Sunday, 25 April 2010

Swift at 40

554 recreating its original route - 7 at Bispham Hotel

8 December 2009 marked the 40th anniversary of the introduction of one man operation at Blackpool. Or strictly the reintroduction - for buses in the 1920s were often one man operated and a during the 50s and early 60s bus route 18 was also OMO with two 1940 Tigers suitably converted.

However the new era of OMO operation was part of a nationwide cost cutting exercise intended to safeguard the future of buses by reducing costs so that the spiralling decline could be abated. Government grants assisted with purchase costs and a rash of new designs came on the market in the 1960s with 36ft long chassis; rear engined with relatively low entry. Blackpool - typically - was quite late to the game and ordered 15 AEC Swifts with Marshall bodywork in 1969. These seated 47 with room for standees taking the overall capacity close to that of a 63 seat PD2.

The first eight (541-548) entered service on route 7C (Blackpool - Cleveleys via Gynn Square, Bispham, Ingthorpe Estate, and Luton Road every 35 minutes with two buses) and 25A (Blackpool - Cleveleys via Gynn Square, Promenade, Norbeck and Little Bispham every 30 minutes with two buses). Economics had been turned on their heads. Blackpool routinely allocated new buses to their best routes and here they were putting them on their worst! This apparently perverse logic was justifiable due to the cost reductions. Any attempt to convert route 14 (for example) would just not be countenanced - indeed it wasn't until 2000.

Having managed to overlook this anniversary, it is fortunate that the second tranche of Swifts did not enter service until 1970 - 549 arriving in January, 550-555 in April. The now preserved 554 was duly licensed on 8 April 1970 and has just celebrated its fortieth birthday - albeit from the security of its depot.

These allowed conversion of a slightly busier route - the Bispham circulars. These comprised the 7 which left the Bus Station via Talbot Road, then onto Devonshire Road to Bispham Library, down Red Bank Road to Bispham Village, back along Warbreck Drive, Warbreck Hill Road, Gynn Square, Dickson Road back to the Bus Station. Not surprisingly the 7A ran in the opposite direction. The round trip took just under 30 minutes. Generally speaking a 15 minute service ran with four buses - though in the afternoon peak two extra buses came out to provide a ten minute headway. The morning peak increase was a fifth bus shuttling between Bus Station and Warbreck Hill Road/Devonshire Road showing 7B both ways.
Two rather shabby looking Swift sisters pass the Ribble Travel Corner on Abingdon Street in 1979

More Swifts followed in 1971 (556-565) and 1974/5 (566-595) and route conversions accelerated. Various routes gained Swifts on Sundays only - such as the 11C which became OPO on Sundays in 1971 but stayed crew on weekdays until 1983! The December 1971 arrivals saw the 6A/B (Grange Park to Midgeland Road), 15A (Bispham to Hospital) and 16 (Town to Wordsworth Avenue) converted. 1974 saw the 2/2A (Town-Poulton), 12 (Town-Airport) 15 (Town-Staining) switch to Swifts with the 3/3A (Westminster Road-Marton) and 26 (South Pier to Town) converted in March 1975 with the short 19 (South Pier-Mereside) switching in 1976

The Atlantean era commenced in 1977 and this - plus the thinning of frequencies on other services saw sufficient Swifts released to convert the 23/23A (Hospital-South Shore/Midgeland Road). Withdrawals took from 1980 to 1988, though not before deregulation saw some new horizons - but the Swift fleet development is a tale for another post.

554 settled into routine use in the all-over rich cream livery. The first batch of Swifts uniquely had low driving positions in barrel windscreens, rather than the higher cabs and BET windscreens of the later batches. The cream later gave way to anemic off-white but 554 was one of five of the first batch to receive the final livery of off-white with green roof and waistband in June 1980. 548, 549, 552 and 555 were the others. 548 was the last of this batch to run in May 1983. 554 had succumbed in autumn 1982 and was sold to Graham Oliver for preservation.

Rallied for some time in green and off-white it was sold out of preservation in 1988 to Wealden Motors - a dealer who collected most of Blackpool's final stock of Swifts that year. It performed in Wealden's own fleet for a while but retained Blackpool livery and was discovered by its former owner still in their yard in 1995. After some initial attention Graham offered it to the  Lancastrian Transport Trust in October 1996 and it returned north.

554 outside LTT Depot
Various mechanical faults were attended to and the bus returned to use in weathered green/off white in 1997 and was painted back into original cream in July 1998. After four or five years on the rally scene it has been retired for the last few years pending a thorough mechanical overhaul - addressing some of the Achilles heels of the AEC Swift.