Saturday, 19 May 2007

Under the Hammer

A most unusual auction takes place today in the Black Country. Under the hammer are no fewer than 33 Leyland Nationals, many of which operated till last month with Chase (and some beyond)and I would assume that all, save perhaps those with expired MOTs, are in a good, in roadworthy condition for their age. Chase fitters were past masters at keeping their vehicles on the road and, as Honest John might put it, they were in a “tidy” condition. A sad day for National aficionados it may be but one where the preservationist might perhaps pick up a bargain.

A couple even have long MOTs till February, March or May 2008. Mind you, it appears that the auctioneer’s website is widly incorrect regarding seating capacities and, if so, any prospective purchaser should ensure they know the accurate MOT expiry before purchase, to avoid error, just in Chase.

I once considered buying a Bristol RE for preservation but Mrs Busing wasn’t keen on it blocking the drive. I daren’t even consider getting the credit card out for this. Imagine how many Air Miles you’d earn buying a clutch of Nationals, though. Beats buying on eBay.

The auction is on site at Chase’s premises at Burntwood. The commercial vehicle auctioneer is a specialist. Also included is a handful of Lynxes and a Tiger. We trust that the auctioneers being based at the interestingly named Loggerheads (Shropshire) won’t cause any disputes or confrontations on the day.

Sunday, 29 April 2007

A Unique Event

Omnibuses’ Northern but temporarily redesignated Midlands Correspondent ventured south to unfamiliar territories, to mark the end of Leyland National service in Walsall near Birmingham...

Or so he thought...

Indulge Omnibuses as we pay tribute to the last major centre of Leyland National operations in the world.

Actually, this was *not* to be the last day of Leyland National operation in the Midlands. Owing to a paucity of substitutes, even after Chase bus services are fully integrated with Arriva Midlands tomorrow, there will continue to be up to seven LNs for as long as it takes for Arriva to tool up with newer kit - expected to be mid-May, by which time there's to be a grand auction. So, National aficionados have just a little longer to indulge their passion.

Therefore, was Arriva Midlands being a little disingenuous in flogging the event as the last day of National running? Yes and no. It marked the end of Chase’s colourful LN operation so, in a sense, the commemorative day was justifiable as well as worthwhile. And never again will nearly *all* services be National operated, even if there will still be Nationals out on Monday.

But, it did get a fiver off each of the 100 plus enthusiasts present *and* the prospect of more revenue from a very-last-though-slimmed-down running day, to come. Canny. Post-dereg operators really know how to operate commercially.

Chase – a Brief History

Chase evolved from coach to bus operator in 1986 after winning several Staffordshire council contracts. Building on two Leyland Leopards used at the time for works services, Chase acquired three Bristol REs in 1986. These were joined by five Leopards, interestingly all in Midland Red or local Chaserider livery.

Then the Nationals began to arrive, during a period of bus service expansion for Chase. The first two were ex-Greater Manchester, in orange. Others to arrive also operated initially in the livery in which they were acquired rather than the fleet blue and cream, till the adoption of Manchester’s orange, brown and white as standard. For the next ten years, Chase then standardised on second hand Nationals, though interestingly the last 1997 purchase only saw service from 1999.

At its height, Chase operated a mixed coach and bus fleet of some 70 vehicles, though Nationals were the largest single vehicle type. Chase ran down its coaching side and, indeed, withdrew from private hires in 2006. In latter years, there was also a slimming down of local services. Of the 29 vehicles owned by Chase, only two were Darts and one a DAF/Ikarus.

Walsall – a Heritage Haven?

Enthusiasts may have flocked to Walsall to savour a last ride on a Leyland National but, surprisingly, there was more to see than expected.

