Treasures of the Urban Transport Group YouTube archive

Many rainy lunchtimes in the making, we are proud to present the treasures of the UTG YouTube archive…

YouTube is stuffed with archive train videos – there’s less out there on the buses, trams, ferries, trams and transit systems of our big regional cities. Well let me rephrase that – there’s less out there that’s interesting! But we’ve hunted down what we could find. So why not spend one of your rainy lunchtimes by joining us in an exploration of a world where people smoked at all times – including on wooden underground trains; where transport systems were built by men whose safety gear was flared trousers and check shirts, and of course a fag; and where pageants and festivals were held where grateful citizens would celebrate new rail connections.

We begin our tour in Liverpool with the wondrous Liverpool Overhead Railway. The world’s first overhead electric railway that glided over streets crowded with rail and road traffic from the UK’s second busiest port. Worn out by corrosion, wartime bombs and continuous use it was closed in 1956 and demolished the year after. It lives on however in a stunningly beautiful CGI recreation by Steven Wheeler.

Catching our breath we reach further back in time – right back to 1902 and one of Mitchell and Kenyon’s Edwardian rediscovered documentary films takes us on a tram ride through the Bradford of over a century ago. A double decker time machine on steel rails through streets of behatted cyclists and horse drawn goods wagons.

Five years before those scenes were filmed, the Glasgow Subway got some new trains. In the 1970s they were still running! Here a whimsical and comprehensive effort from 1977 to mark its last day before modernisation – complete with a set of characters as eccentric as the system itself. There’s also some needling questions by the Edinburgh presenter about Glasgow’s perceived shortcomings (I’m not getting involved!).

‘Last day’ films are a staple of the transport film documentary genre – and one of the best ones ever made was about the last day of Glasgow’s trams. ‘Nine Dalmuir West’ is a free wheeling, hand held grainy, black and white elegy to the last days of a tram system that was loved by the city – but not loved enough to buck the trend and spend the money to renew it. The film has all the latent restless energy of the early Sixties which was about to change British cities forever. And for all the fondness for the tram – it wasn’t going to be part of this new world. But the trams went out in style with one hell of a party in the tram depot on the last night (shown near the end of the film). And those women tram drivers are cool (they were out of a job too as the Corporation wouldn’t let them drive buses!). The men wearing their caps like guardsmen also cut a dash.

There’s a more stilted farewell to Sheffield’s trams in this 1960 documentary. The relentlessly chirpy, mustn’t grumble, know my place, tram driver narrator makes you want to clatter him with a tram pole after a while – but another steel railed, double decker, time machine. And a vivid reminder of what British cities were too quick to get rid of – especially the routes with dedicated tracks of their own. Though in the shots of the trams passing Sheffield’s new concrete and glass shopping centres you can see how the tram must have seemed like some elderly embarrassing relative that you may be fond of but now needed to be shuffled off to the retirement home as soon as was seemly.

Before we move on from the demise of the Tram here’s Alan Bennett’s closing words to a forward to ‘A Nostalgic Look at Leeds Trams since 1950’ by Graham Twidale:

‘Buses have never inspired the same affection, too comfortable and cushioned to have a moral dimension. Trams were bare and bony, transport reduced to its basic elements, and they had a song to sing, which buses never did. I was away at university when they started to phase them out, Leeds as always in too much of a hurry to get to the future, and so doing the wrong thing. I knew at the time that it was a mistake, just as Beeching was a mistake, and that life was starting to get nastier. If trams ever come back though, they should come back not as curiosities not, God help us, as part of the heritage, but as a cheap and sensible way of getting from point A to point B, and with a bit of poetry thrown in.’

Time for one more ‘last day’ film before we move on. This time Britain’s last trolleybus system which was to be found in Bradford before finally succumbing in 1972.  Not on YouTube but better than that – on the Yorkshire Film Archive.

The late Cllr Stanley King – proud Bradfordian, trolleybus advocate and former Chair of the West Yorkshire Passenger Transport Authority – can be heard near the end of the film.

After all those seductively melancholy last day films let’s take a more positive view of modernization and change! That’s what PTEs were set up to do. To turn round ailing public transport systems that had been battered by Beeching and hammered by the growth in private car use! Time to move on. Time to remake our cities and the transit systems that serve them. Time for Glasgow Transport 1980…

Everyone goes on about integrated transport nowadays but as the film shows in 1980 we had it! There’s even a transport pageant, march past and festival held at the end of the film to celebrate the Glasgow Transport 1980.

On a lighter note. Here’s an entertaining training film for bus crew from Tyne and Wear. If Oz from ‘Auf Wiedersehen, Pet’ had been a bus driver he would have been Animal Anderson…

And to end what better way to go out but with an all singing, all dancing finale – ladies and gentlemen I give you: Tyne and Wear Metro: the Musical!

