Practical Bus Operation

Page last updated 3 March 2013


A.N. Inspector, Stuart Perry and Ian Hogben describe some of the tricks of the trade (and how to deal with them).




[Contributed by A.N. Inspector]  Scratching is deliberately driving more slowly than the normal service speed to lose time, sometimes called ‘dragging the road’, in an effort to get the bus behind to overtake and then take the double road. 


The bus behind has the incentive to go around, rather than leave the bus in front to take the two loads, if the following crew are finished on the way or the way back.


The Official(s) running the route know the crews and it becomes important to let the crew doing their job properly know that the scratching crew will suffer by action not words. My solution was to leave the scratching crew get on with it, turn the following crew one point short and tell them to come out 5 early and maintain that back but not to go around the bus in front and stay one stop behind all the way to the turn and then show the garage on the way back.


Once the scratching crew see that they are on their own and going through they generally get the message, the agreement with the T&G was that whilst we, the Officials, would try and get crews off on time we can insist that all crews do their scheduled mileage and the scratching crew will do just that whether they like it or not!


Whilst this will mean a complaint from the Union (I used to get a lot of these), it quickly gets around the garage that this crew got stitched up and probably finished late which lets the majority of crews that do their job properly know that you, the Official, are playing the game with the crews and expect the crews do likewise, which the vast majority do.


Punching up


[Contributed by A.N. Inspector]  Punching is following close (well in sight) behind the bus in front but not arriving at the stop its on until most, if not all, the intending passengers have already boarded it.


This is a different kettle of fish.  You often get buses of different routes along the same stretch of road and these buses may be within minutes of their correct times so the crews may not be committing the usual offences but there is a requirement to keep a suitable headway between buses of all routes over the same stretch of road where possible.  Sometimes this is not possible and others you may not want to do anything for other reasons.


You have to take into account the possible loadings before taking action, e.g. it could be at the Angel on a busy Saturday where a 73, 38, 277 and a 19 all turn up together with enough people waiting to fill two of the 4 buses.  Now LT often have two stops to divide the routes and create two queues at busy points for buses going in different directions so in this case we can discount the 73 and 277 as one will go towards Kings Cross and the other towards Smithfield.  However the 38 and 19 will follow the same route to Hyde Park and none of the buses will want to wait to see what you’re going to do because they’re on time and no chance of a turn, so you have to decide as you see them arriving and ‘go for it’.  The worst possible thing, all things being equal, is to do nothing. 


Two buses different routes but same section of road for a reasonable length of journey.  Let's say you’re at Hackney Station (Graham Road) and a 277 comes around from Well Street and a 38 comes from Clapton Pond, the opposite direction.  They both follow the same road to the Angel but the 38 has to go to Victoria and the 277 is finished just past the Angel at Smithfield.  The 277 will want the 38 to go around him but the 38 won’t want to, now the 38 knows that the 277 is finished after the Angel so whilst the 277 will go slow to encourage the 38 to go around the 38 won’t want to but if he hangs back he’ll finish up late at the Angel and the following 38 will either be with him or not far away.  So as the 38 has just started his journey common sense would tell him to get on with it and hope he catches a 22 at Holborn rather than piss-about with the 277 at the part on the route that normally gives the chance to get his foot down and narrow the gap between him and the 38 in front of him which will make life easier all the way rather than just for part of the journey.  Again holding the bus is an option but only with the 277 because the 38 has only just started and has a long way to go. 


The easiest way to slow/hold the bus without alienating the crew (unless you what to and sometimes you do!) is to question the driver's timekeeping in the nicest possible way and look confused, ask for the driver's running card (time board), look at your watch, etc, and as soon as the other bus is out of sight say something like ‘Oh I see, sorry driver, go when you get the bell’ then walk back along the bus and call to the conductor, ‘Ring off when you’re ready conductor’ - job done without acrimony.


Stuart Perry adds: In the days of crew working, you were always paired with the same conductor (except for overtime and rest day working), so you always tried to protect him or her.


I imagine that all crews at whatever garage took the same view as we did at MH that you drove very differently on your local routes (210, 212 and 244) from how you did on the Central London routes 43 and 134.


We ran the three local routes exclusively with no other garages involved, apart from T and AR on the 210 on Sundays. I think in all honesty we tried to run these routes with the public in mind. Usually the spacings on the road were maintained but if you caught the bus in front you would always go round him and help out to try to keep the service as even as possible. I would even pass a T or an AR on the 210 if they were struggling or didn't know our end of the route very well.


The 43 and 134 was a completely different style of driving.  You never passed any bus from another garage on any other route.  You might occasionally pass another 43 if he was in trouble, as he was obviously also an MH as we were the only garage operating that route, but you would not pass him if he was already punching up other buses.  This applied especially up and down the Holloway Road where convoys were common.


The 134 was dog eat dog.  Not only were there other routes duplicating various parts of the service, there were also two other garages J and PB on the 134.  Coming up behind another 134 you could not see the running number or RT number so it was vital you learnt the registration numbers of our own buses from MH so you knew if you were going to help or not.


'The 134 was dog eat dog'.  Here in Trafalgar Square, a MH Routemaster keeps behind J (Holloway) RT2759.  The Routemaster is newly received at MH in summer 1964, but RTs remained scheduled on the route until 1969.  The buses are accompanied by New Cross's RT267 on the 53 and an TL on the 12.

