Coffee-Break Memories : Rail replacement – a job of Olympian effort

Public transport for the masses is not a job for the faint-hearted, especially when it comes to rail replacement and most certainly following a tragedy. In times of crisis, you would like to think the public become understanding and, for most of the time, they do…

However, sometimes they don’t.

The Leyland Olympian with ECW bodywork. My steed for that day was very similar to this East Yorkshire variant.
The Leyland Olympian with ECW bodywork. My steed for that day was very similar to this
East Yorkshire variant

Now you would think that shovelling people onto buses would be a simple task – for most of the time it is. I used to work to a strict practice of what I called the Three G Rule – gerrem on, gerrem there and, lastly, gerrem off. It’s a simple policy that works for me anyway. Going back a good few years, my favourite type of bus work was rail replacement duty and the aforementioned rule was enforced to the letter. Drivers of a slightly more softer nature find themselves breaking out into a cold sweat at the thought of rail duties, but I loved it and, to a degree, still do when asked to turn a wheel in times of crisis.

Most of the time rail replacement judders into effect when there is either major strike action or weekend/off-peak engineering works. It’s a straightforward affair – study the map, work to the highlighted bits of the timetable and crack on with it. A crash helmet and baseball bat are, of course, optional driver equipment if it’s London Underground work but, for most of the time, a stint of this kind of work passes without too much fuss. Some of the questions the public will ask you will make you think the world’s gone mad though – I was once asked by an elderly lady who clambered onto a coach where the meals would be served while another argued with me about her seat reservation… honest!

If you are not involved yourself, ask anyone who works in the public sector what its really like. Shop workers, bank clerks and so on will no doubt tell you of incidents which will have you almost disbelieving what you’ve just heard. Bus driving is a thankless task these days, get those lovely images of Stan and Jack in On The Buses leaning on the engine cover at the end of the number 11 route to the cemetery gates enjoying some light hearted mildly sexist banter and a crafty Woodbine out of your head – it’s not like that anymore. The bosses are bullies, the passengers are often rude or violent and, quite often, the routes have been timed by someone riding a motorbike with a stopwatch.

However, when things go wrong – horribly wrong – our Dunkirk spirit kicks in. This was shown to me just over sixteen years ago to the day following the awful event that was the Hatfield train accident – the event that was known in the industry as ‘the accident that shut down the railway’ on 17 October 2000. A northbound GNER train was derailed after a section of curved track disintegrated under it at 115mph. The whole rail network effectively went into meltdown as almost 2000 speed restrictions were immediately enforced nationwide and, such was the scale and effect of such a huge engineering investigation, that Railtrack was forced into bankruptcy.

A GNER Class 91 hammers through the Cambridgeshire Fenlands. It was one of these that derailed just south of Hatfield effectively shutting down the whole rail network immediately afterwards.
A GNER Class 91 hammers through the Cambridgeshire Fenlands. It was one of these that
left the tracks just south of Hatfield effectively shutting down the whole UK network due
to a shattered rail in October 2000 – a very sad state of affairs indeed

Even though I had left bus work sometime earlier and was now back in the motor trade at this time, a near neighbour and snooker partner worked as an Operations Manager of now long-gone bus company. He was aware I held a PSV licence and used to call me or pop round to tempt me with some sneaky bus work on my days off. At the time of the aforementioned accident I was living in Bedfordshire and it was BIG news in every sense. The East Coast Main Line (ECML) and Midland Mainline (MML) both ran close by providing commuter links to London, South Yorkshire and much further beyond.

During the ECML track closure between the Stevenage and Peterborough stations as a direct result of the tragedy near Hatfield, buses and coaches were put on to provide a link between these two stopping points of Britain’s fastest mainline route. It was mayhem and chaos of the highest order as emergency timetables were drawn up and a motley crew of vehicles sourced from all over the east of England were draughted in to restore some kind of order to this part of the railway. Anyway, there I was one evening wiring in some dimmer switches when there was a knock on the door – the kind of knock that comes moments before a favour is asked, you know the sort.

There stood Barry, my bus operator neighbour, and once invited inside, he asked me if I could do a couple of shifts behind the wheel – he’d rightly presumed I was available as he noticed seen my car parked outside when normally I had been at work during the daytime. Having recently moved house, I had taken some holiday to help put the new place in order. I knew the girlfriend at that time would be somewhat unimpressed with me dropping my screwdrivers and tools to go driving buses – but money was money. Bright and earlyish next morning I arrived at the depot for emergency rail replacement duties and Barry pointed at a long line of vehicles saying ‘take what you fancy.’

