When Routemasters Ruled the Wilmslow Road Corridor

A look back at GM Buses’ Piccadilly Line

Once upon a time, not so long ago, the Wilmslow Road and Palatine Road corridors were awash with the colours of numerous bus operators. Many of which were trying to compete with the main company which was GM Buses, later GMS Buses and now Stagecoach in Manchester. They included local coach operators like Walls and Finglands. Former National Bus Company subsidiaries like Ribble would join in. Then there was the Bee Line Buzz Company’s minibuses, and low cost independents with secondhand buses like UK North.

With most of Manchester’s undergraduates in halls of residences or houses along that part of South Manchester, the bus could be depended upon as a cheap way to stretch their student grant or miserable part-time wage. Some would compete on quality rather than price. Some would compete with nostalgia in mind.

25 years ago this week, Greater Manchester Buses’ response was a vehicle used by Stagecoach’s co-founder on the first day of deregulation (albeit collecting fares whilst dressed as a rabbit). Today, the man once seen in the rabbit suit had the last laugh with his company having a virtual monopoly on the Wilmslow Road corridor.

For many, this vehicle would become a hackneyed reference point for preserved buses in general. One which was a most important weapon in the early years of bus deregulation. A bus which epitomised London as much as jellied eels, Chas ‘n’ Dave, Ray Winstone and Reg Varney.

I am referring to the AEC Routemaster.

From Central Road to Parker Street

After the start of bus deregulation, operators outside London purchased surplus AEC Routemasters with the onus of bringing back The Good Old Days of Bus Travel. That of conductors, comfortable seats and open platforms. GM Buses were among a number of operators which adopted Routemasters, but they had a historical link; Manchester Corporation hired RM1414 (414 CLT) for the 41, 42 and 43 routes in 1963. Therefore, the arrival of ten AEC Routemasters came 25 years after Manchester Corporation hired RM1414.

GM Buses, realising this, deployed its Routemasters on the 143 route from West Didsbury [Central Road] to Piccadilly. A version of the London Transport roundel was adapted with the horizontal line superimposed by a new version of the GM Buses logotype. Between decks, advertising was replaced by ‘Piccadilly Line’ route branding.

The journey between West Didsbury and Piccadilly was every bit as good as the modern GMT standard buses. They made light work of Wilmslow Road and the heavy passenger loads. The windows were good (being of the winding variety) and the best seats aboard were either behind the driver or left window downstairs. Or upstairs at the front (but less so in 1988 as it would have been another three years and three months before GM Buses prohibited smoking on all its vehicles).

I had the joy of not only seeing them in operation, but also that of boarding one in 1988. My old school (the dearly departed Ewing School) offered a grandstand view of the Central Road terminus. On some weekly outings with the school, we would use one of GM Buses’ services (never the competitors like Walls or Ribble though) to Manchester city centre. One outing to the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry involved one of the Routemasters. Though I loved my GMT standards, I found the AEC Routemasters a nice change from MCW Metrobuses every now and again.

Swansong and Reprise

In April 1990, GM Buses relinquished its Routemasters. Another company, a low-cost independent in the form of Mancunian Bus Co. would operate them a year after. They were an associate company of Midway and operated AEC Routemasters along the Wilmslow Road corridor till 1994. As well as the 143 route, they were also seen on the 42 route to East Didsbury.

Why Piccadilly Line, and was there also a Victoria Line?

As well as the London connection, pretty obvious as it stopped by Piccadilly Plaza. It picked up at the side nearest to today’s TESCO Express store, at a stand minus any cover besides the overhang of Piccadilly Plaza. It would reach West Didsbury, turning left onto Mosley Street, then left onto Princess Street before joining Wilmslow Road and Palatine Road via Whitworth Street, Oxford Street and Oxford Road.

The Victoria Line was the 46 and 47 circular routes via Chorlton-cum-Hardy and Didsbury. They started their route outside Manchester Victoria railway station and some buses were partially painted below the windscreen in royal blue.

Outside Greater Manchester

Besides GM Buses, NBC subsidiary Northern had operated AEC Routemasters prior to deregulation and purchased theirs from new. This also spawned the ill-advised Tynesider variant which was a botched attempt at adapting the Routemasters for One Person Operation.

Since deregulation, other operators of AEC Routemasters have included:

  • Mansfield and District: spun off from former NBC subsidiary Midland General, theirs had a smart green and white livery which was modern yet non-intrusive and sympathetic to the lines of the vehicle;
  • Reading Transport: entered service in 1994 with a smartly turned out version of the municipality’s standard livery;
  • Burnley and Pendle: shortly after the start of deregulation, the municipal operator ordered AEC Routemasters for key routes between Burnley and Colne. They were branded as ‘EastEnders’ with the programme’s logotype and buses being named after characters. Dirty Den could also be seen in Harle Syke as well as Walford!
  • Blackpool Transport: introduced in the mid 1980s for seafront services. Eschewing the green and ivory, they were tastefully painted in an ornate red and white livery.

