Ralph Bennett: His Life in the Company of Buses

Our tribute to the man who revolutionised modern bus operation

1001 Leyland Atlantean HVM 901F (Mancunian style, Ralph Bennett, 1968), Manchester City Transport
For many bus enthusiasts and Mancunians of a certain age, Leyland Atlantean 1001 is Ralph Bennett’s best known legacy.

Cast your mind back to 1968: Greater Manchester’s bus network was on the verge of radical change. In a year’s time, the greens and creams of Salford Corporation and SHMD Joint Board, and the reds and creams of Manchester and Stockport corporations’ undertakings would be replaced by SELNEC’s neutral livery. Its 3 million inhabitants would soon receive modern buses in an orange and white livery.

A lot of the groundwork was set by much revered general managers prior to then. The smart green ad-free buses on the 97 were the hallmark of Charles Baroth; Geoffrey Hilditch would be successful on both sides of the Pennines; Harry Taylor would bring Oldham’s buses towards “the white heat of technology” in pommard and Devon cream.

Manchester Corporation, whose previous general managers included Stuart Pilcher and Albert Neal would usher in the mid 1960s with a fellow who helped to modernise Bolton’s buses. Taking over in 1965 was Ralph Bennett.

Ralph Featherstone Bennett

Born Plymouth 03 December 1923, died 10 November 2015, aged 91.

  • 1934 – 1940: Educated at Plympton Grammar School;
  • 1940s: Qualified as Mechanical Engineer whilst attending a sandwich course;
  • Early 1950s: Technical Assistant, Plymouth City Transport;
  • 1954: Management Trainee, Michelin;
  • 1955: Deputy Manager, Plymouth City Transport;
  • 1958: General Manager, Great Yarmouth Corporation Transport Department;
  • 1960: General Manager, Bolton Corporation Transport Department;
  • 1965: General Manager, Manchester Corporation Transport Department;
  • 1968: Board Member, London Passenger Transport Board;
  • 1970 – 78:  Deputy Chairman and Managing Director (Buses), London Passenger Transport Board;
  • 1977 – 78: President, Confederation of Road Passenger Transport;
  • 1978 – 1980: Chairman, London Passenger Transport Board.

Ralph Featherstone Bennett was born in Plymouth on the 03 December 1923, a Monday. That week saw the Liberals fighting for their political lives which ended in defeat in Thursday’s General Election. The issues of Tariff Reform and Protectionism resulted in a win for Stanley Baldwin’s Conservative party. Even so, the biggest impact came from a 23 year-old left-wing party: Labour, who would win the following year’s election.

His family had a builders’ merchants in Plymouth but it was Ralph’s passion for engineering which led to his career path.

He was educated at Plympton Grammar School from where he became an articled pupil to Clement Jackson, the then General Manager of Plymouth City Transport. Founded in 1658, Plympton Grammar School’s previous alumni include Reverend John “Jack” Russell, of the eponymous small yet stocky Fox Terrier derived dog breed fame. His former school turned into a comprehensive in 1983 and changed its name to Hele’s School. It now has Academy status.

Whilst as an articled pupil for Mr. Jackson, he got a good grounding into the engineering and operations side. He qualified as a Mechanical Engineer on completing a sandwich course. Afterwards he became a Technical Assistant, investigating problems on the operational side. With his future career path made, he married Delia Baxter in 1948 and had two sons and two daughters.

The Making of a Manager

In 1954, he became a Management Trainee for Michelin. This gave him some private sector experience. A year on, he returned to Plymouth City Transport where he became Deputy Manager. His mentor Clement Jackson passed away with former deputy John Timpson promoted from within.

Among his first acts was a change of livery. Instead of their traditional maroon, Messrs. Bennett and Timpson opted for red and cream (with cream along the cantrail of the bottom deck). Its brighter look was consistent with the city’s post-War recovery, where bombing raids necessitated comprehensive redevelopment in the 1950s. There was also a joint operating agreement with Western National, opening up Plymouth City Transport’s network to newly built housing estates. Its fleet ensured that no buses on the streets of Plymouth would be older than 15 years old.

In 1958, Mr. Bennett yearned for another coastal challenge. This time, he turned his attention to Great Yarmouth. His arrival on Caister Road eased the municipal operator towards one-man operated single decker buses. Mainly AEC Swifts and Albion Nimbuses, which were good for negotiating short distance local routes. Inspired by the Plymouth livery, Great Yarmouth’s buses went for cream around the lower deck windows with the rest of the buses in blue.

