetnumbers of various ex Midland Red buses in between), although some of the 45xx & 46xx series Fleetlines survived past deregulation, both operationally and in West Midlands Travel’s (the operational company that replaced the PTEs bus operations) reserved fleet, several of which would return to service briefly in 1987. Yardley Wood’s 4561 would be the oldest of these survivors, which would all be gone by 1988.

Despite these withdrawals, the lack of new buses ordered after deregulation meant that withdrawal rates of the survivors would slow down considerably. Early 1988 would see a start made on withdrawing 63xx examples but large scale withdrawals wouldn’t begin until the first of the final batch of Metrobuses, 150 in number to the Mk 2A specification, began to arrive in September 1988, this being stepped up in 1989 following the conversion of a large number of the reserved fleet’s Leyland Nationals to DAF engines, these then being allocated to several garages (Dudley & Hockley briefly-National 2s replacing those at Hockley-then Hartshill, Lea Hall, Yardley Wood & Wolverhampton) replacing Fleetlines at these garages, as well as the first of an eventual batch of 250 new Leyland Lynxes all seeing the single deck content of the West Midlands Travel fleet increase dramatically. Then the arrival of 40 Alexander bodied Scania double deckers at the Metrobus only Birmingham Central (mainly for the 50) in September 1990, would see Metrobuses cascade elsewhere to replace more Fleetlines.

Again though, most of the survivors of the 1988-1990 cull would have a stay of execution, as fleet replacement took a back seat whilst West Midlands Travel concentrated on repaying the finance it had raised to effect it’s Employee Share Ownership Plan privatisation. In fact, the loaning of Metrobuses to other fleets would see Fleetlines from the reserve fleet re-enter service from 1993 onwards, signalling the start of a Fleetline Indian summer! Transfer of eleven examples from Acocks Green would see the Fleetline return to Yardley Wood in 1994 (their last example previously, 6921, was withdrawn in  1991) whilst Walsall, which, apart from a brief allocation of 63xx numbered Fleetlines in 1987, had last been allocated Fleetlines in 1983, saw the arrival of the surviving East Lancs bodied Fleetlines from Coventry (some of the 1977 batch that had been ordered by Coventry City Transport)

But 1995 would see the beginning of the final end, with Metrobuses being returned from a period of hire to other operators saw the demise of Fleetlines from Lea Hall, Acocks Green (although single deck Fleetline 1956 would arrive there latter-more on that latter) & Wolverhampton (where six Alexander Strider bodied Volvo B10B saloons had entered service, a precursor for a larger fleet of Wright bodied Volvo B10Bs to come). Then early 1996 saw fleet replacement begin in earnest with the first of 65 Volvo B10Bs, which replaced Nationals at Wolverhampton, Walsall & Acocks Green. That order was originally 150 strong though 100 of these would be changed to the low floor B10L design (an extra 25 B10Bs would be ordered to make up the 65) which started to arrive in 1997. This added to fifty Wright bodied Volvo B6 midibuses that had began to arrive in 1996, all of which would allow Fleetlines to be replaced, including those at Walsall & Yardley Wood. Perry Barr would lose it’s final Fleetlines following the allocation of the first large allocation of B10L’s to the garage for the conversion of “Line 33” to low floor “Showcase” operation, following the construction of Bus Lanes and state of the art, modern shelters along the route of the 33 from Birmingham City Centre-Pheasey in February 1997, whilst over the next few months, West Bromwich and Coventry Garages would all lose their Fleetlines, meaning that, by Easter, only Quinton & Washwood Heath Garages would have an allocation.

