On the buses: Rail Replacement

Mike Humble:

Some tales from a while ago during my stint behind the wheel when working on the buses…


Akin to Apocalypse Now – The Horror The Horror… the yellow sign of doom.

Now you would think that shovelling people onto buses would be a simple task – for most of the time it is. I used to work to a strict practice of what I called; The Three G Rule – gerrem on, gerrem there and lastly… gerrem off – its a simple policy that works for me anyway. Going back a good few years my favourite type of bus work was rail replacement duties whereby the aforementioned rule was enforced to the letter. Drivers of a slightly more softer nature find themselves breaking out into a cold sweat at the thought of rail duties, but for me I loved it and to a degree still do when asked to turn a wheel in times of crisis.

Most of the time rail replacement judders into effect upon major strike action or weekend / off peak engineering works. Its a straightforward affair – study the map, work to the highlighted bits of the timetable and crack on with it. A crash helmet and baseball bat are optional driver equipment if its London underground work of course, but for most of the time a stint of this kind of work passes without too much fuss. Some of the questions the public will ask you will make you think the worlds gone mad though – I was once asked by an elderly lady who clambered onto a coach where the meals would be served while another argued with me about her seat reservation… honest!

If you are not involved yourself, ask anyone who works in the public sector what its really like. Shop workers, bank clerks and so on will no doubt tell you of incidents that will have you almost disbelieving what you’ve just heard. Bus driving is a thankless task these days, get those lovely images of Stan and Jack in On The Buses leaning on the engine cover at the end of the number 11 route to the cemetery gates enjoying some light hearted mildly sexist banter and a crafty Woodbine out of your head – its not like that anymore. The bosses are bullies, the passengers are often rude or violent and quite often the routes have been timed by someone riding a motorbike with a stopwatch.

But when things go wrong… horribly wrong to the point, our Dunkirk spirit kicks in. This was shown to me just over sixteen years ago to the day following the awful event that was the Hatfield train accident – the event that was known in the industry as; the accident that shut down the railway on October the 17th 2000. A northbound GNER train was derailed after a section of curved track disintegrated under it at 115mph. The whole rail network effectively went into meltdown as almost 2000 speed restrictions were immediately enforced nationwide and such was the scale and effect of such a huge engineering investigation, it forced Railtrack into bankruptcy.


A Class 91 plies its trade in Cambridgeshire in GNER days. The same class of traction left the tracks just south of Hatfield almost 16 years to the day sending the whole UK rail network into meltdown and chaos. Four died and over seventy were seriously injured.

Even though I had left bus work sometime earlier and was now back in the motor trade at this time, a close by neighbour and snooker partner worked as an operations manager of now long gone bus company. He was aware I held a PSV licence and used to call me or pop round to tempt me with some sneaky bus work on my days off. At the time of the aforementioned accident I was living in Bedfordshire and it was BIG news in every sense. The East Coast Main Line (ECML) and Midland Mainline (MML) both ran close by providing commuter links to London, South Yorkshire and much further beyond.

During the ECML track closure between the Stevenage and Peterborough stations as a direct result of the tragedy near Hatfield, buses and coaches were put on to provide a link between these two stopping points of Britain’s fastest mainline route. It was mayhem and chaos of the highest order as emergency timetables were drawn up and a motley crew of vehicles sourced from all over the east of England were draughted in to restore some kind of order to this part of the railway. Anyway, there I was one evening wiring in some dimmer switches when there was a knock on the door – the kind of knock that comes moments before a favour is asked, you know the sort.

There stood Barry my bus operator neighbour, inviting him inside he asked me if I could do a couple of shifts behind the wheel – he’d rightly presumed I was available as he noticed seen my car parked outside when normally I had been at work during the daytime. Having recently moved house, I had taken some holiday to help put the new place in order, I knew the girlfriend at that time would be somewhat unimpressed with me dropping my screwdrivers and tools to go driving buses – but money was money. Bright and earlyish next morning I arrived at the depot for emergency rail replacement duties and Barry pointed at a long line of vehicles saying; take what you fancy.

