The bus to nowhere
January 13, 2022 7:47 AM   Subscribe

"On a cold winter’s evening back in 2009, over a few pints in a Bath pub, four transport professionals discussed where the most unlikely place would be to run a bus service." The answer was the uninhabited village of Imber, closed by the Ministry of Defence during World War II and since used as an urban warfare training site. And the result was bus service 23A, also known as Imberbus, most recently operated on 21 August 2021 with 18 old and new Routemaster buses stopping at Imber and Gore Cross on their way to Brazen Bottom with up to 15-minute headways, maps, printed schedules, rollsigns, and all the accoutrements one would expect from a scheduled public bus service, but maybe not one that operates once a year. An All The Stations video on the Imberbus Ghost Village Bus Service shows the route and a short interview with Sir Peter Hendy, one of the most prominent British transport executives, but also organizer of the service and apparently a huge bus nerd.
posted by grouse (19 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
Grouse, this is great! I love that the exec is "apparently a huge bus nerd." That sold it for me :) Off to read TFA.
posted by esoteric things at 8:21 AM on January 13

I was aware of both "overinvested transit nerds", and "urban-fabulist transit nerds", but learning that overinvested, urban-fabulist transit nerds not only exist, but have an elaborate annual ceremony all their own, is magnificent.
posted by mhoye at 8:24 AM on January 13 [2 favorites]

Today in buried ledes: Brazen Bottom, which in American would be "brass ass." Where'd that name come from?
posted by Halloween Jack at 8:32 AM on January 13 [2 favorites]

Honestly expected this to be a Wordshore post based on the inclusion of Brazen Bottom. Good work Grouse!
posted by Lawn Beaver at 8:35 AM on January 13

Excellent post! Remember, though: some bottoms are more brazen than others.
posted by GenjiandProust at 8:59 AM on January 13 [1 favorite]

I learned about this earlier this week because I found out that Sir Peter is expected to run the new national rail transport public body Great British Railways, and I checked out his Wikipedia page, where Imberbus is mentioned. Also, I learned that he is licensed to drive a Routemaster bus himself and owns 1.5 of them (last sourced from "Sir Peter Hendy: The Exit Interview" by MeFi's own garius). Can you imagine?
posted by grouse at 9:03 AM on January 13 [3 favorites]

all the accoutrements one would expect from a scheduled public bus service, but maybe not one that operates once a year.

I've spent a bit of time in a small town in northwestern Ontario. The bus service there operates (or perhaps operated -- I can find no trace of it online now) only during the winters, which can be grim.

I myself live in a city undeserved by public transportation; I am now imagining calling the bus check info line and hearing that the next bus will be in eighteen minutes and the following bus in eight months and nine days.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 9:09 AM on January 13 [3 favorites]

that the next bus will be in eighteen minutes and the following bus in eight months and nine days.

That's about right for my car-bound suburb on the west coast.
posted by klanawa at 9:18 AM on January 13 [4 favorites]

Having been to Imber, this seems...appropriate.
There are many places in England that include Bottom in the name, including my favourite Scratchy Bottom. This explains why.
posted by Megami at 9:40 AM on January 13 [1 favorite]

posted by Paul Slade at 9:45 AM on January 13

Velvet Bottom is also a place and this is a lovely walk:
posted by aesop at 10:49 AM on January 13

I see in these buses potential two-story housing. Or a portable vacation hub, with insulated, upstairs sleeping area, or social area with view windows.
posted by Oyéah at 3:14 PM on January 13

Well, the Routemaster is very versatile.
posted by Paul Slade at 3:34 PM on January 13 [3 favorites]

Is there such a thing as a medium bus nerd? I feel like you're either all in or you're not there.
posted by kkar at 5:06 PM on January 13 [6 favorites]

IDK, I find things as twin-steer buses intriguing, but I never had the urge to play, let's say, Bus Simulator 21, one of several detailed bus simulators available. Though I do find the enthusiasm endearing. So maybe I'm a medium bus nerd?

(Hey, I just recalled, both of my parents worked in a bus factory when I was little. I have a small ottoman at home upholstered in real Norwegian 70s public transportation materials that often gets a chuckle out of people my own age and older.)
posted by Harald74 at 12:47 AM on January 14 [2 favorites]

I learned that he is licensed to drive a Routemaster bus himself and owns 1.5 of them (last sourced from "Sir Peter Hendy: The Exit Interview" by MeFi's own garius). Can you imagine?

I think Sir P is down to one Routemaster at the moment. Last time I was out with him (pre-pandemic) he told me that he and Leon Daniels (the former head of London Buses) were selling their 'spare' that they co-owned as it was fully restored now.

But then he also told me they had their eye on an RT that needed some love, so he may be back up to 1.5 again already!

I have been to Imber many, many times. It's a phenomenal day out whether buses are normally your thing or not. Particularly in good weather. And it's easy to couple with a long weekend in Bath. Here, have some photos.

Without Sir P and Leon you don't get Imber. They're modest about it, but they, and Transport for London, did all the heavy lifting on getting it organised and legal, along with persuading the MoD that a bunch of mad people on buses flying around Salisbury Plain for a day every year was okay.

I'm not exagerating there either. It's worth noting that the bus stop from which the service departs has a Roundel on it. This is because the route is officially a London bus route, despite being 100 miles west of London.

That was how they cut through the gordian knot of paperwork and insurance issues associated with running the service: by making it an official TfL service (with the tacit support of the local council).

