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UK bus entrepreneur Harry Blundred

My father knew Harry Blundred: The Exeter Experiment 25 years on

In late 1988 I spotted an advert in the appointments page of Bus Business magazine that caught my eye like a discarded £5 note. ‘Blundred Needs Some Brains’ it said: ‘apply Belgrave Road, Exeter’. Even in the buccaneering days immediately after de-regulation, this was unconventional. I had to apply. So several weeks later I found myself in Devon General’s boardroom, and my first encounter with Harry Blundred – Chairman, Managing Director, and ‘proprietor’ of Transit Holdings. A second interview rapidly followed (held – typically for Devon General in those days – in a pub). The job was mine.

To say that Harry Blundred was slightly unconventional is like saying that Brian Souter is slightly Scottish. Formal meetings were a rarity. Instead, control was exercised by frequent phone calls and ‘walkabouts’. He had no office as such, only the Board Room. Harry sat at one end of the long table, next to a huge phone, and I sat fifteen feet away at the other. The Planning Manager was regularly summoned by a thump on the office wall. A picture window looked out over the Bus Station, to ensure that we were always aware who was paying our wages.

Blundred was the first person I knew well who owned a mobile phone. As early morning was one of his most creative periods, ideas would spring into life over breakfast and a constant stream of phone calls would be received with his latest thoughts on routes, fares, vehicles or strategy, well before his arrival in the office at around 9:30am. (This allowed him to carry out vital domestic chores like feeding Muscadet, his pet rat, or giving orders to his housekeeper, the unseen ‘Mrs Thing’).

(Lunch at DG, in those far off days, was a civilised affair - long, and expansive. When the Public Relations Manager, Rick Hartnell, retired a party was called at The Imperial Hotel, Exeter. Armies of busmen who had worked for The Devon General Omnibus & Touring Company arrived for a ‘do’ that began with lunch around midday, and blurred into afternoon tea, cocktails and finally dinner. We staggered out into a fleet of waiting minibuses, thirteen hours after arrival. This was typical of both Harry’s style and generosity.)

The secret of Blundred’s success was his instinctive grasp of what passengers wanted. It is a rare talent. During a spell at Southdown in the 1970s, Blundred had been involved in such unusual practices (for NBC) as dual door buses, rear number blinds and route branding. At City of Oxford Motor Services (COMS) he quietly abandoned corporate livery and ran the London service as a 30-minute shuttle – twin heresies within NBC. All ideas that would be reinvented and adapted at Devon General.

Blundred had swept into Exeter from the Traffic Manager’s post at Oxford tasked by NBC with delivering the break-up of the Western National Omnibus Company. Small, and not sprawl, was once again beautiful. The rambling WNOC was to be split into four manageable parts. Blundred was made Managing Director of the revived Devon General, and it was the years at COMS that set the direction for the new company.

COMS had spent the 1970s as a maverick. Instead of the county council micro-management and deficit-financing almost universal in the 70s, Oxford County and City councils had taken a quite different approach – the ‘Balanced Transport Policy. This meant parking controls, bus lanes and park & ride, but very little in terms of bus subsidies. The buses would have to rely on passenger revenue - a 1920s concept, totally out of tune with the corporatist 70s. It was years ahead of its time. Rather than collapsing, bus services in and around Oxford had prospered, with a large fleet of mainly two-door double deckers carrying healthy loads on a dense network of simple, high-frequency routes.

Exeter was quite a different matter – a much more typical early 80s recipe of ‘everywhere to everywhere’ low-frequency services and complicated inter-worked timetables, worked by 30-odd Bristol VRs (plus the odd vintage Atlantean). To keep things civilised, most of the buses were safely tucked away in plenty of time for the closing credits of ‘Crossroads’. Blundred was appalled. Exeter is a compact, dense and thriving city. If Oxford could have buses running every 8 minutes on major corridors, why couldn’t Exeter? A cheeky request for 30 dual-door Olympians was sent into NBC HQ, and quickly rejected.

Time has burnished many peoples’ memories of the ‘regulated’ era, but the fact is that by 1983 rising subsidies and falling patronage were typical in most networks. The strategists at NBC could see that a point would arrive in some companies when a mythical ‘Last Passenger’ would make an annual, ceremonial journey, and the staff could spend the rest of the year tending their allotments. Something Had To Be Done.