If you enjoyed this selection from our YouTube archive there’s more to explore on our YouTube channel which can be found here

Jonathan Bray


When the buses were (nearly) free: Revisiting South Yorkshire’s ‘grand design’ for transport

Front cover of 'South Yorkshire's Transport 1974-1995'

Front cover of D Scott Hellewell’s account of South Yorkshire’s Transport, picture courtesy of Transport Store

It may not be available on Kindle anytime soon, but ‘South Yorkshire’s Transport 1974-1995’ by D Scott Hellewell is full of fascinating material about the story of the radical years of South Yorkshire’s ‘Grand Design’ for Transport in the Seventies and Eighties (roughly the period from the creation of the PTE and South Yorks County Council in 1974 to bus deregulation in 1986). This is an era still remembered for its cheap bus fares policy but there was a lot more to it than that. Here’s five things I took away from the book. Cheap fares being the best place to start…

1. Too cheap to charge?

The policy on fares in South Yorkshire was…not to put them up. For eight years the fares didn’t go up and with inflation higher than it is today the fares became cheaper and cheaper. Eventually a point would have come when it would cost more to collect the fares than to charge them. At that point bus travel would have become free. The policy was very popular (more than a million people signed a petition to keep the policy in place). It was also effective in keeping bus patronage high and road congestion low (traffic congestion in Sheffield was lower than in any comparable city). It was not popular however in Whitehall and, interestingly, not just with Mrs Thatcher. The preceding Callaghan government also did its best to try to get the PTE to see the error of its ways although it was Thatcher that delivered the coup de gras with the Transport Act of 1984 which led to fares going up by as much as 300% in one day. Bus patronage decline and traffic congestion was the inevitable consequence.

2. Forward thinking days

However, it wasn’t just about cheap fares in South Yorkshire – far from it. The cheap fares policies was accompanied a staggering amount of forward thinking about what a modern public transport network should be doing for the area it serves. This included the introduction of minibus services to serve outlying areas (common now – but not then) and a Bendibus city centre shuttle. Bendibuses being so novel at the time it was actually technically illegal in the UK to run them, (until, that is, South Yorkshire got national Government to change the rules to allow their operation). The PTE was also determined to get cleaner, modern buses that could cope with Sheffield’s formidable hills, whilst spewing out fewer noxious fumes (air quality was and is a problem in Sheffield) and providing a good working environment for drivers. In effect the PTE was working towards a ‘Bus (or buses) for South Yorkshire’. In some ways this is similar to the way London in the past (the Routemaster and its antecedents) has gone. On green clean technologies South Yorks was also an early pioneer of battery buses and it ran a trial of a modern trolleybus (with a test track at Doncaster racecourse). This direct interest in pushing the boundaries of bus technologies was also linked to a strand of thinking around how a dynamic public sector commissioning body could help drive wider UK manufacturing and technological development and capacity (creating skilled and worthwhile jobs in the process). The PTE was also ahead of its time in promoting access to the bus network for older and disabled people. Both through concessionary fares and some early examples of buses that could carry wheelchair users. So when some people say the public sector can’t innovate on public transport…they are talking drivel!

3. The Sheffield Underground that never was…

One of the sidestories of the book is how the South Yorkshire rail network teetered on the edge of oblivion. The rail network was never a major player for rail commuters and when the PTE was set up in 1974 the patronage of entire local rail network could have been carried on 18 buses (allegedly)! It would have been if some of the busmen had their way but the railways fought back – including a BR proposition for an underground loop linking Sheffield Midland with an underground station serving the city centre. The Sheffield underground never happened (Supertram did instead). However eventually the railways were integrated into the wider progressive strategy for public transport in the area with new stations and services even if that involved a few interesting wheezes to get there. For example running a BR Summer Saturday seaside special to Blackpool on a route that otherwise the PTE would have had to bear all the costs of…

4. Nothing’s perfect…

The book is unsparing on the tensions and difficulties that always emerge around the boundaries between one organisation and another. In this case between Districts and the Met County Council, the PTE and the Districts, the Unions and the PTE, and so on and so forth. Wherever you draw the lines between areas and organisations it will never be perfect and there is always the potential for tensions, but as the author makes clear, in South Yorkshire what was collectively achieved was clearly impressive.

5. Bus policy…not so boring after all

These days in the professional / Whitehall debate, by and large, it’s spending on capital projects which is seen as the grown up thing to do, whereas current spending, (including on holding bus fares down) is rather looked down upon. But one of things that the South Yorkshire story shows for astute politicians, who want to make an impact quickly, is that current spending on bus can make the weather for the wider debate about transport – getting ridership up, generating momentum and creating an environment where further spending on transport (including capital) is seen as the right thing to do. It can also make an impact quickly and across a wide area whereas new infrastructure can take years and is site specific. Interesting too how often bus policy has actually becoming something much more emblematic and defining for politicians over the years – Ken’s fares policies and Boris’s Routemaster being one example. So, despite the obsession of most politicians and commentators with trains – who would have thought it – bus policy isn’t so boring after all!

Jonathan Bray