Though the AEC buses were good campaigners from Barrack Estate to Caister, the Albion Nimbuses had a less successful run. Great Yarmouth Corporation Transport was also an early operator of the Leyland Atlantean. In later years, they would order single decker versions of the said bus, best known in double deck form. Alongside Leylands, AEC vehicles would be the main bus builder of choice well in to the 1970s.

Visionary

Two Bolton Leyland Atlanteans
Whilst at Bolton Corporation’s Transport Department, his introduction of rear-engined buses would set the pace for the Mancunian style Leyland Atlanteans and Daimler Fleetlines later on in the 1960s.

In 1960, Ralph left Great Yarmouth for the role of General Manager at Bolton Corporation’s Transport Department. Taking his place at Caister Road was another visionary: Geoffrey Hilditch. Born in Disley, Cheshire, he became Britain’s youngest General Manager in the bus industry, at 33 years of age.

Though his changes at Great Yarmouth and Plymouth saw Mr. Bennett leave on good terms, there was one change that didn’t go down well with Boltonians: the livery.

Traditionally, Bolton’s buses had been in maroon and cream with greater emphasis on the former colour. His Plymouth style red and cream livery didn’t go down well with its travelling public; probably owing to its similarities with Ribble Motor Services’ vehicles. Eventually, he ditched the red and cream, but his expression of the traditional maroon and cream would be striking.

1963 saw the arrival of Bolton Corporation’s first rear engined double deckers. Bodied by East Lancashire and inspired by Metro Cammell’s style, the Leyland Atlanteans reached Bolton two years later. His version of the maroon and cream made for a striking yet well received style with clean lines. Bolton Corporation Transport Department – then renamed Bolton Transport – saw out the second half of the 1960s in style.

Subsequent versions of Bennett’s style of Bolton bus included curved single part windscreens. Colour coded destination indicators was another design feature of its newly adopted three aperture front indicators. Another feature, for enhanced natural light on the top was a translucent roof. Later deliveries, making their way to SELNEC’s order books, saw the implementation of their standard three aperture display and longer windows.

The best was yet to come, on the southern side of the 8 service via Pendlebury.

After being headhunted by the Department of Transport headed by Barbara Castle, Albert Neal’s departure from Manchester Corporation Transport Department left an empty chair at 2, Devonshire Street North. 1965 saw Ralph becoming General Manager and his three year stint was nothing short of unbelievable.

“What Manchester does today…”

Manchester Corporation Transport Department, 1965: Britain’s second largest bus operator; the largest outside London; and a mix of early rear engined and front engined buses. The mission: pretty tough; one where the first half of the 1960s saw falling passenger numbers and competition with the motor car. A network with longer mileage owing to the construction of overspill estates outside Manchester Corporation’s boundaries.

Even so, there was scope for innovation; it had been intertwined with the history of MCTD since the beginning, most notably with its trolleybuses and extensive tram network under Stuart Pilcher’s guidance. Within a year, the cobwebs were dusted off with a new look. Manchester Corporation’s buses would come under the name of Manchester City Transport. Sans serif text – particularly the Univers typeface – would be seen on its buses, publicity materials and advertising. 1965 saw Modernist design coming to Hyde Road.

Another boost was the legalisation of one-man-operated double decker buses by the Labour government. This cleared the way for Ralph Bennett’s next idea: a new standard one-man-operated double decker bus for Manchester’s bus users. To allow fast boarding times, fareboxes were introduced with fares known as Minimax fares.

By November 1965, an order was placed for 96 Park Royal bodied buses, done to what is known as the Mancunian style. With the cooperation of fellow colleague Ken Mortimer, MCT’s Industrial Designer, and Park Royal, he worked on the aesthetic side. Its main features included dual door access, a translucent roof, and space for 23 standing passengers. A new version of the Manchester Corporation livery was introduced with more white and a thick red band over the lower deck windows. They entered service in September 1967.

Some buses would include automatic ticket machines with turnstile access on the bottom deck. The MCT Autoslot system was fitted to Leyland Panther 123, this to cut dwelling times. Other experiments included three fare levels: different sets of fares for conductor operated services; fareboxes; and Minimax flat fares. In the end, MCT settled for the Johnson Farebox in 1969, a year after Ralph’s departure for the London Passenger Transport Board.

