Going, going… [part one]

2013 seems a long time back now. It was the year Halton Transport invested in a new midibus fleet. Well, not a new fleet, a slightly used fleet previously with Blackpool Transport… for about 14 years or so. One of the first three Optare Solos is seen at Halton View in Widnes, but the view is oriented more towards Fiddler’s Ferry than Halton. In February 2013 Fiddler’s Ferry was still making smoke, steam and ultimately electricity. You will note that in Widnes it is customary to wait on the wrong side of the road, turn your back on the driver and give a clear hand signal. I think it has something to do with the chemicals in the air.

After a short while it was decided to disguise the age of the new fleet by buying registration plates issued in Northern Ireland, a ploy repeated the following year when a batch of Scania Omnicity buses was bought from Metrobus after service on a guided busway in the Crawley area. But in 2013 the bright new hope at Halton was the arrival of six Solos. These arrived in two batches of three, in January and August and were numbered 55-60.

These arrivals in August 2013 would become Halton 60 and 58.

The decision on a livery was largely made by the layout of the previous Blackpool scheme with cream going over the yellow and Halton red over the rest. The first three were deployed on a new circular service 26/26A which linked Halton’s loss-making round-the-houses service to Cronton via Halton View with another similar service round the other side of town that was extended to cover a new housing area and complete the loop by approaching Cronton from the other side.

Halton 56 crossing the route of the old Cheshire Lines Widnes loop between Widnes Central and Hough Green which closed in 1964

This was all to the detriment of Widnes Commercial Motors which had been running a supported service 13 over the latter route for which the funding was withdrawn. The principal participants on the service, nos 55 and 56, had a rudimentary route branding which would typify the Halton approach in subsequent years, lacking a sense of style or sympathy with the vehicle’s design.

When the second three arrived in August they saw use on another local service, the 27 around Halton View which was cut back from its previous link with Runcorn over the river.

58 in Weates Close on the Warrington side of Widnes, rather overshadowed by the power station which sits between the two towns.

Even with the economy made by using smaller buses, the 27 was progressively cut back, its frequency being reduced from every 20 minutes to 30 and then hourly.

There being six Solos, two spares could be available for service elsewhere. The most likely places to see them in use were St Helens…

Unbranded Solo 57 sits at Sintellins while its driver goes for a pie

…and a new local service devised to link Appleton Village with the sleepy suburb of West Bank which declined after the 1961 road bridge was opened between Runcorn and Widnes. West Bank had been the terminus of the Transporter bridge crossing and benefited from lots of passing trade until the transporter was dismantled after the road bridge opened. The 9 was tentatively known as the “Buzzabout” and there was a bee logo for the timetable because it visited the Hive, a new leisure park with skating, bowling, cinema and predictable chain restaurants. No branding was ever applied to the buses.

Solo 58 pretending to be on the 9 at The HIVE leisure park for publicity

The 26 saw reasonable use and had a regular rota of drivers who had a good rapport with the passengers. Compared to the dark days of 2012 when there were no buses from Widnes to Cronton on Saturdays, the 30 minute frequency Monday to Saturday was a big improvement and many new links were made possible by the circular route. The 27 and 9 fared less well.

Halton Solo 56 outside Rainhill station and what I think was once a Higsons pub opposite.

The Solos also saw use on a short-lived contract operated on behalf of Merseytravel on Saturdays between Rainhill and Kirkby via Knowsley village. Occasional use on Merseytravel school contracts was possible, in fact as Halton became more desperate for serviceable buses at three o’clock on a schoolday afternoon one could materialise almost anywhere at a push.

Certainly excellent value for money was had from these vehicles but they didn’t project a great image of the company being nearly 20 years old towards the end of their stay. Nobody lamented their eventual withdrawal and replacement with short wheelbase Enviros.

Halton’s final celebration

Happier times: just over twelve years ago one of the UK’s last ten remaining municipal bus companies was celebrating its centenary. It was both Good Friday and coincidentally April Fools Day, just as it was on the day of its inauguration as the Widnes Corporation Motor Omnibus Department in 1909.

It wasn’t much of a do really. The North West Museum of Road Transport at St Helens sent a few former Widnes Corporation or Halton Borough Transport buses down to Widnes to mark the day, to offer free rides around the town and over the bridge to Runcorn. A former Halton Leyland Lynx also ferried passengers to and from the museum.

The event was centred on the Green Oaks shopping centre at Widnes, the town’s principal bus interchange. Both Halton and the museum had brought a bus to be a static exhibit outside the market building. The museum provided preserved Widnes Corporation Leyland National no. 1 to use as an information point and sales stand. Alongside, Halton’s then traffic manager greeted the public in front of bus no. 8, an Enviro 200 with MCV body which I think was the newest bus in the fleet at the time. On reflection, Enviro no. 1, which looked pretty much the same as no. 8 but from the previous batch, would perhaps have been more appropriate alongside its predecessor. In the event the current no. 1 did pass through in service but I don’t think anybody noticed.

