PRIVATELY OWNED bus companies were at the receiving end of endless criticism during the 1970s, because they made a profit. It didn’t take much arithmetic to grasp the obvious: if there were no profit (and no need to make one), fares would be lower.
That was how the passengers saw things. Politicians, who thrived on the opportunity to turn demonstrations against fare increases to their own advantage, didn’t disillusion them.
In its monthly news publication Tollgate, widely distributed to what would be called stakeholders 30 years later, Cape Tramways constantly drew attention to the deficits tabled annually by municipal transport undertakings. Shouldered by the ratepayers, these losses ran into millions, sums with a stratospheric-sound at a time when many bus fares were still counted in single-figure cents.
Today, of course, Gautrain’s annual operating subsidy runs into hundreds of millions, despite single trip fares (those to and from the airport) around R145 in each direction.
Efficiency and profitability
The concept of having to strive for efficiency in order to achieve profitability wasn’t easily grasped by the commuter. In February 1978, Tollgate reviewed a newly published book that demonstrated succinctly some expensive realities when transport was moved into the public sector.
‘The train that ran away’was a case study of what happened when the private companies that ran the railways of Britain – all profitable – were nationalised by the Labour government in 1947.
Author Stewart Joy had been chief economist at British Railways in the 1960s. He held a doctorate from the London School of Economics. “With the unions and the Labour Party sure that removing shareholders and profit would create a new era, in fact,” he wrote, “nationalisation created more problems than it solved.”
Although one of the objects was to rationalise the four distinctly different series of steam locomotives operated by each company, incredibly the new state-controlled management developed a fifth. (This was not a fifth class of steam locomotive but a complete series of new locomotive classes.)
Joy noted that the privately owned railways of America replaced steam with diesel in the 1940s and that, of the four large, privately owned British railway companies taken over by the Labour Government in 1947, three had been trying diesel traction since the 1930s.
By the time that a working party revealed in 1952 that the costs of operating lightweight diesel trains would be 26 pence per mile, compared with 87 pence per mile for steam, nearly all the large fleet of new state-designed steam locomotives were already being built.
When British Railways eventually decided to go ahead and invest in diesel trains, they did so, Joy wrote, “on a scale which could have been explicable only if the motor bus had not existed”.
In all, 41 different types of diesel locomotive entered service between 1954 and 1962. Many of these, with a capital cost of up to £100 000 each, lasted less than two years, “mostly because they were surplus to requirements, many because they were poor designs, and in numbers too small to make maintenance worthwhile.
“ln far too many cases, old techniques were employed to resolve old problems, where the problems themselves were about to disappear.”
After nationalisation, 16 years passed before there was any significant advance in passenger coach development; by then 7 000 vehicles had been built to obsolete designs. Corridor-less coaches for use with steam locomotives were still being built in 1956; the first was scrapped only four years later.
On the first page of chapter one, Joy recorded that the nationalised (formerly profitable) British railways incurred losses exceeding £600-million between 1948 and 1968. This official figure took no account of interest charges on capital.
Over a lengthy period, the Exchequer met each year’s working loss on the railway with a ‘deficit grant’. The following year’s financial performance was then reported as though the system had broken even in the previous 12 months, “injecting a dangerous unreality into the financial discipline of the ministry of transport”. Sir James Dunnet, permanent secretary to the ministry, told a select committee in 1960: “We find one of the most difficult things is to discover where the money is being lost.”
It was a telling story. Regrettably, one doesn’t need to look far for somewhat similar examples nearer home.
Buses in Pietermaritzburg
A municipal bus operation not mentioned earlier in this series was that at Pietermaritzburg. The city had run electric trams since 1904, its first buses entering service in the early 1920s. The tram system closed in 1936, being replaced with a fleet of 12 39-seat Park Royal-bodied Daimler COG5 single-deckers. These were numbered upwards from 10. Three more were acquired in 1938.