The Mancunian style double deckers were a great success for Manchester City Transport. MCT’s state-of-the-art double deckers were showcased in public events held in the city centre. Buses from other municipalities were also hired out and passengers were invited to review the Mancunian style buses. The initial 96 arrived arrived in 1968 with 1001 – 1048 being Leyland Atlanteans, and 2001 – 2048 being Daimler Fleetlines.

Subsequent orders of Manchester’s iconic double deckers continued to reach Manchester City Transport garages till 1972. Further examples, both dual sourced with Fleetlines and Atlanteans, were bodied by East Lancashire (1131 – 1154), Metro Cammell (2151 – 2210) and Roe (2271 – 2304). The Roe bodied Fleetlines and the 1970 Park Royal Atlanteans were originally going to be bodied by East Lancashire, but a fire at their factory in Blackburn necessitated their transfer.

The Mancunian style of Leyland Atlantean was also chosen for Salford City Transport’s final order of double deckers. 20 of them entered service with SELNEC, though retained Salfordian interior trims.

Ralph Bennett’s and Ken Mortimer’s development of the Mancunian style double decker would evolve into the SELNEC/Greater Manchester Transport standard double decker bus. After Ralph’s departure for London in 1968, Mortimer and former Oldham Corporation Transport Department General Manager Harry Taylor, would develop the next wave of iconic double deckers. Ralph’s legacy would be seen well in to the noughties with the last iteration being Northern Counties’ Palatine II style body, seen on the Volvo Olympian.

Maybe it’s because he made the Londoner…

In 1968, Ralph Bennett left Manchester City Transport on a high with his deputy Jack Thompson promoted from within. He was headhunted by Richard Marsh to join the board of the London Transport Executive. Two years after, following Anthony Bull’s retirement, he became LPTB Deputy Chairman and the Managing Director of LTE’s Buses division.

His challenge was considerably tougher given its more national spotlight and politically charged atmosphere. In 1971, his experience with Bolton’s Atlanteans and the Mancunian style double deckers would spawn the Londoner. Whereas he had a blank canvas at MCT, there was little flexibility in the capital. Using the Daimler Fleetline chassis – known as DMS in the LT fleet – it was London’s first purpose-built OMO double decker bus.

As with previous works, all the hallmarks of a Ralph Bennett bus were there: dual doors; the bustle between rear engine and upper deck overhang. Passengers could pay the driver or use of an automatic ticket machine. The latter was entered on the right hand side though more passengers preferred to pay the driver.

What the DMS had in capacity over the AEC Regents and AEC Routemasters, it lost in loading times. Later models from 1974 to 1976 had yellow entrance doors. In 1974, the right side of the entrance was painted in yellow to highlight the merits of self-service ticketing. Even with extra publicity, the self-service machines were ditched. Some DMSs would be converted to allow conductor operation as well as one-man operation.

The first DMS entered service on the 02 January 1971 on the 220 service from Tooting to Harlesden. This was hitherto worked by AEC Routemasters. In 1974, they replaced AEC Merlin single deckers, mirroring the Mancunian style buses’ usurping of Leyland Panthers seven years earlier.

London’s last DMS arrived in August 1978. This was the B20 subclass of DMS introduced in 1977 which had better noise insulation, courtesy of two cowls above the engine. Instead of being a replacement for the RMs and RTs, the DMSs were gradually withdrawn from London. From 1979 onwards, their days were numbered when the LPTB ordered Leyland Titans and MCW Metrobuses. Getting a reprieve was LPTB’s AEC Routemasters.

Sadly, Ralph’s stint at London Transport Executive is associated with the DMS double deckers. Less known is his backing for the construction of the Jubilee Line which opened in 1979. Another project under his watch was the extension of the Piccadilly line to Heathrow Airport. Today, no major city worth its salt lacks direct rail or metro connections.

In 1977, he became president of the Confederation of Road Passenger Transport. The year after would see Ralph become the Chairman of London Passenger Transport Board, a position he held for two years.