There was some nice vehicles there on display including some nearly new coaches but I asked for an elderly but straight looking Leyland Olympian double decker – tactical of course as there would be no messing around with suitcases for starters. This was agreed but I was advised that it liked a drop of oil so a few gallons of lube were put into gallon bottles and stowed in a cubby under the staircase out of sight – passengers get jittery at the sight of a five gallon drum of oil tied to a seat stanchion with rope you see. After a chat, a quick smoke and a brew I was on my way to Stevenage to operate A.D (as directed) by the rail replacement supervisor on duty.


The Leyland Olympian with Eastern Coachworks body. My weapon of choice was similar to this Fylde Borough example.

Nothing could be simpler, drive from Stevenage to Peterborough station, throw everyone off and await your next turn of A.D duty. With it being a double deck bus the passengers would be hand picked for you ensuring no one had cases, large bags, bicycles, elephants, grand piano’s and so on – just fill up the bus and scarper. Barry was right though, that Olympian certainly did like a drop of oil which lead to a funny comment from a GNER old hand who was on duty. He rather sarcastically quipped; them old Deltics were two stroke as well you know as almost a gallon of oil was poured into the Gardner’s sump – and that was after just one journey!

The bus was well used but in good fettle despite its drinking problem. Its final drive gearing was that high its acceleration was somewhat leisurely, but on a flat stretch of the A1M the old dog would just about nudge sixty or so miles an hour. At that speed the wiper pantographs would flutter in the wind like butterfly wings and the steering wheel required more corrections than a five year olds nine times table as you battled to keep the damn thing in a straight line. The events up front in the cab were not much different to when Han Solo jumped light speed in his Millennium Falcon in that epic movie Star Wars… in fact I’m sure I muttered to myself once or twice; you better hold on to your hat kid.

The passengers were quiet and slightly solemn. Everyone knew this service was provided in the face of a tragic yet avoidable accident and the rail staff were putting on a brave face about it too. In fact the esprit de corps shown by all the railway folk was nothing short of admirable and quite touching – we really do puff out our chests and put our shoulders to the wheel when things go really wrong I think. But sometimes something… or rather someone comes along to really push and test everyone’s patience. One such person indeed came along moments before my final departure from Peterborough to Stevenage in the early evening.

Awaiting for the off, I was stood round the offside of the bus chatting with a platform staff member about this and that when we overheard and argument building momentum around the other side. There stood a supervisor and a smart dressed city looking gent getting into a full swing session of a battle of words. The man was demanding why he was having to share a seat on bus with the masses when he possessed a first class season ticket. Not only that but he was also extremely upset about there being no refreshments on offer to the passengers once on board. We eventually shepherded him onto the bus whereby he then came out with one of the daftest things I’ve ever heard.


Leyland boffins ponder over how to extract 125mph from a bus chassis. I wouldn’t bother lads… it `aint gonna happen!

Staring at his GNER timetable he asked me if the journey time would still be taking around 30 minutes as the timetable depicted. Now bear in mind reader that the distance by road between these two exact points is around 60 miles. The train manages to do this journey point to point in half an hour for two differing reasons. Firstly – the distance is somewhat shorter as the line is almost as the crow flies. Secondly – a diesel high speed train with some 4500bhp of Valenta power or an electric class 91 locomotive with almost 6500 rattles along at over two miles per minute – hardly comparable to the 180bhp Gardner diesel in an elderly double deck bus.

Eventually, the moaning chap sits down where he then proceeds to bore the life out of the passenger sitting next to him about his inconveniences – what happened next was another example of public spirit in the face of adversity. Another chap who was sitting nearby quietly reading his paper became embroiled. He folded up said news material and mentioned across to the complaining city dweller that one of his work colleagues was in fact in hospital with serious life changing injuries sustained from that very same train crash. It was suggested he best keep quiet and show some consideration for others, otherwise his briefcase would be firmly shoved… well I’m sure you get the idea don’t you?

After a smattering of applause from the other passengers, the moaning Minnie duly went salmon pink – and kept quiet.

Sometimes the public can make you want to weep… but sometimes they are tears of pride!

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