In this section, we define six eras for the bus industry. They are Timetable World's interpretation:
- Regulated private and municipal ownership: 1930 – 1947
- The British Transport Commission era: 1948 – 1961
- The Transport Holding Company era: 1962 – 1968
- The NBC/PTE era: 1969 – 1986
- Bus deregulation: 1986 – present
For the purpose of timetable presentation, we are treating this as a single 100-year-long era (for now), although it covers much change: the development of horse-bus services, the introduction of trams, the transition to motorised buses and the emergence of powerful operators like London General.
Prior to World War 1, railways were still being built. The Light Railways Act 1896 changed some of the construction standards required, as Germany, Belgium and others had been observed to be building dense networks of “neighbourhood” railways at half the cost of British lines. However, technological advances in motor transport were rapid under the pressures of war, and brought about a frantic growth in bus services during the 1920s, often led by returning soldiers. Railways no longer seemed to be the right solution to filling transport gaps and in at least one case a light railway was lifted before completion (the Cromarty branch in Scotland).
Several parliamentary Acts were enacted during the 1920s in response to the rapid growth in all forms of motor transport.
A horse-drawn charabanc outing
Regulated private and municipal ownership: 1930 – 1947
Britain elected a minority Labour (a socialist party) government in 1929 under the leadership of Ramsey McDonald. The new government enacted the wide-ranging Road Traffic Act 1930. It introduced a Highway Code (for driving standards), the first driving tests, compulsory insurance – and regulation of the bus industry.
Some people had seen the 1920s as a “free-for-all” in bus competition, which led to some routes being over-bussed and others operated with unsafe vehicles and unreliable companies. Regional commissioners were empowered to decide on applications to operate routes and excursions and would hold hearings to consider any objections. It was a substantial undertaking and, it has been suggested, was a “snitches' charter” as operational transgressions were recorded and reported.
Courtesy of the Bus Archive, we have digitised the 1932 Notices & Proceedings for the Northern Traffic Area based in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, the first full year of regulation. This was a weekly publication, often running to over 40 pages of applications, renewals, service modifications.
The McDonald government only lasted two years. The pressures of the Depression caused its collapse and his expulsion from the party he had co-founded.
Thames Valley buses on the A4 at Maidenhead. The cold winter of 1947-48 led to widespread flooding when the thaw came
The British Transport Commission era: 1948 – 1961
The next time Britain had a socialist-led government was from 1945 to 1951. Clement Attlee’s Labour administration was given a mandate to nationalise the “commanding heights” of the British economy and set about it with gusto. Transport was brought into public ownership under the auspices of the British Transport Commission (BTC), covering railways and their hotels, docks and waterways, road freight and bus services.
The Transport Act 1947 which created the BTC defined a federal structure of five executives, each with their own financial responsibilities. The Road Transport Executive was the first to be broken up, lasting only three years as the incoming Conservative administration of 1951 quickly denationalised road freight.
Bus services remained regulated, but they were only partially in public ownership. The Tilling Group owned around 20 regional operators and provided the nucleus for public ownership by selling out when the BTC was created. Red & White (South Wales) followed, and some reshuffling of trolley bus assets acquired as part of the nationalisation of the electricity industry added more. But another holding company – British Electric Traction – persevered in private ownership (though with BTC a major shareholder) and there were still hundreds of family-owned operators.
BTC was never popular with the Conservatives, and its federal structure meant that it achieved few of the coordination benefits – such as common timetabling and ticketing straddling rail and road - that had been touted by Labour at the time of its creation. The railways were struggling financially, and their 1955 Modernisation Plan was an expensive failure. The Transport Act 1962 ended the life of BTC by creating five separate bodies, including the British Railways Board and the Transport Holding Company for the bus interests, but there was no rolling back of public ownership.