Central SMT

A Page-ful of memories

Contributed by George Page, August 2003. George, formerly of Coatbridge but now living inthe North-East of Scotland, is of course the Page in question!

1.  Central SMT territory today

The Central SMT we all know and love has gone forever. The red and cream Titans, Lodekkas and Leopards that spanned a generation have gone, and all that remain of the pre-1989 fleet are a sundry few Leyland Tigers, many of which are still painted in the drab red livery adopted by FirstBus soon after the group purchased SBL Holdings. Indeed, only one depot remains in an area where once five depots operated, and that depot operates a mere dozen or so routes using some 150 vehicles.

First has embarked on a retrenchment policy which has seen it withdraw from many areas.  As is documented, Monklands has a mere two routes operated by First. One is the 201 between Petersburn and Hairmyres, operated generally by Alexander-bodied Volvo B6LEs bought from dealer stock in 1997. Service 262 is a recent replacement for the 260, itself a much changed route since Eastern days. The latter is generally operated by Parkhead-based Volvo B7Ls among other types.

First has generally left Monklands to a bewildering array of operators, who fight over the former Central Airdrie and Coatbridge network. These operators include Bryce, Beekman, Shawburn, Silverdale, Stepend and Henderson among others. In Central and Eastern days, and indeed in Baxter days, one could travel from one end of Airdrie to the other end of Coatbridge with comparative ease, and without having to change buses.

Much the same situation exists in the Motherwell and Hamilton areas. In Motherwell, First faces competition from all manner of operators. Operators who run services in the Motherwell area include Hutchison, the old-established Overtown-based operator, and relative latecomers such as Slocoach, McKindless and Coakley. Other old-established companies to run in the Motherwell area include Irvine of Law and Stokes of Carstairs. Whitelaw's of Stonehouse puts in an appearance with a Newarthill-Hairmyres service.

First concentrates mainly on trunk routes, such as the 201 from Monklands, and the 240 and 255 from Glasgow.

Hamilton, too, is a changed place. Some of the above-named operators have a number of services into and out of the town's bus station. To some of these operators are added services of HAD, Shotts, and Stuart's of Carluke. As in Motherwell, First concentrates on core Glasgow-Hamilton services and certain Hamilton town services.

Lanark is something of a mini interchange point, where the trains meet bus services worked by several operators.  McKindless runs in from Hamilton, Motherwell and Wishaw, while HAD, Stokes and Irvine's operate services out into surrounding villages.

It is hard for older enthusiasts standing in Coatbridge, Motherwell  or Hamilton not to think of Central SMT buses as they photograph the kaleidoscope of colour that graces the streets of Central SMT-land. As far as I am concerned, the Central SMT bus might be long gone, but it certainly won't be forgotten.

2.  Memories of past Central vehicles

The first trip I can remember taking by way of a Central bus was probably when I was a boy of five. My parents did not have a car at the time and, having a slight visual impairment, they had to transport me from home in my native Coatbridge to St Vincent's School for the Deaf and Blind off Tollcross Road in Glasgow. I started school in 1967, in the heyday of the company's Bristol Lodekkas. The route we took was from Whifflet to Bellshill, and then from Bellshill to Tollcross Road. At the time every Central bus that terminated in Coatbridge or Airdrie seemed to be a Bristol Lodekka. Maybe Leyland Titans did operate, but I can't really remember them.

There were three styles of Lodekka around at the time. By far the most common were the LD Lodekkas, which seemed to operate over many routes.  Some had open rear platforms while others had platform doors. Then there was the FSF, that small, forward-entrance bus unique, in Scotland anyway, to Central SMT. These Lodekkas had dark red interior walls, cream ceilings and red-based moquette-covered seats. Interior lighting was by way of screw-in lightbulbs, probably of the tungsten variety. Then came the FLF Lodekkas. Looking back these were a big step forward from what had come before. The dingy, red interiors had been superseded by cream formica and the moquette chosen for the seats was a black and red tartan, which was to grace the seats of Central SMT buses until the arrival of the Mk1 Ailsas in 1978. The tungsten bulbs which had lit the interiors of past vehicles had given way to fluorescent lighting.