The way Blundred told the story, he received a phone call from NBC director John Hargreaves (known in DG as Joe Maplin) and was told: ‘you can’t have 30 Olympians, but you can have 50 minibuses’.

In 1982 an entrepreneur called Anthony Shepherd, the former Traffic Commissioner of Hong Kong, had applied for licences to operate a HK type Jitney service in London. Even with Mrs Thatcher in Downing Street, London Transport and NBC were having none of that, and had quickly seen Shepherd off in the traffic courts. But ‘Maplin’ and other NBC panjandrums wanted to give the idea a try before somebody else did. Blundred’s Exeter request arrived at just the right time. Surely here was the man to put the idea into practice? NBC HQ would underwrite any losses .

Exeter was an ideal location for the trial. Conventional thinking in 1983 was that the best bus territory was in the big cities, but Exeter was much more typical of many NBC towns. Furthermore the City services received no direct subsidy. This meant that it was not necessary to spend years persuading the mandarins at Devon County Hall to give permission to carry out such a radical experiment. DG had been an early adopter of the Timtronic computerised ticket machine, and this would allow the passenger reaction to be easily and scientifically monitored. Finally, the trade union (significantly the National Union of Railwaymen, and not the TGWU) was open to an approach. They were pragmatists .The minibus drivers would be paid less, but there would be many more of them, and they would pay the (full) Union subscription and help to recoup the members lost as British Rail pruned staff levels. To make matters easier, DG already had a special minibus agreement with the Union, for the Tiverton Town minibus (a 12 seater Mercedes).

What arrived in1984 was Number 7 (A 927 MDV) – quickly dubbed ‘Little Willie’ – a Ford Transit bread-van, with holes punched in the side by Midland Red’s Carlyle Works, and 16-seats fitted where the baps would have gone. Appropriately, the shape was disguised by a ‘wedge-of-cheese’ livery with a black skirt, bright yellow flash, and NBC poppy red bonnet and roof. The second prototype Transit, Number 8, was converted by PMT – an even more curious vehicle with windows like the portholes of a midget submarine.

The traditionalists within Devon General were horrified. These weren’t proper buses. ‘Give ‘em six months before they fall to pieces’ was the expert consensus. But to an older generation of busmen, the few surviving Old Soldiers who remembered the ‘Pre-regulation’ era, Little Willy did not look so strange. It was what Harry called ‘An Agricultural Vehicle’ – his ideal bus. It had a simple chassis, with a manual gearbox and the engine in the right place (at the front). It could be maintained with a spanner and a decent sized hammer. The later Mercedes Benz 709s and 811s were in fact similar in size and mechanical layout to the Leyland Lions that were a national standard when the UK bus industry was a Google-like powerhouse of innovation.

Transits had been used on services such as LT’s Hampstead dial-a-ride for about ten years, and were invariably criticised for their short component life. Harry realised that this didn’t matter. The parts were mass produced and cheap, and could be changed quickly – in many cases overnight, and in some cases during driver breaks. And they could be maintained by semi-skilled labour from the car trade. Spare bus ratios were slashed as the Transits proved amazingly robust and durable (many ran for ten years).

The Exeter Experiment had two objectives. The first was to find out what would happen if a Hong Kong style minibus service were unleashed against one of NBC’s own operations. For this reason one of the routes (Heavitree Road) was initially ‘in competition’ with the DG VRs.

The second objective was to find out what would happen if minibuses replaced a standard bus service altogether.

Passenger numbers responded immediately. But don’t think that the minibuses were a cheap fix. The costs per-bus, were considerably lower, but the number of bus miles ran were far higher. Total costs had actually gone up. So the whole experiment only made financial sense if the patronage and revenue could be substantially increased. Luckily they could. The VRs and Nationals were quietly phased out.

By 1989, Exeter had an incredibly intensive service for a city of 100,000 people. Most daytime routes ran every five or seven minutes, but routes overlapped, so most stops had a bus every three or four minutes. Evening services ran at 15 or 20-minute intervals until well after 11pm.

Good use was made of the minis to get into the heart of housing areas, and everything operated on a Hail & Ride basis (the original marketing name planned for the network had, in fact, been Maxi Taxi and not MiniBus). New housing areas were served by frequent services well before most of the homes were ever occupied. The Park & Ride sites at Matford and Sowton were cleverly located adjacent to industrial estates, and this allowed the AM peak loadings into the City to be balanced by decent loads of estate workers travelling outbound.