There were some nice vehicles on display, including some nearly new coaches, but I asked for an elderly but straight looking Leyland Olympian double decker – tactical, of course, as there would be no messing around with suitcases for starters. This was agreed but I was advised that it liked a drop of oil so a few gallons of lube were put into gallon bottles and stowed in a cubby under the staircase out of sight – passengers get jittery at the sight of a five gallon drum of oil tied to a seat stanchion with rope you see. After a chat, a quick smoke and a brew I was on my way to Stevenage to operate A.D (as directed) by the Rail Replacement Supervisor on duty.

Peterborough. The usual throng of people and taxis was replaced by mass confusion and a very long queue of buses and coaches for well over a week.
Peterborough -the usual throng of people and taxis was replaced by mass confusion and a
very long queue of buses and coaches for quite a while until the network was decreed
safe for normal operations

Nothing could be simpler, drive from Stevenage to Peterborough station, throw everyone off and await your next turn of A.D duty. With it being a double deck bus the passengers would be hand picked for you ensuring no one had cases, large bags, bicycles, elephants, grand pianos and so on – just fill up the bus and scarper. Barry was right, though, that Olympian certainly did like a drop of oil which lead to a funny comment from a GNER old hand who was on duty. He rather sarcastically quipped ‘them old Deltics were two stroke as well you know’ as almost a gallon of oil was poured into the Gardner’s sump – and that was after just one journey!

The bus was well used but in good fettle despite its drinking problem. Its final drive gearing was that high its acceleration was somewhat leisurely, but on a flat stretch of the A1M the old dog would just about nudge sixty or so miles an hour. At that speed, the wiper pantographs would flutter in the wind like butterfly wings and the steering wheel required more corrections than a five-year old’s nine times table as you battled to keep the damn thing in a straight line. The events up front in the cab were not much different to when Han Solo jumped light speed in his Millennium Falcon in that epic movie Star Wars – in fact, I’m sure I muttered to myself once or twice ‘you better hold on to your hat kid.’

The passengers were quiet and slightly solemn. Everyone knew this service was provided in the face of a tragic, yet avoidable accident and the rail staff were putting on a brave face about it, too. In fact, the esprit de corps shown by all the railway folk was nothing short of admirable and quite touching – we really do puff out our chests and put our shoulders to the wheel when things go really wrong, I think. But sometimes something… or rather someone comes along to really push and test everyone’s patience. One such person indeed came along moments before my final departure from Peterborough to Stevenage in the early evening.

Awaiting for the off, I was stood round the offside of the bus chatting with a platform staff member about this and that when we overheard and argument building momentum around the other side. There stood a Supervisor and a smartly dressed, city-looking gent getting into a full swing session of a battle of words. The man was demanding why he was having to share a seat on bus with the masses when he possessed a first class season ticket. Not only that, but he was also extremely upset about there being no refreshments on offer to the passengers once on board. We eventually shepherded him onto the bus at which point came out with one of the daftest things I’ve ever heard.

My 10.45 litre Gardner 180 was somewhat lacking compared to the 4500bhp of an HST set. The usual train journey time of 31 minutes took a little bit longer.
My 10.45-litre Gardner 180 was somewhat lacking compared to the 4500bhp of an HST
set or the 6480 of an electric Class 91 – as a result, the usual train journey time of
31 minutes took a little bit longer

Staring at his GNER timetable, he asked me if the journey time would still be taking around 30 minutes as the timetable depicted. Now bear in mind reader that the distance by road between these two exact points is around 60 miles. The train manages to do this journey point to point in half an hour for two differing reasons. Firstly, the distance is somewhat shorter as the line is almost as the crow flies. Secondly, a diesel high-speed train with some 4500hp of Valenta power or an electric Class 91 locomotive with almost 6500 rattles along at over two miles per minute – hardly comparable to the 180hp Gardner diesel in an elderly double decker bus.

Eventually, the moaning chap sat down and then proceeded to bore the life out of the passenger sitting next to him about his inconveniences – what happened next was another example of public spirit in the face of adversity. Another chap who was sitting nearby quietly reading his paper became embroiled. He folded up said news material and mentioned across to the complaining city dweller that one of his work colleagues was, in fact, in hospital with serious life-changing injuries sustained from that very same train crash. It was suggested he best keep quiet and show some consideration for others, otherwise his briefcase would be firmly shoved… Well, I’m sure you get the idea, don’t you?

After a smattering of applause from the other passengers rang out, the moaning Minnie duly went salmon pink – and kept quiet for the rest of the journey.

Sometimes the public can make you want to weep… but sometimes they are tears of pride!

Mike Humble


  1. Rail replacement work was a big deal for local bus and coach companies during the upgrade of the WCML between Preston and Carlisle in the noughties. Usually the work would take place at weekends. Also another form of rail replacement work existed locally due to the unreliability of the trains Virgin inherited from British Rail in the late nineties, fleets of taxis would be waiting at stations in case a train broke down.