As a boy I had rarely travelled on a Central Leyland Leopard until the age of around twelve. The AGM-B, HGM-E, KGM-F and OGM-H Leopards rarely worked to Coatbridge, and I never sampled them until later years, when I travelled around Strathclyde using a Strathclyde Concession card issued to visually impaired people. The first Leopards I can remember travelling on were the UGM-K batch new in 1971.  My mother would take my sister and I to Hamilton on shopping trips and this batch of Leopards would appear occasionally on the 14 service between Coatbridge and Meikle Earnock. Looking back, the interiors of these buses were a step back. Their interiors could appear dingy on a wet day, especially if cream skylights had been retrofitted to these buses. The UGMs and others subsequent batches became regulars on all Central routes to Coatbridge and Airdrie, right up until the advent of the Leyland Tigers.

There were three types of Central bus I had never travelled on. I never travelled on the Albion Lowlanders, nor did I travel on the Bristol VRTs. From what I can gather these seemed to operate on services linking the Motherwell/Hamilton/East Kilbride area, and never visited Coatbridge or Airdrie. My only memories of the Central Fleetlines were when Eastern acquired twenty of them in 1976, and they worked anything from Glasgow-Easterhouse locals to Glasgow-Hamilton-Edinburgh and other long, interurban services.

I was allocated a concessionary travel card in 1979 by my local Social Worker for the Blind, and this enabled me to get out and about more.  I was seventeen at the time. I would travel more, travelling further afield on all manner of types of bus, whether owned by Central SMT or whoever. One of the first services I travelled on after gaining my travel card was the Bellshill to Lanark section of the 240 service. I started travelling on this service not long after some of the Mk2 Ailsas came new to Wishaw depot. At the time I thought the Ailsas were special. They were fast, they were bright and they were modern. I felt a hint of sadness when the Wishaw Ailsas were transferred away to East Kilbride three years later.

To me another memorable era was when Central began specifying automatic gearboxes for its Leyland Leopards. I had often watched drivers manoeuvre the older Leopards into and out of tight spots, and looking back, driving these beasts must have been a nightmare! I was mesmerised at the fact that, for a change, drivers could concentrate on the road ahead rather than have to keep one eye on the road and the other on a recalcitrant four-speed crash gearbox which had a mind of its own.

One bus I well remember at around the same time was Dennis Dominator D1. It carried an allover advert for Landmark furniture stores and worked on the Glasgow-Drumchapel service 105 as part of an evaluation process Alexander (Midland) was undertaking at the time. When this bus did eventually return to Central, it was allocated to Wishaw and would often see service on route 60. Like the Ailsas it was bright and modern, but it lacked the speed of the Irvine-built Ailsas.

The next new Central buses I remember were the R-type Dominators. They were shared between East Kilbride and Gavinburn depots and I would spend many a Sunday afternoon travelling on these. I much preferred the Rolls Royce engined examples. They may have been thirsty on fuel, but they were the only buses that could give the Ailsas a run for their money on the hilly East Kilbride routes.

Coatbridge never did see Central Leyland Nationals, well, not until the company gained Airdrie depot under the 1985 SBG reorganisation, anyway. The Hamilton-based Nationals seemed to spend the first seven years of their lives on Hamilton locals, while the Wishaw ones were much further travelled. From an early age these buses worked the 44 service between Anderston Cross and Wishaw via Cleland. At the time I travelled on them regularly and this remained one of the longest-ever National-operated journeys on which I had ever travelled. The longest journey I ever completed by means of a Leyland National was a Rhyl to Caernarfon journey on a dual-purpose example of Crosville.

I liked the TS-bodied Leyland Tigers when they first appeared in 1983. They were a breed apart from anything else that was on the road at the time. Externally they were bright and modern, but internally they looked dingy. They were unique to Central SMT and looked the part, especially when new or when they were repainted in zig-zag livery. The Dennis Dorchesters, too, were bright and modern, but to me they always seemed to have that something missing. Sure, they looked the part, especially from the outside, but their performance seemed lacklustre when compared to the Tiger. The TC-bodied coaches looked good, especially when new. The last Central vehicles I remember were the C-JCS Tigers new in 1986. I paid regular visits to Edinburgh at the time when these buses were new and generally found them acceptable vehicles on which to travel. They had 49 seats in an 11m body and when busy they could appear cramped.

