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Why our buses have been just the ticket

PUBLISHED: 13:41 19 February 2009 | UPDATED: 13:04 03 July 2010

THE introduction of free bus travel for us old-age pensioners has been a wonderful benefit. Leaving the car at home whenever we can, and not worrying about the difficulties or expense of parking, are a real boon, a feeling no doubt shared by most of our aged travelling companions.

THE introduction of free bus travel for us old-age pensioners has been a wonderful benefit. Leaving the car at home whenever we can, and not worrying about the difficulties or expense of parking, are a real boon, a feeling no doubt shared by most of our aged travelling companions.

Sometimes on our frequent journeys between Gorleston and Great Yarmouth, Mrs Peggotty and I play “spot the payer” because 99 per cent of our fellow passengers are enjoying “freebies” like us, and few folk hand over actual cash for their tickets.

Apart from the Yarmouth-Gorleston trips, we have used our concession passes to visit Lowestoft, Norwich and even Peterborough for the day. That latter excursion to see family would have taken less time had we not inadvertently chosen the first day of the Royal Norfolk Show last summer and crawled in a very long queue of cars along the Norwich southern bypass.

As a lifelong bus fan (as a boy I wanted to be a conductor on our long-gone Yarmouth Corporation elegant fleet), using them regularly again has reacquainted me with this form of public transport. And I retain my figurative soft spot for bus staff although they are all driver-conductors since the introduction of the cost-cutting OMO (one-man-operation) in the 1970s eliminated two-man crews.

Although nothing in my eyes will ever compare favourably with the Yarmouth Corporation bus era, FirstBus is reliable, the drivers usually polite (respect for age?) and the vehicles mainly OK, even if the windows are sometimes so dirty on the outside as to be opaque.

Inevitably there are blemishes in the best-regulated circles, and sadly these stick in the mind. One day a very elderly woman was “running” to a Beatty Road bus stop where a waiting pensioner was urging her to hurry as best she could to join her. The waiting woman boarded but alighted for a moment to give the “runner” a chance to catch up, whereupon driver closed the door.

But he relented, allowed her to get back on and, despite her pleas, immediately shut it again and pulled away, just as the exhausted “runner” arrived at the stop, too late!

Yes, I know he had a timetable to adhere to, but we are talking about seconds, not minutes, and two elderly women, one of them needing a stick. What happened to courtesy, good manners and tolerance? Before my journey ended, he ruffled some more feathers.

Another time, I was among a knot of people at the Town Hall stop waiting for a Belton bus. As it rounded the bend from Regent Street, we moved to the kerbside and one man extended his arm to make doubly sure the nearly-empty bus stopped.

Did it? No! The driver ignored us, accelerating to get through the green traffic light on to the quay. It seemed a long wait for the next bus...

On the other hand, a bus I was on drew into the lay-by at the White Horse in Gorleston despite the fact that nobody wanted to board or alight, and idled for about a minute. Why? Because the driver had spotted a distant old woman slowly approaching and hoping to catch his bus.

His tolerant attitude mirrored that of a similarly anonymous colleague mentioned in a letter from an Essex reader published in a monthly magazine aimed at senior citizens. This correspondent reported that while on a bus to Yarmouth during a holiday, she saw a young woman holding a baby who boarded and placed it in the driver's arms while she alighted to retrieve the pushchair from the pavement and stow it away.

Then the young mother took the baby from the driver who had “sat patiently and good-humouredly” throughout.

Said the letter writer: “Intrigued, I just had to ask her if the driver was a relative or friend. She replied, 'Neither'. It still gives me great pleasure to recall the driver's good nature.”

In my childhood and youth, when the corporation fleet covered the urban borough of Yarmouth and Gorleston and extended to Caister, there were compulsory and request stops. Do they both still exist under the deregulated set-up, I wondered, after witnessing an incident at the southbound Haven Bridge stop beside the Matalan store where three people were waiting.

Our driver did not draw into the bus lay-by but stayed out in the road where he waited for a green the traffic light. The trio at the stop, whom I assumed were strangers to our town, then realised it was our bus they wanted, so they hurried out but, of course, the driver could not let them board in case the lights changed and he had to draw away.

I could understand the dilemma. A week later I waited at the same stop and could not clearly read the destination blind until the vehicle turned into the lay-by; if the bus stayed in the traffic line, it was too late to extend my arm to stop it when I spotted it was the one I wanted.

While on the buses, I cannot recall in the old days of corporation buses drivers doing what their successors do today - raising a hand to every colleague passing in the opposite direction.

Considering the number of FirstBus vehicles in service on our town, each man must make this gesture hundreds of times a day, sometimes several times a minute in congested places like Gorleston High Street where vehicles almost jostle for position.

Are there any drivers who have consistently declined to acknowledge their colleagues and, if so, are they black-legs, pariahs deemed churlish by the others?

For me, the compelling twin attractions of a working life on the blue buses in the borough would have been issuing the tickets (each fare price had a different colour) from a long spring-clip holder and inserting them into a machine to be punched, but also changing the rear destination roller blind at the end of each journey (the driver did the front one).

Later the ticketing system was changed to a machine cranked by a turning handle that issued a freshly printed ticket, the conductor having entered the fare by means of a dial like those on old telephones. That looked even more exciting, although little lads like me who possessed toy busman outfits - with peaked cap, ticket board and punch - and collected the old-style tickets to make the role-play more credible, had to conserve their old stocks because the new style was incompatible.

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