I think it is fair to say that as far as the public was concerned, they hated the vehicles but they loved the service. The Transits were undoubtedly cramped, with narrow seats (three-cheekers we called them), but they allowed the operation of a timetable that was a huge improvement over what had gone before.

The colour coding was an immediate hit. This was further enhanced by colourful destination blinds and a high standard of roadside information.

Operationally, the minibuses required very different disciplines. A sixteen-seater is a wonderful thing, provided you aren’t the seventeenth passenger. Even small delays on a two-minute frequency would open up gaps, and this could lead to passengers swamping the next bus and passengers left behind.

The answer was very active radio control. Our drivers were generally good at reporting ‘passengers being left behind’ and extra buses were often inserted into the service when things started to go wrong. Passengers could also be kept informed that there really was ‘another one on its way’. Therefore Harry favoured the ’talk-through’ system, where all drivers could hear all of the radio traffic (as could the passengers) to promote team sprit and communication .

The drawback was that talk-through could be abused,. Several months were spent searching for the mysterious Chicken Driver whose repertoire of realistic avian noises had become legendary, and disruptive. He was never traced. (Equally bizarre was the Exeter man who woke up one morning, believing that he was a bus inspector. Dressed in an official-looking overcoat, and carrying a mocked-up radio handset, he managed to convince numerous passengers, and some of the staff that he was in charge, before a restraining order was granted to keep him away from the buses)

Blundred’s approach to planning was distinctive. In the old days, estates had been linked across the City to maximise rostering efficiency on infrequent routes. The high frequency operation now made scheduling far easier. The minibuses deliberately linked housing areas of similar socio-economic character – never again would Exeter bus passenger have to sit on a bus next to their social superiors. Buses were kept on one route, and drivers with one bus, all day. This greatly aided the reliability of the operation and contained traffic problems to the routes directly affected. Changeovers only took place at the terminals (or the City Centre). This made it far easier to accommodate last minute changes to driver breaks, and passengers never had to endure the inconvenience of waiting for a replacement driver. Finally, drivers were allowed to take their buses home for lunch, and it was common to see minibuses parked outside drivers’ homes.

Another crucial Harry-ism was that Devon General was a High Street retailer. He understood that no one wants to go to a bus station. The strength of the City service was our direct access to the shops, employment and leisure facilities centred on the High Street, which was shared by buses and pedestrians. It also provided a convenient, attractive interchange hub. Therefore a huge amount of effort went into maintaining operational discipline in the city centre (which had over 200 minibuses per hour at peak times), and reminding the city fathers of the benefits that high quality public transport was bringing.

Once the ‘red’ minibus unit had reached 30 buses, a second operation, coded ‘blue’ was started, then a third - ‘the greens’. Each had its’ own buses, drivers, inspectors and manager and Blundred actively fostered a healthy rivalry between them. By 1989 well over 100 minibuses were on the road, and passenger numbers had roughly doubled. A similar operation was started in Torbay in 1986, and this showed the limitations of the concept. The 16-seaters struggled to cope with the huge seasonal fluctuations in demand, and the more complicated geography of Torbay made the network much harder to market. But even here the patronage growth was impressive.

By the time I arrived, Blundred had led the first management buyout from NBC on 19th August 1986 and Transit Holdings had been created as an umbrella company, starting Thames Transit in 1987.

His next move was to rethink DG’s country network. In 1988 these were still being run by a hodgepodge of VRs, Nationals, Leopards and LHs that were expensive to maintain and would be costly to replace. The core market was subordinated to school journeys and diversions to serve remote villages.

Harry’s idea was to apply the City principles to the country routes, this time using 23-seat Mercedes Benz 709s . The school journeys were separated out, whilst the core network was ruthlessly pruned and simplified. In those days congestion was a much more isolated problem, and full advantage was taken of the superior acceleration of the Mercedes to reduce running times. All this meant that a relatively small fleet could deliver a very intensive timetable (on the main flows at least) and frequencies were radically improved from Exeter to places like Teignmouth, Tiverton and Exmouth. Another ancient tradition was revived, and DG began closing its country depots and out-stationing the Mercedes overnight in pub car parks. The results were impressive – lower costs, higher frequencies, faster journeys, more passengers.

The Transits have now gone, but many of Harry Blundred’s fresh ideas – simple networks, high frequencies, day tickets, route branding – have become today’s bus industry common sense.