These were the last of the great Central SMT vehicles. Almost every bus which entered service after these buses had somebody else in mind. The B10B/Alexander Striders of 1993 seemed to be from dealer stock, and the Olympians of 1994/5 were similar to vehicles that were being built for other operators. The PS-bodied B10Ms of 1994 and 1995 were to Stagecoach specification, and subsequent Darts have been to First specification.

One thing is for sure, though : the memories of Central SMT will live on in my mind.

3.  Central Fleetlines with Eastern Scottish

During the 1950s and 1960s Central SMT had bought Bristol Lodekkas and Leyland Titans by the hundred, and they plied their way around the system for many years with few problems. Indeed, the Lodekka was bought in large batches until 1968. Then, for some reason, the company stopped buying Titans. Instead it bought first Albion Lowlanders, then Bristol VRTs, but soon disposed of them. As is well known, the Bristol VRTs were exchanged with NBC fleets for more Bristol Lodekkas, due to reliability problems.

The Fleetlines of 1971 went the same way as the Lowlanders and VRTs before them. However, this time it was different. The thirty-five Fleetlines stayed in Scotland and were well-spread. Eastern Scottish received twenty of them in exchange for a batch of Leyland Leopards (which were newer than the Fleetlines). The rest were sent to Midland and Northern, and a few even reached Highland via Eastern in 1983.

I can well remember the arrival of the TGM-J's at Eastern. I was a boy of fourteen at the time and my family was resident in Coatbridge. Having had a slight visual impairment since birth, I was forced to spend my school career at the Royal Blind School in Edinburgh. My parents did not have a car at the time, so we were forced to make many long treks to and from the capital by bus at weekends and school holidays. Mostly we travelled to Baillieston to catch the Edinburgh Express, but there were times when we used the long route 16 (Glasgow - Edinburgh via Coatbridge, Airdrie, Bathgate and Broxburn).

Eastern Scottish had received the first twenty of the Fleetlines. They were registered TGM 201-220J and had fleetnumbers DD281-300. They were transferred to Eastern in exchange for ten M-registered bus-seated Leopard/Y-type buses. My first encounter with a TGM Fleetline was on a trip to Edinburgh via Bathgate soon after the transfer in 1976. Now, Eastern already had three batches of ECW-bodied Fleetlines of its own, so to the uninitiated passenger, they were just another double-decker. But there were detailed differences in specification. The most obvious was the interior trim. The brown formica interior panels and other fitments and the red-based tartan moquette seat coverings were the most obvious differences. Later I was to find that many of these had five-speed semi-automatic gearchange rather than the normal four.

These vehicles ploughed up and down the system for the next seven years.  They were mainly allocated to depots west of Edinburgh and were seen on anything from Glasgow East End locals to long, inter-urban stage services. My local depot, Airdrie, had some of them - however, I can't remember how many. They lost all but one of them in late 1981 as a result of service revisions. The one remaining vehicle was DD284 (TGM 204J), very much an odd-man-out among the Airdrie Fleetlines, and it worked mainly on schools contracts and rush hour services between Glasgow and Airdrie. Indeed, Airdrie's DD284 eventually made it to Highland in 1983 along with some others.

I completed many journeys on these buses over the years. I found the Fleetline to be a bit of a rough rider, especially on the less well-maintained roads. However, there were two minor compensations. One of them was the fact that you could sit at the back of the bus and put your feet up over the rear wheelarches. The second was that I much preferred Central's interior specification to the drab blues and greys in the early Eastern Fleetlines.

The Leyland Olympians which replaced the Fleetlines were a come-down for long-distance passengers on routes like the 16. No more could you put your feet up over the wheelarches, but at least the Alexander-bodied examples of 1984/5 had brighter interiors than the Fleetlines.