You always get the impression that National Express’ Travel West Midlands has an up-to-date fleet, including low floor double decks and a sizeable articulated bus fleet. Walsall was different. Here, there was still the opportunity to view and ride upon nearly 50 MCW Metrobus MkIIs as ordered originally by West Midlands PTE, the oldest being from 1982. There were even four Leyland Lynxes allocated, dating from 1989 & 1990. Rather like Chase’s Nationals, all appeared in excellent condition for their ages.

Where can you see Lynxes and Nationals side by side, these days?

The other interesting feature of Walsall is its area of operation. Unlike Birmingham City Transport, which hardly ventured beyond the city boundary, Walsall Corporation Transport spread its wings, both following 1930s local acquisitions and an enterprising management. This is why many of the current Walsall TWM services extend into the country areas.

Chase – Keeping them on the Road

Though there were signs of ageing, Chase’s Nationals were in remarkably good condition. How come they were continuing to provide such sterling service at ages of up to 27 years old?

Not without sweat and tears! Chase’s fitters had become quite adept at keeping the vehicles on the road and, in addition to the usual cannibalisations, were used to making modifications to do so. These ranged from little things to engine transplants. One vehicle had home-made two leaf doors (and this will be continuing in Arriva service this week). Another was reported to have a Leyland 420 engine from a refuse collection vehicle. A third had a rear nearside body modification to house a Leyland 680 engine.

Parts, however, were getting scarce towards the end. There were reports that exhausts and gearbox parts in particular were a cause for concern and in short supply.

These Nationals may have been a tribute to their type, but this all comes at a cost, in parts and engineering overheads. But tribute must be made here to Chase’s fitters who for the last 10 years must surely be the country’s National experts.

Arriva – Takes Over

Chase drivers have been in Arriva uniforms for some time. Arriva liveried buses will take over Chase routes tomorrow. There are few timetable changes, save for the 860 Cannock-Lichfield, which doubles in frequency. Arriva itself will be using an eclectic mix of vehicles, including older buses of its own (though none as old as Chase's).

Arriva’s former Chase network vehicles, all of which will now operate from Arriva's Cannock Delta Way premises, include the aforesaid seven former Chase Nationals. These are all-over advertisement vehicles. These were the natural choice: they retain advertising revenue and require only a front-end repaint.

Never a robust combination, Chase’s two unusual UVG-Caetano bodied Darts will also join the Arriva Midlands’ fleet. These will undoubtedly never last anywhere as long as their sibling Nationals. One was parked in Walsall town centre yesterday, promoting the switch. Arriva had Leicester-based staff in Walsall bus station, too.

TWM may be feeling a little uneasy at the prospect of full-on Arriva services on its Walsall doorstep, especially as Go Ahead’s Go West Midlands has also established itself from 2005.

Text: Omnibuses “Midlands” (Northern) correspondent, with editing by and additional information from Busing

Pictures: Omnibuses “Midlands” Correspondent.

Friday, 27 April 2007

Post Nine

Grand National – 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8

It seems that those visiting the Black Country tomorrow will be treated to their last chance en masse to capture on film and ride upon one of the defining buses of the late 20th century. Leyland Nationals, some of which are 25 years old, will exit stage left as Chase Bus Services finally end, following their full absorption into Arriva Midlands.

Should we be bothered that this sees the end of the Leyland National? Life has moved on to vehicles of superior quality and style. So, in spite of the overall good condition of Chase’s vehicles, it’s time to say goodbye to the National. And, after all, the National was hardly in the same classic class as the Routemaster, Titan TD1, Lodekka or even the Atlantean.

The National *is*, however, an icon of sorts. Sceptical is how the industry felt about it 35 years ago, when the first production models arrived. Yet, through product development it managed to transform itself into a vehicle that was welcomed into almost every major bus fleet in the country. After some 7,000 Nationals, the sceptics were proven wrong. Never before (and possibly never again) will such a highly standardised vehicle be so successful in Britain.

As for Chase, Arriva acquired it on 26 February 2007, two months ago. Chase operated commercial services in the West Midlands and Staffordshire. It adds a £2mil turnover (2005) to Arriva’s and increases Arriva’s presence in the midlands, especially in the Staffordshire area, due to see considerable population growth in coming years.