Halton had at least made the effort to commemorate the centenary by painting one of its current fleet in a nod to the old Widnes Corporation livery with significantly more red than the Halton arrangement of the time. Widnes Corporation fleetnames and the Widnes coat of arms with bees or and roses gules were emblazoned somewhat awkwardly. East Lancs Myllennium-bodied Dennis Dart SLF no. 34 could be compared with Leyland National no. 1 in the photo above. It has been restored in a similar livery [the one it wore when new to the Corporation] by the museum.

Most of the people at the event seemed to be locals out shopping but there was a lot of interest in the buses present. Predictably, everyone seemed to want a selfie in front of an old bus and any enthusiast present [there seemed to be relatively few] would have to be patient to get a “clean” photo of the PD2s which participated while the locals took their turn standing in front and gurning.

Give up and go for a ride…

I had taken my little one along [then aged seven] so we went for a ride on East Lancs bodied PD2 no.38. Not much of a transport enthusiast, more a budding historian, he was more interested in understanding my own childhood experience. These buses featured quite regularly in my life when small since we lived in Runcorn and my mother’s mother lived on the Hough Green side of Widnes. Widnes PD2s would pass her house twice an hour and when not in school we would always go over on Thursdays to visit. I would always sit down at the front and stand with my nose at the front window watching the driver over the bonnet. Nowadays most buses in Halton are single deck so a ride upstairs was a novelty in 2009. Another family had beaten us to the front seats.

I didn’t see anyone spitting in the bus so that sign was most effective.

Of course, if you want to show a vehicle some love, it should be illustrated doing what it was built to do so after our ride I returned my offspring to the tender care of his mother and returned to Widnes to get a snap away from the event.

This is Deacon Road, a road well served by buses heading west towards Hough Green and Liverpool. Here no 38 is showing Runcorn on the front, which is where it was going, but back in the day the Runcorn-bound services went the opposite way and straight down the main street. Pedestrianisation and redevelopment has put an end to that so this was chosen as the easiest way on the non-stop run to Runcorn that day.

Here is PD2 no 31, also preserved at the St Helens museum, at Green Oaks on the day. It performed a few trips in the morning but was overheating quite badly so retired early.

Of course, this little show gave no indication of what was to follow and Halton Transport closed the shutters for the last time in January 2020 aged 110. I have quite a few Halton items in my archive and so will return to this subject in the future.

A Unique Express Service?

A little while back I showed the cover of the 1956 Crosville summer express timetable given to me by a very kind inspector who kept me chatting for a while at his information kiosk. The most interesting service shown inside has to be the 159 route [“double deck vehicles may be operated on this service”] from Liverpool to the North Wales coast. For it was, as far as I am aware, the only scheduled bus service to cross the Mersey on the Widnes Transporter Bridge. Leaving Liverpool by way of Wavertree, Woolton, Hunts Cross and Speke, the bus served Hale and Widnes before the crossing to Runcorn. There exists a photo of a Bristol LD in service on the Transporter but I do not have the right to reproduce it here. I can suggest a site on which it can be viewed, however.

Happily, I can share the pages from the timetable detailing the times and fares:

The unique 159 service?

I am intrigued to see that the service stopped in Devonshire Square in Runcorn. The road bridge from Widnes opened in 1961 before I was born and a new bus station in High Street by the new market hall was provided to receive the extra buses coming regularly from Widnes and Liverpool. Before that time I know that many buses terminated at the South Bank Hotel in Waterloo Road near the Transporter gates offering onward travel to and from Widnes.

Incidentally, the bus terminus in front of the hotel building still exists.

The South Bank bus terminus as seen in 2008.
The Transporter was at the bottom of the slope on the right

Walking from there towards the river leads to the former access to the bridge and the platform across the river at West Bank can plainly be seen. A photo can be seen here with the view from the Transporter arriving on the Widnes side wih a Widnes Corporation PD2 about to reverse up to the bus stand to meet the arriving passengers. A view looking back towards the Transporter at Widnes is here. Compare the thriving shop with today’s scene of desolation as two road bridges have now abstracted all the passing trade!

As far as I was previously aware, buses accessed the South Bank terminus via Waterloo Road rather than Devonshire Square. Does anyone know if the service operated via Bridgewater Street or Egerton Street on its way to and from the Transporter? I suppose that Devonshire Square may have been wide enough for buses to turn around in those days. It would be great to hear from anyone who remembers those days and can explain what went on.

As well as the times, the booklet has the fare tables for single and return:

Single fares for the 159
Return fares and conditions

Your comments, answers, questions, criticisms… all welcome. Get in touch by leaving a word in the comment boxes on the site or contacting me at <crisparmour at gmail dot com>.