I would last ride on Quinton’s last two Fleetlines on Good Friday 1997 when, travelling into Birmingham on a Hockley Metrobus on the 129, I spotted 6923 heading out on the 21A to Bartley Green. As this was an indirect service, I jumped off the 129 and caught the next Metrobus on the more direct 22 Kitwell service as far as Bartley Green, where I was able to await 6923’s arrival and catch it back to Birmingham through Bangham Pit, Weoley Castle and the Queen Elizabeth Hospital complex. As we headed down Broad Street, I spotted Quinton’s other surviving Fleetline, 6902, on the 9, just in front of us. Therefore, I got off 6923 at Great Charles Street, then walked past the Town Hall and down Hill Street and caught 6902 on it’s way out for a nice long run out to Stourbridge. Quinton closed on 18th June 1997 (the day I moved into my present house!) and the two Fleetlines would go with it.

Washwood Heath’s allocation was slightly larger but was now largely restricted to Monday-Friday operation, meaning I was unable to travel on them much, as I was working on those days. The last time I would travel on one in normal circumstances was on Friday 2nd May, the day after Tony Blair had become the British Prime Minister. My friend Steve from Leicester was coming over to stay at my Grandparents (where I then lived) for the Bank Holiday weekend, so I had travelled into Birmingham on the 101 (the nearest route to my then workplace at Averys, on the borders of Smethwick & Birmingham) to meet Steve off the Midland Fox X66 from his home city. Before heading back to Smethwick, we decided to see if we could get a Washwood Heath Fleetline in the book, so we headed to Lower Bull Street, the main terminus for Washwood Heath’s routes, and caught 6952 on a 590E to Coleshill, returning on a Metrobus.

The 26 & 27

Saturday 1st November was decided to be the final day of Travel West Midlands Fleetline operation, with Travel West Midlands (the name adopted by West Midlands Travel in 1996) deciding to commemorate the event with an Open Day at Washwood Heath Garage and the remaining Fleetlines (both those allocated to Washwood Heath and some recent withdrawals from elsewhere) would run duplicate journeys on route 27 from the City Centre-Bromford Bridge Estate. This was quite an odd number in Birmingham for double deck operation, as it was traditionally used for the South Birmingham inter suburban service from Kings Heath-West Heath, extended at deregulation to Cotteridge and rerouted as the 27A/27C South Circular in 1990. This route had to be single deck operated due to the low Railway bridge at Bourneville Station but the service was withdrawn in 1994, following it’s merger with the Leyland Lynx operated 35 (City-Hawkesley) to form a figure six shaped route from City-Kings Heath via Kings Heath & Hawkesley.

This allowed off peak journeys on the 26 Bromford Bridge service to use the number 27 to distinguish an extension at those times to the Bull Ring Markets on Edgbaston Street, including all daytime Saturday journeys, thus the Fleetline operated duplicates would all be 27s. The 26 started on 11th September 1967, running from the new Bromford Bridge Estate to Highfield Road, Alum Rock, where connections were available with services 14 & 55 into City. One of several One Man operated feeder services developed in the sixties by Birmingham City Transport to serve new, outlying housing estates, the 26 was initially operated by 1950 vintage underfloor engine MCW bodied Leyland Olympics 2263-2265 until their withdrawal at the end of April 1968, when they were replaced by 1965 vintage single deck Fleetlines, a batch of buses that had proved most useful for starting up these feeder services. This started an association between the Fleetline and the 26 that would last until 1st November 1997. The single deck Fleetlines were short lived on the route, as one man double deck Fleetlines took over from 5th May 1968, the regular allocation eventually becoming dual door Fleetlines 3879 & 3880, the last two buses to enter service with Birmingham City Transport, before WMPTE took over.

The 5th August 1974 saw the 26 extended into City, by which time Washwood Heath Garage would be completely one man, so any allocated Fleetline could turn up on the 26, with 3879 & 3880 having been transferred to Harborne (mainly for the 2 from Selly Oak-Kings Heath) in the early seventies. Metrobuses would join the Washwood Heath allocation from 1980 onwards but, although these could be found on the 26, the route would continue to feature regular Fleetline operation. I first rode on the route in 1985 when, having moved from Telford back to Smethwick, I discovered that Fleetlines featured regularly on late night duties on the 26, so I sampled these on several occasions before deregulation, when Metrobuses would permanently takeover at these times. Nevertheless, regular daytime operation of Fleetlines would continue on the 26, so I became quite familiar with the route, particularly as Fleetline operation gradually reduced elsewhere.

