Photo © Alan R Hall. Please do not re-post without permission.
Like most operators, from the late 50s onwards, United Auto embraced the concept of one man operation but the part played in this conversion by a little-known operator in a remote Northumberland valley is often overlooked. 18BHN, seen here, was a Bristol LS6B with ECW C39F bodywork, new to United in June 1956.
When British Railways proposed the closure of the former Border Counties line between Hexham and Riccarton Junction, permission was only granted on condition that a suitable replacement bus service was provided. Between Hexham and Bellingham there was an adequate bus service, arguably much better than the irregular train service; beyond Bellingham, however, the sparse train service reflected the desolate nature of much of the countryside through which the railway passed and only a handful of school buses were provided.
Norman Fox of Falstone, who operated school buses in the area, was approached by the BTC to run a subsidised bus service linking Bellingham with the Waverley Route at Steele Road Station; Riccarton Junction (then, as now) was inaccessible by public road so the next station to the South was chosen in stead and the service commenced in September 1956.
Steele Road, like most of the stations on the Southern section of the Waverley Route, was never likely to provide much revenue; an idyllic spot, it is, nevertheless, in the middle of nowhere on a quiet minor road and consists of two short rows of cottages which sprung up after the arrival of the railway. For a few years, it now acquired an unexpected level of importance although the bus never operated as far as Steele Road on more than three days per week, terminating at Kielder on the other days; on behalf of BTC, Mr Fox was given GHN179, a Burlingham-bodied L5G (formerly BG156) with which to provide the service. In order to dispense with the need to carry a conductor, it was converted for one man operation by United and outshopped in a green livery, the first of six vehicles which were converted for OMO and supplied to Mr Fox over the next twelve years. When the post-war boom years in the bus industry were coming to a close in the mid-50s, United were looking to make savings by converting rural routes to OMO and based their thinking on the Fox experiment, converting L5Gs for their own use, initially at Ripon in 1957, then Carlisle a week later and Alnwick the following year; the buses for their own use were, however, equipped with motorised Setright machines whereas a Bellgraphic sufficed for Mr Fox! Thus the solution to the provision of transport in this remote valley was the precursor for the widespread one man operation which engulfed United within the next 10-15 years.
(United similarly provided buses for Batty of Morpeth to enable him to continue his service between Morpeth and Scots Gap.)
When Mr Fox died in 1967, an alternative operator had to be found and the service was eventually taken over by J H Thompson of Bellingham, a garage owner who traded under the name of Northern Garage. By then the service had been revised so as to operate only between Bellingham and Kielder and Mr Thompson also relied on ex-United vehicles for his fleet. His 18BHN is seen outside his premises in Bellingham. It was a Bristol LS6B with ECW C39F bodywork and had been new to United in June 1956 as their BUT18. Renumbered UT18 in November 1964, it was withdrawn in September 1967 and subsequently passed to Northern Garage. Having been built with an outward-opening single-piece door, the conversion was presumably done at Grange Road on Mr Thompson's behalf thereby continuing the goodwill between the giant and the tiny North Tyne operators.
Photo taken by Alan Hall, c.1969, Redesmouth Road, Bellingham
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