In that photo set above, Leon is the chap in full old-fashioned conductor gear on the back. The bus he's standing on is the one pictured in the previous photo parked up next to Bath railway station. That's Sir P's own Routemaster.

It's parked there because that photo was taken in the early hours on Imber Day, and Sir P and Leon had popped into Bath on their way over to Warminster to pick me up, and save me having to get the train over!

So yes. To say that Sir P is a transit nerd would be an understatement. That was critical to how TfL became so successful and London Transport improved immeasurably under his watch. Not least because he was (and is) a master political operator who knew how to manage Boris Johnson.

But it also led to some very interesting moments during his time as Transport Commissioner.

Some lighter ones first:

If you remember the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony, for example, you might remember there's a scene where a London bus drives over Tower Bridge, with the Olympic Rings proudly displayed on its bus blind.

Thing is, the Olympic Committee (because they're a money-grubbing organisation) had actually refused permission for the London Olympic Organisers to use the Rings this way "it's OUR brand etc. etc".

So Sir P went to the Bus Blind manufacturer and got them to make up a single Olympic Ring bus blind on the sly. He then got that fitted to the bus moments before it departed, so that there was no time for it to be spotted and removed by any lurking Olympic brand police.

Oh, and then he and Leon drove and crewed that bus themselves.

His gamble being that once it was an iconic part of the footage, the Olympic people wouldn't dare admit they'd tried to ban it. And also that they couldn't then demand anyone get fired for doing it, as they'd have to demand the resignation of the Transport Commissioner for London and the Head of London Buses.

He was correct.

Secondly, Sir P is the reason we got steam train runs on the Underground for the 150th anniversary of the Underground. The paperwork for that was insane. TfL did it all, because (as Sir P told me himself) there was no way there would ever be a chance for it to happen again - due to impending signalling system changes etc.

I still remember the test run for that in the very early hours of one morning (Sir P invited me along, on condition I kept it a secret). Two incidents stick in my mind - the bit where we accidentally set fire to the brick roof at Baker Street briefly, with Sir P laughing his arse off on the platform (the damage was minimal). You can still see the scorch marks if you look up when you're on the Sub-surface platforms. And then at Liverpool Street, where we set off all the fire alarms. I still remember Sir P leaning out of the cab chatting to the Station Manager as the alarms blared:

Sir P: "Sorry about that!"
Station Manager: "Ah well. At least we know the f*cking alarm definitely works now."

And finally, a heavier one:

Sir Peter was Transport Commissioner during the London Bombings in 2005. If you were in London during that time, or even just watched it on the news, you will remember that the terror attack specifically targeted TfL services - Underground trains and buses.

You will also remember that, as the day developed, the big question started to become:

"How will everyone get home?"

What you probably don't know is that there was a fierce argument developing about this in the COBRA committee. The big fear in the room from the Prime Minister, the national government representatives and the security services was of chaos and panic in London, and the unknown risk of further attacks. This was why all non-emergency transport in the centre of the city was banned.

As the day developed, it became increasingly clear that there were no more attacks likely, but the transport ban remained as a "better safe than sorry" thing. The Mayor of London (still Ken Livingstone at that point, thank God, not Boris Johnson) and Sir Peter however, increasingly realised that this was a problem for three reasons:

1) Londoners don't live in the centre of town. We work there. The bombs had gone off at the end of morning rush hour, meaning most people were at work. They were now effectively trapped in the centre and they needed to get home.

2) The only service not critically disrupted by the bombs was the London Bus Service. But bus drivers work in shifts and it was now after lunchtime. Both Sir P and Ken (himself a transport nerd) knew that if they didn't ask the next shift to come into work soon, then it didn't matter if COBRA decided at 5pm to open up the transport system again. There wouldn't be anyone to staff it.

3) What Londoners needed was a sign of support from the City itself. They were angry and - yes - scared, but through blitz and IRA bombings the thing London had always done was kept moving. Right now it wasn't. That was sending the wrong signal.

This dispute in the room all came to the head in the early afternoon, when they insisted that the decision had to be made now. They were then (effectively) told to leave the thinking to the national people.

"Besides," one senior security service rep said dismissively, "your drivers probably won't turn up anyway."

This was too much for the Mayor, who swore back:

"Of course they'll f*cking turn up! This is their city and it needs them!"

Permission to call in the drivers and begin restarting the bus service was still refused.

A few minutes later, outside the room, the fuming Mayor and Sir Peter reached a momentous decision. They agreed that they would ignore COBRA, call in the drivers and start the process of getting the bus network running again in a way that, once started, would be almost impossible for COBRA to stop. This meant risking their own careers - and potentially prosecution or prison - but it was the right thing to do.

Sir Peter then spoke to Leon, told him honestly and openly that they'd been refused permission to restart the bus service yet, but that he and Ken had decided to do it unilaterally. If Leon objected, however, or thought the drivers wouldn't turn up for work, then they would accept his decision and back down.

"They'll come." Leon said, after a brief pause to take in what he'd just been told. "We'll start making the calls."

Every. Driver. Turned up.

It was the right call.

Those buses got London home.
posted by garius at 3:53 AM on January 14 [35 favorites]

Super interesting, thanks for this story!
posted by vibemap at 12:36 PM on January 14

Thank you so much for sharing garius - super interesting!
posted by Megami at 12:20 AM on January 15

I agree — garius had absolutely the most moving story about public transport and commuter logistics that I didn’t expect to read today.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 6:43 AM on January 15 [1 favorite]

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