The Final Day

And so the final day dawned! Steve had come over from Leicester again for the weekend, this time staying with my wife Lynn and myself at our house in West Bromwich, us having got married the preceding July. So that Saturday morning, we caught a Metrobus on the 79 into Birmingham and almost immediately came across 7000, the highest numbered Fleetline in the fleet, though it wasn’t the last one, as that honour fell to withdrawn former Acocks Green Park Royal bodied example 6690, as the last Park Royal bodied examples had been delayed in arrival, entering service after the final Metro Cammell bodied examples, of which 7000 was the last. Originally allocated to Walsall in 1979, 7000 would be transferred to Oldbury Garage fairly early on, where I would get to know it on the various local routes around Smethwick, including the 87 from Birmingham-Dudley. The arrival of ten Leyland National 2s following Stourbridge’s closure on 26th January 1985, saw Oldbury’s Fleetlines gradually move out, with 7000 transferring to Dudley (allowing a return to the 87 on occasions when the route was transferred to Dudley following Oldbury’s closure on 25th January 1986), where it stayed until 1989 when, following the allocation of new Mk 2A Metrobuses and Leyland Lynxes to the Black Country Garage, 7000 was one of several Fleetlines transferred to Perry Barr, where it would remain until the end of Fleetline operation there in February 1997, then passing into store. Interestingly, June 1995 saw the bus spend a brief time on loan to Hockley (which had lost it’s regular Fleetline allocation in 1990) and was allocated to the 87 one Friday, when I managed to get a ride on it over the full route from Dudley-Birmingham, then back as far as Dudley Road Hospital, as I had to visit a friend who was then a patient there.

7000 was by now painted in the blue roofed livery that was the TWM standard by then and the bus had been adorned with transfers that morning commemorating that it was the Fleetline’s last day. Driving 7000 was Richard Kirk, then working in management at Birmingham Central Garage, now a Director with First Travel Solutions! Once on board, we headed out of City and through the Vauxhall district. This section of the 26/27 was then relatively recent, the route having been rerouted that way in 1993, to replace the 55, which had been rerouted onto a more direct route out of City via Jennens Road & Nechells Middleway to match the competing Claraibels X55 on the route to Chelmsley wood via Shard End. The two routes now matching would see Claraibels renumber their service the 55 to match TWM.

Actually, the 55 had an even older association with the Fleetline than the 26, as it was a very early convert to the type, with Washwood Heath receiving a proportion of the first large batch of Fleetlines delivered to BCT in 1963. With the earlier, ten Prototype Fleetlines, delivered alongside ten Leyland Atlanteans for comparison in 1962 being allocated to Liverpool Street (what’s now Birmingham Central) and Hockley for use on the 43 (Nechells) & 96 (Winson Green) respectively, routes that would disappear in 1992 & 1986 respectively, whilst other recipients of the 1963 batch were Perry Barr for the 39 (Witton-withdrawn in October 1980) and Coventry Road for the 58 & 60 (Sheldon & Cranes Park respectively), routes that would transfer to Liverpool Street upon Coventry Road’s October 1985 closure and that Garage, renamed Birmingham Central, losing all it’s Fleetlines at deregulation, which means that the 55 was the Birmingham bus route to have been continuously operated by Daimler/Leyland Fleetlines for the longest period of time! In fact, as only Walsall of the other PTE constituents had Fleetlines earlier than 1963 (prototype short Fleetline number 1 entering service in 1962) and the fact that Walsall would initially lose it’s Fleetlines in 1983 (apart from semi preserved ex Walsall 116, which survived until deregulation and is now preserved at the Wythall Transport Museum), means that the 55 was the longest running Fleetline operated PTE route too! In fact, could any other route in the UK beat it?