4.  Airdrie buses 1985-1997

Having been a bus enthusiast since teenage years, by 1985 I was well aware of who operated my local services and which depot operated them - and of course which company operated them. Being a native of Coatbridge, I well remember the scenario prior to the great Scottish Bus Group reorganisation of 1985. The towns of Coatbridge and Airdrie played host to three Scottish Bus Group companies prior to June 1985. Eastern Scottish operated the town services in Coatbridge and Airdrie, plus services linking the towns with Glasgow and such far-off places as Bathgate, Broxburn and Edinburgh. Prior to the changeover, Airdrie (Clarkston) depot operated some sixty vehicles. The town services in Coatbridge played host to Leyland Nationals, with both Mk1 and Mk2 vehicles represented in fairly equal numbers.

The Seddon Pennine was the main interurban vehicle. Several had Y-type bus bodies. Five of those had synchromesh gearboxes, bus seats and panoramic windows. Only one of these, formerly S833, was new to Airdrie. The others came from depots such as Bathgate and Baillieston, like Airdrie now closed. There were several semi-automatic Y-types, ranging in age from T-registered vehicles new in 1979 to X-registrations new in 1982. Several T-type and Plaxton-bodied DPs also existed.

Airdrie was also home to seven double-deckers, Daimler Fleetlines new in the period 1975 to 1979. These moved east and, prior to Central taking over, seven Dominators moved from East Kilbride.

Soon after the takeover some Leyland Leopards of the OGM-M batch came on loan. Those generally worked the Airdrie - Glasgow services as well as town services in Airdrie and Coatbridge. Airdrie's first permanent allocation of Leopards under Central came when Mk2 Nationals moved to Kelvin in exchange for Leopards and Tigers. Some P-, S- and T-registered crash-box Leopards came Airdrie's way, and stayed for some years. Other cast-offs came Airdrie's way in 1986 when Wishaw and Hamilton's entire fleet of Mk1 Nationals moved to Airdrie. Like the Leopards they were used on everything from town services to Glasgow services. Yet more cast-offs, albeit fairly recent, came when five DP Tigers arrived towards the end of 1986. They were the C-FGG-registered Tiger/TE-types, now resident in the Strathtay fleet.

Airdrie's first new buses under Central control came right at the start of 1987, when three D-registered Leyland Tigers arrived in TS-type zig-zag livery. They lasted barely two years before being transferred elsewhere. The closure of Wishaw and East Kilbride depots in 1989 brought forth a selection of buses. More Leopards arrived, as did several A-VDS Tigers. Ailsas, Dennis Dominators and Olympians from within the merged Kelvin Central fleet spent time at Airdrie before moving elsewhere. Several W-registered automatic Leopards arrived, some of which appeared in Monklands Bus livery.

Regular vehicle transfers trickled forth between 1989 and 1993, and these included various vehicle types such as Leyland Leopards and Dennis Dorchesters. Indeed all of the bus and DP-seated batches came together for some time. The double-deck requirement changed again, with first eight Fleetlines bought from Midland Bluebird, and then a similar number of Metrobuses transferred over from Stepps garage in 1994.

The first new vehicles since 1987 came to Airdrie in late 1993, when a batch of ten Volvo B10B/Alexander Striders were allocated. They spent much time on service 201 (Airdrie-Hairmyres) and 260 (Glasgow-Airdrie). The years 1994-6 were characterised by vehicle transfers and acquisitions. Eight Duple-bodied Leyland leopards came from Luton & District and several Nationals came from McKindless and Green's of Kirkintilloch. The year before Airdrie closed brought forth a final flurry of new vehicles. Ten Alexander-bodied Volvo B10Ms arrived at the beginning of 1996, and a further two arrived towards the end of the year.

Airdrie depot was closed in November 1997 as part of yet another round of service cuts. On the day Airdrie closed, fifty-six vehicles were operated, a combination of Leopards, Tigers and Volvos, together with the occasional MCW Metrorider. Most of the buses and services passed to Motherwell depot, while ten of the B10Ms passed to Parkhead.

The past six years has seen a gradual reduction in the services operated by First in Airdrie and Coatbridge. Today only two services operate in the area. These are services 262 (Airdrie-Glasgow) and 201 (Petersburn-Hairmyres).