Photo © Fred Ivey


Punching up other buses was all about split second decisions. For example you are on a northbound 134 journey from Pimlico.  You have picked up a 24 and he doesn't like it and starts dragging the road. What do you do? Well he will take most of the passengers but you will lose him at Camden Town and you have a lot further to go after that than he does. I would try to stick with him as far as Mornington Crescent and then speed round him hoping you might find a 27 or 137 to take you to Archway. If you did then just before the stop at Camden Town there was a heavily used pedestrian crossing, so you could be the world's politest driver and sit at the crossing and let the 27 or 137 clear the queue. It all made for taking any boredom out of the duty.


Whilst the main object of punching up other buses was to avoid heavy loadings, the whole badge of honour thing (see Ian Hogben's note, next) was always a factor.  As an example on the 43, if you were punching up an FY on the 104, any 43 drivers coming in the opposite direction would always give you the thumbs up.  Much of the garage banter involved tales of any driver who had been seen getting slaughtered with a three bell load on the Holloway Road.


To sum up I think the public got a far better service from local routes than those through central London where from a drivers point of view your priority was not to allow other buses to mess with you.


Ian Hogben (see Memories on route 216) adds:


Punching up wasn’t always done to avoid heavy loadings.  It was sometimes a badge of honour – a way in which you could demonstrate (and later boast) to other colleagues that you had had the guile to pull one over on drivers who were otherwise your best mates.


One such example:


RF route 218 (to Staines) had three duties leaving Kingston garage first thing in the morning, with a bare one minute between each. The three buses went respectively to Staines, Laleham and Shepperton. Each of these destinations was ten minutes running time apart, so that on the return (Kingston bound) journeys, there would then be a twenty minute gap between each.


Before the outbound journey from Kingston the banter would go something like: “Once I leave the garage, you won’t see me again,” to which the reply was normally: “I’m going to punch you all the way to .  .  . ” etc. etc.  On those first journeys there were never more than three or four passengers IN TOTAL. But it was a matter of honour that YOU didn’t pick them up, but that someone else did. And it went like this:


Bus 1 left the garage and, at the junction of Eden Street, went straight on instead of left.  Bus 2 left a minute behind and the driver, unaware of where the first bus had gone took his normal line of route (Eden Street – Portsmouth Road), with Bus 3 a minute behind that. Meanwhile Bus 1 went round the one way system and was now the third in line.


Now on a straight bit of road, Bus 2s driver realised he had been had, and swung into the service road behind ‘Banana’ island, a grassy reservation at the left side of Portsmouth Road which had several large trees on it. He switched the lights off and watched as Bus 3 trundled past, followed by Bus 1.


Similar tricks were pulled at Scilly Isles and Esher ‘one-way’ system. I myself once backed into West End Lane, Esher and watched a bus that had circled Esher rush past the end of the road, only to find him behind me again at Hersham, where he had turned left (instead of right) and circled The Green before emerging on my tail.  And all this before we’d even got to the Barley Mow, where the first regular punter was always waiting.


Spice was added if Gold Badge Lenny Britton and his mate were on the prowl and we always had to be ready with an excuse.  The running times at that hour of the morning were always more than generous (sixty eight minutes, when you could have done it in forty) though the public never suffered by our high-jinks, but by gum, it didn’t half break the tedium.


But despite this, during the peaks, if a driver was really struggling (and he’d have to be if you managed to catch him up with the headways we had), with few exceptions we’d always go round and help him out.




[Contributed by Stuart Perry]  Hopping was less frequent than scratching and punching up, but basically by signal you agreed with another driver you would work the road together.  To do this you passed alternate request stops and pulled round each other at alternate compulsories.  So leaving aside any bells for unloading you caught up a lot of time by missing out on half the stops.  You had to know and trust the other driver but working well together usually paid dividends later on that particular journey.


I remember a good example on the 134.  I was pulling out of Victoria Station forecourt and at the same time one of my best mates was coming up Wilton Road from Pimlico.  I had RT378 and he had RT2621 so we both had good buses and nodded to each other we would hop the road.


By the time we reached Goodge Street tube station we had caught a J and a PB messing with each other in the heavy traffic up Tottenham Court Rd. That was of course the time to tuck in behind and we punched them up all the way to the crew change stop at Colney Hatch Lane. All 4 buses arrived in convoy, all late because it was the evening peak.  The checker gave us a wry smile.  He knew what we had been up to but chose to turn a blind eye because he had at least two buses less behind time than they might have been.




[Contributed by Stuart Perry]  There were two different species. Checkers were allocated to a fixed location. It was their job to sort out late running and turn you short on the next journey so you could regain your correct running time and if they could eliminate service gaps. Jumpers were mobile and their job was to check up on conductors to make sure that all the passengers had a valid ticket. One of the biggest fiddles for conductors was to take the cash and conveniently forget to issue a ticket particularly to rabbits who were using the upper deck for a short hop and paid on the staircase when leaving.


The rodside checkers had a difficult job dealing with late running.  For example, on the 134, any bus leaving Pimlico or Victoria between say 16.30 and 18.00 had no chance of reaching Friern Barnet on time. The three main bottlenecks were Tottenham Court Road northbound, Camden Town junction and Archway. If you were running into MH garage, you simply logged arrival time and were paid overtime.  If however you had another southbound journey scheduled, you would be given a short to Charing Cross, or if very late to Warren Street Post Office Tower using the 269 waiting stop. The problem of course was that in the early evening there was then hardly any service to Victoria or Pimlico. To try and correct this, the checker at Camden Town would sometimes tell you to run short on the northbound journey  to Archway and the checker there would then send you back to Pimlico.