Duffers’ Guide to Bus Operations #14: Lowbridge Buses

The even longer awaited fourteenth part of our informal look at bus operations For beginners.

Once upon a time, quite some time ago, a certain Robert Stephenson created the world’s first true inter-city railway line. By September 1830, it carried its first passengers and goods between Liverpool and Manchester city centres. Today, Liverpool Lime Street is the world’s oldest railway terminus in continuous use. Liverpool Road station, in Manchester, is part of the Science Museum Group as Manchester’s Science and Industry Museum.

On reading the previous paragraph, you may be asking yourself, “What has this got to be do with buses?” Quite a bit, because not all railway bridges are sixteen feet or higher above our roads, bridleways, canals, footpaths and rivers. Our earlier road bridges were designed for horses and carts, never mind state-of-the-art electric cars. Or double decker buses.

The average UK double decker bus is about 15′ high, or 14′ 6″. A bridge that is sixteen feet high offers little clearance, especially if the bus breaks down. This problem could be rectified by single decker vehicles, or by low height double decker buses.

Lowbridge buses

With bus operators wanting to avoid taking a bus out of service due to a bridge strike, Leyland introduced and patented a lowbridge design in 1927. This was used on the TD1 chassis with Glasgow Corporation among its earliest adopters.

On a regular double decker bus, the top deck has a 2+2 seating layout with a five-seat bench at the back of the bus. With the lowbridge design, the two seats on either side of the gangway are moved to the left hand side of the bus. Therefore, the top deck has four seats across and a gangway on the right hand side as you take your position.

As lowbridge buses of that ilk predated later crew-operated buses with front and centre doors, the stairs were at the rear, on the platform. The back seat would normally have room for three passengers.

There was two major disadvantages with this kind of bus. Firstly, imagine you chose the window seat when you got on at Stalybridge. You want to get off at The Listons, but the three passengers next to you want to go to Marple. After a polite “excuse me…”, you try to leave the bus without standing on your fellow passengers’ toes.

If in this earlier scenario you are a bony 4′ 6″ ten-year-old, imagine if you’re a not-so-bony forty-year-old that has finished a shift at Futura. A 6′ 6″ one built like the proverbial you-know-what-you-once-saw beside Stanley Square. Firstly, your size 11s would make your Marple-bound fellows writhe with pain. Then you need to bend down to avoid banging your head on the roof (ouch!).

A taller passenger, like the person described previously, would take a seat downstairs. The lower deck was at a more normal height than the top deck. Then again, if he or she wanted to smoke a cigarette, our passenger would have had to go upstairs.

Some of our older readers would have been able to guess which bus route we were referring to, and as to who the operator was at the time. If you guessed the ’90’ and ‘North Western Road Car Company’ (don’t forget the ‘Road Car Company’, that is important!), give yourself a gold star. As featured in our photograph, NWRCC operated a fair few lowbridge double deckers – most notably the Bristol K5G.

The most common type of lowbridge bus chassis design was Bristol’s K series of double decker buses. They were first manufactured in 1936 and this design was superseded by the KS and KSW chassis. The Leyland PD2s were also available in lowbridge and highbridge forms. Typically, lowbridge buses were a foot lower than their standard height equivalents.

Lowbridge bus models

  • AEC Regent III;
  • Bristol K5G;
  • Bristol KS/KSW;
  • Leyland TD1;
  • Leyland PD2.

Enter the low height chassis

With the lowbridge bus chassis unpopular with taller passengers and increasingly obsolescent, there was one technological breakthrough that rendered the lowbridge bus obsolete: the low height chassis.

The low height chassis meant modern-day low height double decker buses could have the standard 2+2 seating layouts on both decks. Enter the Bristol Lodekka, so-called due to its low height credentials (Lodekka being a pun on ‘low decker’). What was interesting was that the first Lodekkas were built when lowbridge buses were still a thing. The first examples were manufactured in 1949 and Bristol made them until 1968. Many of which saw revenue-earning service well in to the 1980s.

There was one caveat with the Bristol Lodekka: it wasn’t available to operators outside of government-owned transport undertakings. Instead, Dennis in Guildford manufactured the Loline – a version of the Lodekka built under licence for private sector bus operators. These were manufactured from 1958 to 1962 and once again in 1966.

When the last Bristol Lodekkas were manufactured, the last ever lowbridge bus was built in 1968 for Bedwas and Machen Urban District Council. This was a Leyland PD3 with bodywork by Massey of Wigan, registered PAX 466F. Combining both the lowbridge style and low height chassis work is 861 HAL, a Northern Counties bodied Dennis Loline operated by Barton Transport (12′ 6″). Both buses have been preserved.

Towards the 1970s and 1980s

Thanks to low height chassis design, the Lodekka’s arrival paved the way for lowbridge one-person-operated double decker buses. This was made possible by the arrival of the Bristol VR, which helped to make OPO the norm far and wide. Once again, it was adopted by many public sector transport undertakings, being the bread and butter of National Bus Company operations from Berwick-upon-Tweed to Bude.

Soon, the VR was adopted by private sector operators – most notably Mayne of Manchester, who purchased dual-purpose ones. Many of the VRs were bodied by Eastern Coach Works in Lowestoft, though some were bodied by Alexander (Tayside Regional Transport), Northern Counties (Reading Borough Transport) and East Lancashire (Merseyside PTE).

By 1980, the Bristol VR would be retired and replaced by the Leyland Olympian. Like the VR before then, the ECW bodied ones were ubiquitous throughout NBC’s operations. Some of which stayed in service till the 21st Century.

Variations on a Seating Layout (arr. Ley Land)

It is also worth noting that some of the low height double deckers had subtle differences in seating layouts. Some of the early low height Leyland Atlanteans had lowbridge-style seating near the back of the top deck. For most of the top deck, seating was in 2+2 style with a five-seater back seat and two rows of four-seater seats from the offside window. This was to accommodate two banks of three-seater traverse seats over the rear wheels on the lower deck.

Also, if you are familiar with the Eastern Coach Works bodied Bristol VRs and Leyland Olympians, the front seats upstairs have a 1+3 layout. The three-seater seat is in front of the partition of the stairwell. Beside the stairs are two single seats. Once behind the stairwell, the seats are in the usual 2+2 layout. Downstairs, we see a three-seat traverse seat over the nearside front wheel. On a Northern Counties bodied GMT Standard Leyland Olympian, there would be a single seat and luggage space. The Eastern Coach Works bodied Olympians have luggage storage underneath the stairs.

One more thing… Low Bridge or Lowbridge?

The correct spelling, in relation to the bus itself is ‘lowbridge’. In relation to a low bridge, it is ‘low bridge’ as seen in this sentence, “The Bristol Lodekka has a low height chassis, which means the bus can go through low bridges.” Therefore, “Bower Lane used to have a lowbridge before the M60 was built” has the incorrect spelling compared with “Bower Lane used to have a low bridge before the M60 was built”. Oh, and before you ask, Bower Lane is an extension of Hollinwood Avenue and has been since September 2000.

S.V., 27 February 2021.

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