Although the Fleetlines were operating duplicates on the 27, the service buses on the route were altogether rather more colourful. That’s because it had been arranged to operate these with the Metrobuses that had been painted into the previous liveries of PTE (and hence Travel West Midlands) constituents in 1996, so Washwood Heath’s Birmingham City Transport liveried 3050 (one of eight in that livery, allocated to each surviving ex BCT Garage at the time) was joined on the 27 by Coventry’s 2867, Walsall’s 2888, Wolverhampton’s 2989 and West Bromwich’s 3033. Ironically, with all the Fleetlines being in either the then current blue roof livery or the earlier West Midlands Travel blue & grey (6898), the general, non enthusiast public probably thought that the Heritage liveried Metrobuses were the main attraction!

We re-joined the traditional 26 route at Saltley, then heading up the crowded Alum Rock Road to the original 26 terminus at the junction with Highfield Road, onto which we turned left. This fairly narrow, terraced house clad road leads onto Washwood Heath Road just before that road reaches Washwood Heath Garage, where Steve & I got off and went into the Garage to view the Open Day.

Here, we met my old mate John Batchelor, then a Perry Barr Traffic Clerk who was rostered to drive 6967 latter in the day but was free to have a ride up to Bromford Bridge first so, along with then Perry Barr driver Bram Osborne, we all headed over the main road to catch 1956, the former 6956 (a Washwood Heath bus) that had been converted to single deck in 1994. This rather eccentric bus was a possible prototype for more conversions but this wasn’t followed through (more details in my blog “West Midlands 1994”) and 1956 remained unique. It was initially allocated to West Bromwich (I would ride it on it’s first day in service, on route 242 from Cradley Heath-Kinver) then Quinton and finally settling at Acocks Green to operate alongside ex Your Bus Dennis Dart’s and Leyland Lynxes on the 42 (Solihull-Baldwins Lane) before all of these were replaced by low floor Volvo B6s on the route. This made 1956 the last Fleetline to operate at Acocks Green.

From the Garage, the 27 made it’s way further down Washwood Heath Road to the junction of Drews Lane, where we turned left and headed past the DAF van factory that had formerly been the home of Sherpa vans. Crossing the Outer Circle at Bromford Lane, we were soon running along the straight Hyperion Road that was the main road through the late sixties constructed Bromford Bridge Estate, built on the site of the former Bromford Racecourse. Multi Storey Tower blocks mingled along here with low rise housing that had largely come after the blocks, once these had began to become unpopular in the early seventies. On the other side of Hyperion Road stood the concrete stilts that carry the M6 Motorway out of Birmingham, with the Railway Line to Derby & Leicester passing on the other side of this. Hyperion Road ends as a cul de sac, with a turning circle for the 26 & 27 forming out of this. Just on the other side of the Motorway at this point is the distinctive Fort Dunlop building. Riding 1956 up to Bromford Bridge felt like a connection with the 26’s early days of BCT single deck Fleetline operation!

We then headed back to the Garage on 1956, where we all got off. Bram was due to takeover on 1745, not a Fleetline but then the oldest bus in the TWM fleet. 1745 was an ex Ribble Leyland National that the company had acquired when it purchased the competing company Tame Valley Travel in 1992. Like most of that fleet, it was initially placed into the Reserved fleet but came into service in 1994 and fitted with a new Volvo engine. Steve and I however, joined John on 6967. This was a former Coventry bus that had been withdrawn when that Garage ceased Fleetline operation earlier in the year but kept in reserve. It was one of only two Fleetlines in service that day (the other being 6898) that retained it’s original red PVC seat covering, the others all featuring WMT standard blue mocquette that many Fleetlines (especially those that came out of the Reserved fleet) received in the early nineties. John took over in the Bromford Bridge direction, so we headed back to the Estate, followed by a trip into City, including the Bull Ring loop that distinguished the 27 from the then evening & Sunday 26.