Before I Go…

If like the author of this piece you remember seeing the Routemasters along Wilmslow Road, feel free to comment. Were you surprised to see a London bus instead of a GMT standard outside Cine City? Did you let the Olympians and Atlanteans pass in favour of one at Owens Park?

Ding ding…

S.V., 03 September 2013.

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16 thoughts on “When Routemasters Ruled the Wilmslow Road Corridor

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  1. Never saw them but I remember the leaflets and adverts. Have to say, I think the Victoria Line drew the short straw.

    Stagecoach in Cumbria ran a route this summer using a Routemaster – down Windermere.

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    1. Hi Leeds,

      I forgot about Morley’s finest [Black Prince] operating AEC Routemasters. That I recall wouldn’t be the only ex-LT vehicle seen in Leeds; they also had the dual (front and rear) door Volvo Ailsa V3.

      Adding to the list of other Routemaster operators, Great Yarmouth’s Flying Banana and the seaside resort’s First Eastern Counties depot. They were used on seafront services.

      Bye for now,

      Stuart.

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  2. I remember them well – although we referred to them as ‘RMs’, this being LT’s fleet number code for the Routemaster. From the passenger’s point of view they were definitely better than the GMT standard bus, with comfy seats and proper regard to boarding and alighting, but the drafts from the open rear platform were punishing. They were also very, very noisy. The Atlantean’s 680 or the Fleetline’s Gardner 6LXB were loud enough, but the RM out-bellowed them both. It’s curious that if you are in London today, you know when a Routemaster is coming up behind you, but you need to look backwards if you’re catching anything else – Enviro 400s are typical fare down there today, and they are positively quiet in comparison.
    RMs are, however, always seen through rose tinted spectacles. If a Leyland PD3 of similar vintage was to arrive at your stop, it’s highly unlikely you’d be pleased about it. Nothing wrong with the PD3 of course, but they lack that glowing coat of nostalgia which the public so liberally applies to the RM.
    I much preferred the Volvo B10Ms which Stagecoach introduced when they took over GM Buses South, the ones bodied by Alexander, not Northern Counties. Saw one of them in use in Northern Scotland last month so I hopped aboard for a ride – still a crackin’ good bus. I’d love to preserve one of these – but I’d have to paint it in North Western’s cream coaching livery. The B10M just seems to be the natural successor to North Western’s Y-Type Leopards. One of the was painted in North Western’s standard fleet livery of red & cream, but the cream coaching livery would just suit it that much better……..

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    1. Actually we now have a problem where any bus with an open platform is a “Routemaster”. This is a prime example: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/olympics/9423152/London-2012-Olympics-Routemaster-bus-doing-push-ups-stops-in-Islington.html

      Note how the article correctly identifies it as a Bristol. But whowever did the headline decided otherwise.

      Meanwhile a former Ribble Leyland Titan is now an unattended city shop.

      Posted by The Honesty Shop on Thursday, October 4, 2012

      Or, to some, a Routemaster.

      Of course here in London, that drafty open platform is seen as a panacea of all things great about buses, so much so that we have to have a brand new and utterly pointless bespoke built bus with one so that people can “hope on, hope off.”

      Except of course, Transport for London rules don’t allow you to hop on or off, and if you actually wanted to allow people to do that you could do so without a brand new bus by just getting the driver to open the doors!

      I do love an old Routemaster. I love the fact they’re still running in London on heritage routes. But certain (mainly Conservative) politicians are more interested in nostalgia. Come the Winter, the New Bus For London (which is not a Routemaster, no matter what some people tell you – even TfL don’t call it that) there’s going to be a lot of very cold people. And all because the Mayor of London is harking back to his childhood.

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      1. Hi Andrew,

        That too is a Bus Peeve of mine, often down to sloppy research. I can understand if journalists mistake a Dennis Loline for a Bristol Lodekka (subtle differences between the two), but to refer to a Leyland PD3 as a Routemaster is lazy. Nobody ever refers to an AEC Regent as a Routemaster. Or could it be something to do with it having a red livery? (As if other operators didn’t have red – see also Manchester Corporation, Midland Red, Warrington Borough Transport or Cumberland Motor Services).

        I cannot imagine the Mayor of London boarding a Routemaster in his childhood. The nostalgia over a windy platform must be misguided to some; surely, rising living standards and affordable motoring meant ‘hooray, no draughty buses’ to some people. Yet in what’s now today’s Greater Manchester Combined Authority, we were looking towards OMO and rear engines in the early 1960s (Ralph Bennett’s efforts in Bolton and Manchester for example). I could understand the nostalgia for conductors though not draughty open platforms.

        And, from what I’ve read, the NBfL seems to be hot in summer and possibly cold in winter. It’s a one trick pony which would offer no resale value outside London, and they will be a pain to convert for provincial operators. Outside TfL boundaries, we are all right with one set of doors and a single set of stairs.

