Central SMT

The Central Story

1975 - 1985 : The Car Reigns Supreme

By the mid-1970s it was apparent that the Golden Years were drawing to a close. At least three factors were operating against the company - the relentless rise of the private car, the prevailing economic climate of the time and strained relations with the new Greater Glasgow Passenger Transport Executive (later Strathclyde PTE).

In all the political debate that frequently takes place over the provision of public transport services, a very simple fact is often overlooked - the main reason for the industry's difficulties over the last 30 years is that the private car has become the public's preferred mode of transport. The trend was well underway by the mid-1970s, with an explosion in the volume of car traffic on the roads. A new road building programme struggled to keep up with the demand, but did manage to create impressive new links. The M8 motorway through the centre of Glasgow provided unprecedented ease of access to many parts of the city, while new routes such as the Bellshill Bypass and East Kilbride Expressway slashed journey times in Lanarkshire. Traditional bus routes simply failed - miserably - to provide an attractive alternative.

On the economic front, it has to be remembered that during the 1970s, Britain was widely regarded as the sick man of Europe. Inflation was rampant, industrial relations appalling and the country was reeling from the effects of the various oil crises of the time. It might be thought that all this would have dampened the public's enthusiasm for car ownership. Such a conclusion might seem entirely logical, but it would be wholly mistaken.

The third factor is an ironic one, for it shows that the public transport industry sometimes does itself no favours. With the formation of the Greater Glasgow Passenger Transport Executive in 1973, many people hoped - indeed were led to expect - that the dawn of a radical new era in public transport provision throughout the body's designated area was at hand. The PTE pushed ahead with high-profile rail projects such as the Glasgow Underground modernisation and the re-opening of the Argyle Line, over which it could exercise direct control. These were much-needed projects, but they were hugely expensive and had the unfortunate - and no doubt unintended - side-effect of further marginalising bus services in the public's eyes. The PTE never really came to grips properly with bus service provision in the area, particularly where the Scottish Bus Group was concerned. Relations between the two public bodies gave the appearance of barely concealed enmity. Perhaps the SBG was still sulking over its failed bid for Glasgow Corporation Transport in 1966. Perhaps the PTE was frustrated by its inability to exert more control over the national group. Or maybe it was just that age-old phenomenon of Glasgow-Edinburgh antipathy! Whatever the reason, the fact remains that the public were promised an 'integrated, interlinking transport system'. And what they got was Trans-Clyde paper stickers on the side windows of SBG buses.

So if these were the main adverse factors prevailing at the time, what were the effects on Central SMT operations? Perhaps the most obvious change was the wholesale move towards one man operation, started and completed in the space of a few years. Whereas the Lodekka had been the quintessential Central bus of the 1960s, the Leyland Leopard took on that mantle in the late 1970s. This period also saw the gradual dismantling of some of the more exotic traditional routes. The highest-profile casualties in Lanarkshire were probably Western's historic 42 (Airdrie - Ayr), Eastern's marathon route 27 (Glasgow - Shotts - Edinburgh) and Central's limited stop 242/3 (Glasgow - Peebles). But more mundane Central routes were certainly not exempt. Little by little, the traditional network was trimmed here, altered there, until the cracks were becoming too obvious to hide.

It is too easy to be gloomy, however, and due mention must be made of one of the high points of the time - the opening of the shiny new Buchanan Bus Station in Glasgow, an SBG initiative providing a proud main terminal for Scottish Bus Group long- and short-distance services into the city. Even here, though, there were signs that all was not as it might have been. The new facility was situated tantalisingly close to - but quite separate from - nearby rail and underground stations.

In 1980, the new Conservative government implemented the first phase of its bus deregulation plans, removing the need for route licensing from long-distance coach services. More relevant for Central SMT, however, were two changes in the law governing local services. The first of these was the removal of the archaic monopoly area protecting Glasgow city services (now the PTE's direct operations) from competition. From January 1982, Central was free to carry passengers whose journeys lay wholly within the previous monopoly area boundary. To compensate, the PTE extended some of its services into Central territory at Cambuslang and Clydebank.

The second change concerned an interim amendment - pending the arrival of full deregulation - to the licensing arrangements for local service provision. Whereas in the past any operator planning a new service had to prove that it was in the public interest, the burden of proof was now shifted so that any objector would have to prove conclusively that it would be against the public interest. In the late 1970s, in common with other SBG subsidiaries, Central carried out a 'Scotmap' (Scottish Market Analysis Project) so that it could re-design its network to suit the changed circumstances of the age. Central's study concluded that there was unfulfilled demand for links from East Kilbride to Glasgow's main shopping areas, business district and West End. It designed a cross-city network by the simple expedient of linking its East Kilbride - Busby - Glasgow services with its Glasgow - Clydebank services to the north-west of the city. The application was submitted to the Traffic Commissioner and, to the PTE's chagrin and disgust, it was granted. Thus, in a pre-deregulation environment, state-owned Central SMT buses and council-owned PTE buses went head-to-head in competition on the streets of Glasgow. Central's operation was a professional one, with a 15-minute frequency applying for much of the day and a high standard of consistency presented by the relatively new Dennis Dominator fleet.

A challenging new age had clearly arrived and the concept of competition would be the over-riding influence in the years to come.