During and immediately after World War II, various makes joined the roster, including two Leyland RTS11c, three AEC Matador and three Leyland OPS1.
Pietermaritzburg then set about creating a text-book example of how not to build a manageable fleet or run a bus service. It was unmistakably a municipal operation, characterised by the rich variety of different vehicle makes. (Remember Joy’s point about ordering models “in numbers too small to make maintenance worthwhile”.)
No private company could have remained viable with such complicated implications for the maintenance department and the need to keep such a complex range of spares.
In the course of 1946 and 1947, nine Weymann-bodied 56-seat, rear entrance Daimler CVG6 double-deckers entered service. Then 15 39-seat AEC Regal forward-entrance single-deckers from BMS were delivered in 1947 and 1948.
In 1952 and 1953, eight 39-seat Daimler CVG6 from Bus Bodies were joined by an odd 57-seat Guy Arab. Then came seven 47-seat Daimler G6HS from Bus Bodies, also in 1953.
Eight Gove-bodied Guy Arab single-deckers joined the fleet in 1956, together with eight underfloor-engined Leyland ERT2/1 vehicles from Bus Bodies, followed by a further six the following year. Seating on all these varied between 56 and 59.
In 1958 Bus Bodies supplied five AEC Regal IV 60-seaters followed by three 56-seat OPS4/5 Leylands. In 1959 and 1960, 10 more OPS4/5 single-deckers followed. Three Guy Warriors arrived in 1961, together with a further 10 OPS4/5, all 13 bodied by Elgin. AEC was back in favour in 1962, in the form of 12 Regal IV 60-seaters from Bus Bodies.
Next it was the turn of AEC’s Reliance. Bus Bodies delivered 17 dual-doorway 47-seaters between 1963 and 1965, an average of five-point-something buses annually. One can only speculate how anyone – even a municipality – could settle on such strange figures.
In 1964 four AEC Kudus were added, and 10 more the following year. Three Guy Victories arrived in 1965. At least all these buses were put together by one concern – Bus Bodies.
A meaningful change in direction
There must have been a significant change in management around this time. The name Doug Schumann springs to mind. An energetic participant at meetings of the Urban Passenger Transport Association (Upta), quiet-spoken Schumann represented Pietermaritzburg for many years.
In a dramatic about-turn in purchasing policy, the city stayed with the no-nonsense, reliable front-engined Kudu from Bus Bodies/Busaf until the mid-1970s, buying 179 in all. It only stopped buying them when Leyland – always good for discontinuing what their customers wanted – stopped making them.
The council also bought ERT2A/1 underfloor-engined Leyland 53-seaters during the early 1970s – 50 altogether. Then this source of supply also dried up – going the way of all good Leylands.
Swing to Mercedes-Benz and MAN
The colossus British manufacturer’s inexplicable attitude towards loyal customers resulted in Pietermaritzburg buying 50 Mercedes-Benz OF1617 forward-engined 61-seaters from Busaf in the course of 1977 and 1978. In addition, 17 MAN 16.220323 60-seaters, also from Busaf, came into the fold in 1978. In 1979, 31 more MAN buses were to join the roster, though mentioning this takes the story beyond the present timeline of 1978.
Late in 1980 the city was to change direction yet again, once more into uncharted territory. This time Busaf supplied 86 Nissan CB20N 51-seaters in the course of two years, bringing the fleet total to 260. After relying for several decades on NPC registration numbers only, the Nissans were designated 500-554 and 158-188. These numbers in fact corresponded with the NPC registrations.
Then in 1983, 15 Isuzu DPR610PA single-deckers were acquired from Busaf. At this point Pietermaritzburg had operated a good proportion of every make in the catalogue.
With the recently deregulated minibus-taxis making serious inroads into bus operations, it probably seemed as good a time as any to call it a day. Some 80 years after its first foray into public transport in 1904, the municipality pulled out of the bus business, selling most of the fleet to the KwaZulu Transport Corporation and auctioning off those vehicles which even that operator didn’t want.