All but a handful of Chase’s 27 vehicles were Leyland Nationals and it is understood (though not confirmed) that a small selection of all-over advertisement Nationals will remain for a while, presumably pending the termination of contracts and agreements.

Details of the National day here

Omnibuses’ view of what passengers may expect to see and hear

Monday, 26 March 2007

Post Eight

Grand National – 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7

The Leyland National’s arrival in 1972 truly had the capacity to shock. It was like nothing ever seen or heard in the UK before.

Gone were the mellifluous tones of Gardner 6LX, 6LW, 6HLW, 6LHX, 6HLXB and even Leyland 0.680 engines, in favour of the rattles and rings of the strange sounding, turbo-charged Leyland 0.501. This gave a quite characteristic clatter at layover and, when accelerating, this sound was coupled with a short lasting, penetrative whine.

If they chose to listen, passengers towards the front would also hear the pop associated with air-activated doors and the hiss when the driver either applied the foot brake or changed gear. Air operated everything meant that pressure would sometimes fall (or become difficult to build after a period of being stationary). The frowned-on remedy was for the driver to throttle vigorous in neutral, to build the air back up.

Putting a stationary National in gear would momentarily unsteady the vehicle, causing it to rock gently. This was most pronounced when selecting reverse.

I have already made mention of the utilitarian interiors. Seats in sticky vinyl came in three shades – light tan, dark green and dark brown. Their legs were unceremoniously bolted to the floor without the customary slightly raised platform. This aided sweeping out but added to the functional appearance. The roof sections were finished in a sort of yellowish cream, reminiscent of pub ceilings subjected to years of cigarette smoke. The cab was basic, uncluttered and easy to live with.

All so strange when set aside the familiar Bristol products associated with former Tilling fleets. Whereas the ECW bodied Bristol RE – National’s sort-of predecessor – tended to rattle around the hoppers and ventilators, the National bodywork (unlike its engine) was usually pleasantly rattle free.

Friday, 16 March 2007

Post Seven

Grand National – 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6

Greenways were an attempt to modernise the National and not just to extend their lives, at a time when many Nationals were believed to be nearing the end of their lives. The resultant refurbishment was to the much-trumpeted DiPTAC standard of its time, for elderly and disabled people, the mainstream low floor bus being some way off, even then. There were some derogations from DiPTAC, though.

The Greenways were therefore a product of their time. Even after more than five years of deregulation, the early 1990s were still difficult times for both manufacturers and operators. There was less money available to invest in new stock and operators sometimes felt uneasy doing so. The solution, so far as the then British Bus group was concerned, was the National Greenway, in partnership with East Lancs, which British Bus then controlled.

The Greenway project was the mother of all refurbishments. East Lancs replaced all major mechanical components (including new engine, differential, reconditioned gearbox and new front mounted radiator). Each Greenway benefited from a Gardner 6HLXB engine rather than Leyland 501 unit. It also transformed the body with interior and exterior refits. Outwardly, there were styling changes, especially at the front, though some would say this made them look severe. The frontal treatment included revised light clusters, a new more bowed windscreen and the boxing in each side of the destination display.

When re-registered on Irish or classic plates (as many if not all were), there was no reason for the travelling public to know such vehicles were anything other than brand new. It was an illusion that worked well. Passengers actually commented that they were on new buses, something that was sometimes a rarity in those days.

Between 1991 and 1995, East Lancs converted over 175 Nationals to Greenways. They weren't cheap, either. Greenways even made their way to London, with some 12 sporting plates once carried by Routemasters.

The Greenway wasn’t the only answer, though. Faced with market uncertainties, pre-Stagecoach Western Travel refurbished its own Nationals in a similar though less intensive fashion, calling them National 3s.

  Pictures copyright
© 2007