  2. These must be horrible jobs – working with the public is hard work at the best of times but when they are already disrupted or delayed they can be even more charming than usual. I can vouch for people in rail and bus pulling together in times of crisis – there are Some good people out there.

    As for Olympuans there are still a few in active service – my son gets them to and from school every day.

    • Some bus drivers can be abrupt and aggressive( I can think of some miseries when I used to use public transport), but some passengers can be awful and for some reason at night, buses seem to attract criminals and anti social weirdos. On one occasion I got off a bus and was attacked by two people for no apparent reason and on another, two idiots with baseball caps back to front decided to spit on the passengers in front of them and a fight broke out.

  3. Rail replacement buses/coaches once got to be such a huge percentage of the rail travel mileage, that the joke in the rail industry was a bus operator was the biggest rail operator !

    Despite working in the rail industry for 40 years I never got involved in passenger work, it was freight for 10 years then 30 years in IT and consultancy abroad.

    When I was working in Romania, one of the local IT staff told us that on one local branch line, the conductors had armed guards to make sure they could collect the fares, and, more important, keep them !! I think the line was Bucharest-Oltanita

  4. My father in law worked for most of his working life on the bus industry and can definitely say that passengers can be a complete pain but are genuinely pretty polite, however my brother in law who still works in the trade (in the garage) says some of the new drivers are complete idiots and are very rude not just to passengers!.

  5. I’ve only twice needed to use replacement buses for trains.

    One was to get from Manchester Picadilly to Marple, which took ages as it needed to go to every station along the line by road, had I known I would have gone by train to Stockport & got a bus from there.

    The other was between Milton Keynes & Rugby when the WCML needed work on it.

    This was a non-stop coach & didn’t take too long.

    I had the same seat booked for me on both trains so it was a bit deja vu.

    • Was only ever an occasional train user myself.

      Only ever got rail replacement once, from Uphall Station to Edinburgh.

      It was a double decker and so had to loop back towards Livingston / A899 to avoid the low railway bridge.

      Straight down the M8 though, straight on to Edinburgh Park which was new at the time, lots of unused roads and roundabouts IIRC (about 10 years ago) and IIRC it went straight on down a bus route and used the guided busway at Saughton!

  6. Was there some point to the last part of this tale ? Or was it just a bit of class warfare , sneering at a first class passenger ? And what does it have to do with Austin Rover ?

    • I think the point of the last bit was to prove that there’s always one. And what it has to do with AR? well the bus was made by leyland and the train was British built. Gone are the days when this site was just about BLARG, it’s so much more these days and all the better for it

  7. Ah, the Gardner 6LXB, the busman’s favourite.

    My dad drove quite a few thousand miles with one of these. Daimler Fleetlines and MCW Metrobuses in London.

    Unfortunately, Gardner let the grass grow under their feet and it hecame obsolete and they were overtaken by the likes of Cummins and continental vehicles.

    • I used to love the old Gardner engined Olympians the company I work for had, sadly we had to get rid as didn’t meet DDA, but they were some of the best buses I’ve driven

  8. I’ve never seen so many old buses as when the rail replacement services run, it’s like a heritage bus line!

  9. Driving rail reps can be split into planned and unplanned. With the planned variety you can prepare your route and ensure you know where to go etc.
    Unplanned reps are far worse. The passengers are turfed off a train made to wait outside a station for any vehicle that can be dragged out. Drivers will have no idea about where to go or how long they are working for and have no briefing about onward travel arrangements.
    Approaching a town you don’t know, with 70 people on a double deckers can be nerve wracking, as you look for signs as to where the station is. Of course many stations are adjacent to railway bridges, which increases the stress levels.
    My worst moment came when I was forced into a three point turn outside a station building, only for the(Metro)bus not to stay in reverse. This necessitated keeping one hand on the gear selector, one on the reverse button whilst trying to put a bit of lock on. All this whilst people crowded to the front to continue their journey.

  10. Clearly on that occasion that complaining passenger was out of order. However as I – usually at least once a week – sit on a seriously delayed Virgin West Coast service quietly fuming I look around at the quiet resignation of my fellow travellers and despair. No one really complains so Richard Bransons minions just shrug assume no ones bothered and continue to offer a diabolically poor service with absolutely no incentive to up their game. Virgin are far from the worst offender here of course.

  11. Another point on rail replacement is getting passengers asking to be dropped off at their local bus stop. it does get tiring trying to explain we can only stop at stations and not bus stops. Also the look of bus passengers stood at stops with their hand out as you trundle by can speak a thousand words. I often get my parentage questioned.

  12. An ex-colleague was unhappy about his rail journey and accosted a railway worker at Waterloo Station. The actress Prunella Scales came along and really laid in to the railway worker. My ex-colleague said ‘I came away, I could not compete with that’.

    Yes, good to go off at a tangent sometimes and the story of the first class chap was on a vehicle.

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