We then headed back out, with Steve and I saying farewell to John and getting off at the Garage. Steve then went to have a proper look at the Open Day, which featured a display of preserved buses from both the Midland Bus Museum at Wythall and the Aston Manor Transport Museum at Witton. I, on the other hand, was determined to ride on the other Fleetlines operating this afternoon, knowing full well that this was my last chance to ride a West Midlands Fleetline in normal service. The other buses running were 6477, one of the Fleetlines returned to service from the Reserved fleet in the 1992/1993 period, with 6477 being allocated to Quinton (it’s original Garage) then spending time at West Bromwich  and Yardley Wood. Like 6967, 6477 was resurrected especially for the final day! Also running was  6898, a former Perry Barr Fleetline transferred to Washwood Heath a few years previously. It was also the last surviving Fleetline to wear WMTs blue & grey livery before the much more pleasant blue roof livery was adopted around 1990. The other two buses were 6932, transferred to Washwood Heath from Lea Hall when that Garage lost it’s Fleetlines and 6952, a bus that had been allocated to Washwood Heath since it’s previous Garage, Coventry Road closed in October 1985.

So I kept myself busy transferring from bus to bus! One highlight I remember was on board 6898, where I had my last chat with my old friend Mark Dawson, by now a Civil Servant with the Foreign Office who was based in London but who originally came from Pheasey. I would only ever meet him once again, on New Years Day 1999. I was a Perry Barr driver by this time and was driving a Volvo B10L on the 33 on this day when I briefly chatted to him at Pheasey Terminus. A year latter, he passed away from cancer. RIP old friend.

I managed to get all seven (including 1956) Fleetlines in the book for one last time, and I made sure I was in position for the final trip, which took place on 7000, driven by Robert Handford, who carried a full load featuring virtually every West Midlands bus enthusiast that I knew! Once back at the Garage, the time honoured ritual of pulling a bus into Garage manually, (usually occurring when a driver retired, with his colleagues manually pulling his bus into Garage with a tow rope) was enacted with 7000, and I had the honour of being one of those pulling the rope! Then, 7000 was officially handed over by then TWM Managing Director David Leeder to Mac Marshall of the Aston Manor Transport Museum, bringing proceedings to a close.

But that wasn’t the end of the day for me! After the event, all the Fleetlines were to be taken to Walsall, for storage in the former North Division Works next to Walsall Garage. John was allocated 6898 to take and he invited Steve and I along for the ride! So off we went, through the North Birmingham suburbs in the darkening winter evening, then heading into Walsall along the A34, then around the Walsall Ring Road to reach the Garage at Birchills. Already present in store was Open Top Fleetline 4069 and it was an eerie sight seeing today’s Fleetlines parked up alongside it! All but one, that is, as the oldest of todays operational Fleetlines, 1976 vintage 6477, had been chosen to take us all back to Washwood Heath! And so we all sat in a contemplative mood as we took one last ride on a Travel West Midlands owned Fleetline! An important part of my life had now come to an end!

But, true to form of many of these “final days” at the time (many other operators were retiring their first generation rear engine double deckers) the 1st November 1997 wasn’t quite the end! For a couple of Fleetlines, 6960 and 6965, were still allocated to Travel Merry Hill’s (the former Merry Hill Minibuses, which Travel West Midlands took over in 1995) Merry Hill base (soon to be transferred to the new Pensnett Garage) for Car Park Shuttle work, with the Fleetlines lasting into 1998.

The 26 would return full time around a year latter, allowing the 27 to latter return to it’s South Birmingham roots, following it’s split from the 35.

As for me, I would become a bus driver in January 1998, shifting my enthusiasm into a different realm, inside the industry that I had followed for so long. So a new era had dawned, one that had seen me say goodbye to my favourite bus type but also one that saw me taking a more active role in the bus industry.

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