His stint at Britain’s largest bus undertaking was cut short by the appointment of Leslie Chapman to the LT Board. In what was effectively a coup, Mr. Chapman sent to a memo to GLC Leader Sir Horace Cutler (Conservative) about alleged excesses at LTE. It was claimed that LT spent considerable amounts on 26 chauffeured limousines and free dining. Horace sent for Deloitte and gave LT two months to make savings of £50 million.

After a further report from P.A. Consulting, London Transport Executive’s business practices were criticised, so Horace Cutler dismissed Ralph on the 24 July 1980. Chapman followed shortly afterwards.

By 1981, the state of London’s public transport network was more politically charged than in 1968, when Ralph joined the LT Board. September of that year saw a Labour-ran GLC headed by Ken Livingstone, with a pledge to cut the cost of commuting.

But, the Conservative-ran London Borough of Bromley wasn’t having any of Ken’s Fares Fair scheme and made a legal challenge. At first they lost their case with the GLC. Then they appealed to the House of Lords and, thanks largely to Lord Denning, won their case. LTE’s chance to drive down the cost of commuting was declared illegal.

Ralph’s legacy

35 years after Ralph’s departure from 55 Broadway, Mr Bennett’s legacy can still be seen in today’s transport industry. One of his former colleagues at LT worked with London Mayors Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson, as Commissioner of Transport for London. His name, Peter Hendy. 45 years after joining London Transport as a graduate trainee, he became the head of Network Rail. Among his main projects is the Northern Hub scheme, recently paused and reinstated.

Some of the ideas pioneered by Mr. Bennett and his contemporaries are still in use today, albeit in electronic forms. The flat fares implemented as Minimax in Manchester, and within LT’s automatic ticket machines, manifest themselves on stored purchase travel cards. Most famously London’s Oyster Card; also in Merseytravel PTE’s Walrus Card and NEXUS PTE’s Pop Card. By the end of this year, Greater Manchester will follow suit with GetMeThere.

What about the buses? We have Ralph Bennett and Ken Mortimer to thank for the development of modern day double decker buses. The honest box shape was perpetuated on modern day buses till the noughties saw the resurgence of domes and peaks. With the exception of low floors and trolley bays, the basic design of our double deckers have changed little. Though translucent roofs have disappeared from view, today’s equivalents on the most important services boast WiFi and leather coach style seats.

As in 1974, long loading times dog today’s passengers. It is fair to say that loading times have lengthened thanks to ‘bought on the bus’ season tickets, though online ticketing with smartphones will change that. This is exacerbated by the maintenance of staged fares in most parts of Britain. Bennett believed in flat fares for one person operated services, a view shared by Peter Bland on the 1 and 3 Ashton Circular services in 1968.

Today’s transport planners would be foolhardy to rule out a surface metro or underground railway to any principal airport. Under Ralph Bennett’s chairmanship, the westerly part of the Piccadilly line was extended from Hatton Cross to Heathrow Airport. In 1986 – six years after his tenure – it was extended to cover Terminal 4. A spur for Terminal 5 opened in 2008. To some extent, we should thank him for the rise of heavy and light rail services to our airports (though 1984’s introduction of the Gatwick Express was just as influential).

In today’s world of deregulated bus operations and talk of greater local control, who could be the next Ralph Bennett? The world he entered into, along with Ken Mortimer, Geoffrey Hilditch, Harry Taylor et al was different to the one of today’s. One where car ownership was few and far between; one of ascendant municipal enterprise.

Unlike 2016, towns and cities were dependent on one or more major industries instead of a cluster of small businesses. With larger premises (like Mather and Platt’s works in Newton Heath), this meant hundred or thousands of employees changing shifts at similar times. Best placed to ferry its workers to and from surrounding areas? Double decker buses of course. Regular hours also guaranteed patronage and works contracts were a good revenue stream for private and public sector operations.

Today, bus patronage is stymied by congestion, and an inconsistent product varying according to town or district within a single operator’s territory. With WiFi and charging points on modern day buses, and the price of car insurance, the future of bus travel lies with our milliennials. Whom, in one survey, would rather be using their smartphones on a bus instead of driving to and from work.

Though the New Bus For London and leather seats on some routes have added some sexiness and interest to the bus scene, we need another Ralph Bennett to ensure today’s benefits enrich many more passengers. The case for innovation and intuitive fare structures, as well as getting the basics right, will appeal to both new and seasoned passengers. As proven throughout his life, there is more to successful bus operation than making sure the services run to time.

S.V., 07 January 2016.

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