        Needless to say, I’m guilty of nostalgic overtones. I would like every bus in Greater Manchester in GMT’s white, orange and brown complete with the M-blem. Even so, I would be happy with them being Enviro400s with an LED version of the GMT era three aperture front indicator and appropriate moquette.

        Bye for now,

        Stuart.

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      2. When I first moved to London in 1999, some routes in the burbs still had single doors. I remember one route dwell times massively decreased overnight when a contract change saw it go to two doors. There’s a route near me now that’s a midibus and even that’s now on two door operation.

        But two staircases? You can’t even get people in London to use one half the time. Top deck can be completely empty and still people won’t go up.

        I find it highly amusing when people passionately go on about New Bus for London having retail potential outside London, and abroad. They stand no chance. Those buses will live and die in London with just a handful ending up as tourist buses. The next mayor is likely at some point to start sealing the platform up permanently by locking the platform doors, and culling the “conductors” as they’re a waste of money (they don’t even check or sell tickets.)

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      3. Hi Andrew,

        Seconded on you regarding two staircases as an extravagance. You are looking at a loss of 4 – 6 seats (depending on the type of staircase design).

        Seconded several times over on the NBfL living and dying in London. NBfL is a design with short term vanity in mind whereas the AEC Routemaster and GMT standard double deckers saw useful second lives elsewhere. Chances are, the first preserved NBfL vehicles will be seen at Duxford and the like by 2030.

        Bye for now,

        Stuart.

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    2. Hi Paul,

      You couldn’t fault the swift boarding and the seats on the Routemaster. I prefer the original moquette to the later version, it made for a dignified look. The refurbished moquette of 1990s vintage always reminded me of some of the former London Volvo Olympians cascaded onto provincial fleets.

      Personally I place the Routemasters in my Top Ten favourite buses though some fellow enthusiasts I know give me a right ribbing over this.

      I agree with you on the Volvo B10M, especially the Stagecoach ones bodied by Alexander. They used to be a regular feature on their 220 route from Stalybridge to Manchester [Piccadilly Gardens]. For me, it was that model’s decent legroom, excellent ride quality, keen acceleration and the throaty engine noise. The best seat was always a few inches behind the rear wheel.

      With regards to the cream coaching livery, I’ll consider the idea of Photoshopping a Volvo B10M. (Possible addition to the SV Little Paint Shop of Horrors on my Flickr feed).

      Bye for now,

      Stuart.

      Like

  3. Hi Stuart

    Just remembered Routemasters were ran for a short time in Leeds by White Rose Buses back in the mid 90s. They ran on a route numbered 151 between Leeds, Castleford and Ferry Fryston via Garforth and Kippax.

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  4. Hi Stuart

    The biggest place for Routemaster’s in the privatisation era was of course Scotland with operations by Clydeside, Kelvin, Strathtay and Stagecoach and its Glasgow based subsidiary MagicBus (not connected to the one in Manchester, except by ownership). I remember travelling to Glasgow in 1986 and Kelvin, MagicBus and Clydeside where all operating regular Routemaster routes into the City Centre even prior to deregulation. The book by the former General Manager of Clydeside, George Watson called Clydeside Scottish, we tried to run a bus company but… tells the story of those operated by Clydeside. In all the Greater Glasgow area must of been home to about 120 ex London Routemasters at the time. Other fleets with Routemaster operations in England which haven’t yet been mentioned was Cumberland at Carlisle with 8 buses marketed as CMS Carlisle Bus and operations by United Counties in Bedford and Corby, also Gash of Newark was one of the independents that operated them along with Gagg of Bunny near Nottingham who had a single vehicle for a time.

    regards

    Giles

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    1. Hi Giles,

      Now I know why the Routemaster seems to be everyone’s impression of a crew operated bus. At one point they must have been as ubiquitous outside London as the GMT standards were outside Manchester.

      The Clydeside ones looked pretty handsome, with a well thought out red and yellow livery. It is also worth noting that the Halifax Joint Omnibus Committee (Mark II) began with AEC Routemasters, on a Sunday service from Hebden Bridge to Halifax.

      Bye for now,

      Stuart.

      Like

  5. Having had a chat to a friend regarding the White Rose Bus Company Routemasters, he tells me they were one element what contributed to the downfall of the company as many passengers rode for free when travelling up York Road. The conductor couldn’t get around everybody until later in the journey due to having the role of stopping the bus at frequent stops. He could only do a small number of passengers on the busier York Road section, usually busy because word got round people could ride for free. Thanks for the photo by the way, it’s one I haven’t seen before.

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    1. Hi Leeds,

      Glad you liked the photo I found and an interesting anecdote on the White Rose Bus Company.

      Just to confuse things further, there was another White Rose Bus Company formed in May 1997. They became part of Centrebus Yorkshire which, this week, along with four O-licences owned by them became a wholly owned subsidiary of Arriva.

      Bye for now,

      Stuart.

      Like

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