Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Blackpool's Nationals

One of Blackpool's four mark 2 Nationals, 544 poses at Midgeland Road terminus on route 3A.

The Leyland National was an iconic bus of the 1970s. Intended to replace the Leyland Panther, AEC Swift and Bristol RE single deckers in the British Leyland stable it was built by a joint venture with the National Bus Company at a purpose built factory in Workington. Not surprisingly NBC firms snapped up many, with Ribble buying some of the first in 1972 with many of this batch based at Fleetwood. The type was less popular with municipals who tended to be quite traditional and loyal in their vehicle procurement and in many cases quite conservative. In some quarters the National has a poor reputation - probably because it was innovative and different thus requiring different working practises to operate and maintain it effectively. Elsewhere it was extremely popular and one of the main tools of deregulation for smaller bus fleets - some of who seemed to cope with them much better than the bigger NBC fleets!

As noted Ribble introduced Nationals onto the Fylde from Fleetwood in 1972 and followed this with examples from Blackpool. It had a large fleet across the North West and inherited examples from Cumberland after Stagecoach took over in 1989. The last Ribble Nationals ran in 2001 and were transferred to Lancashire United when Stagecoach sold the East Lancashire operations to Blazefield. The last new to Ribble example was 831 (DBV831W) which ran into Blackpool regularly on the linked 109/158 Chorley - Preston - Blackpool route in its latter years. It is now preserved as part of the RVPT collection alongside examples from the 1972 batch.

Blackpool Corporation was one of the more traditional municipals, still buying Leyland Titan PD3s in 1968 long after most had moved onto rear engined buses. Its first 'standee' OPO single deckers arrived the following year (again later than most) and somewhat surprisingly were AEC Swifts rather than Leyland's similar Panther. This was probably because it was the lowest bid in the tendering process. Blackpool inspected an early National but continued with the Swift. Its final batch of 30 (566-595) was ordered in 1973 and again subjected to a competitive tender process. The bids were:

Seddon RU - £10,845
AEC Swift with Marshall body - £11,038
Leyland National - £11,510.50
AEC Swift with Willowbrook body - £12,147
Metro Scania - £12,774.05

Although the RU was the cheapest, Blackpool was able to use the economies of scale argument to accept the slightly higher Swift/Marshall combination. For good measure it rejected the floor layout of the Seddon RU as "unsuitable" and recorded that the National and Metro Scania were deemed "not toBlackpool's specification in numerous ways". So a fleet of 55 Swifts was built up and followed by 64 Atlantean double deckers. In 1982 four single deckers were ordered and the tendering process through up one its more fascinating outcomes. Four of the new Dennis Lancet high floor chassis were ordered with Marshall body and Perkins engines unlike anything seen before or since - probably with more in common with the municipal dust cart or fire engine than anything else.

For the next four replacements for early Swifts, Blackpool finally succumbed to the charms of the National. In 1980 the Mark 2 had been launched and Leyland supplied a stream of demonstrators with WRN413V in November 1980 followed by GCK430W in March 1981 and EWM630Y in April 1983. A fourth demonstrator later arrived in the shape of KEP829X which ran in 1988 to demonstrate the kneeling suspension concept.

Fishwicks 10 WRN413V was used by Leyland as a demonstrator when new an spent a while with Blackpool. It poses at the deserted South Pier terminus of route 26 on a damp Friday evening in November 1980

Four National 2s were duly ordered and arrived in late June 1984 and entered service on 6th and 7th July. They were numbered 541-544 (A541-4PCW) and carried a stylish variation of the standard livery with a green skirt added to the green roof and waistband on an off-white base. A nice touch was the application of a small Corporation crest on the front plate normally used for NBC logos. Somewhat surprisingly they featured Gardner engines, quite common in Mark 2 Nationals but unique in the Blackpool fleet at the time.

Little Marton Mill, shorn of one of its sails, belies the suburban setting of Mereside estate with 542 in original livery heading for the terminus of route 3.

A second batch of four was ordered but cancelled due to the threat of deregulation. These are believed to have become part of six C-reg examples for Brighton & Hove. Instead Blackpool entered the second hand market - its purchase of six Routemasters in 1986 after a trail grabbing the headlines more so than its purchase of four National 1s. Crosville GMB387T spent several weeks on hire in November and December 1985. Crosville had adopted a programme of fitting Gardner engines to its Nationals to replace the original fixed head Leyland O.510. After the demonstration it supplied four from its own fleet, suitably modified for Blackpool at a cost of £24,100 each. They arrived in February 1986 in all-over grey primer and were repainted into fleet livery by Blackpool becoming 545-548 (CFM345/7S, KMA399T and LMA413T) and entering service in March and April 1986.

541 was the only National to carry an all-over advert (Agri Electrics)

With eight Nationals and four Lancets the AEC Swift fleet had declined to 16 examples at the start of 1987. It was decided to acquire further Nationals to replace the remainder and Strathclyde Buses made available 11 of its batch of 20 eight year old examples. These arrived between November 1987 and January 1988 and were repainted by Blackpool into the new livery of cream with green roof and skirt. Minibuses had taken over the single deck series so these were simply numbered to match their registrations as 156, 158, 161, 162, 164-167, 170, 172, 174 (GGE156T etc) they entered service between December and February 1988 with the last Swifts retired in the latter month. It was then decided to renumber the earlier Nationals to 141-148 and this took place in April 1988.
541 had pioneered the new livery in November 1987 having carried an all-over advert for Agri Electrics since December 1985. 148 followed in September 1988 after a six month long accident repair process whist the others were all treated during 1989.
The second hand Nationals were only a stop gap and were replaced by Optare Deltas with 145-148 taken out of use in March 1990, three and leaving in May for Norfolk of Nayland and one to Docherty of Irvine in June. 156-174 lasted until December 1990 to February 1991, passing on-mass to Southend Transport. The standardisation on Deltas also saw off the National 2s replaced at a young seven years of age in May 1991 and snapped up by eager collector of National 2s - Caldaire North East (United and Tees & District).
During their life in Blackpool the Nationals saw use on most single deck routes. Post deregulation saw extensive use on tendered services including 180/2 (Poulton-Preston), the short lived 165 (Preston-Lytham), the Kirkham Roamer (7) and the 192 (Blackpool-Kirkham). The also competed with Fylde on the 193 (St. Annes to Wesham).