On 18 November 2013 it was exactly 50 years since the first Dartford Tunnel was opened in 1963, built under the River Thames, linking Thurrock in Essex with Dartford in Kent. It is the most easterly crossing of the Thames, being 16 miles from the centre of London. A second tunnel was added in 1980, and the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge was opened in 1991, the tunnels taking traffic north, and the bridge bringing it south, all forming part of London’s orbital road system. But what interests me more than the tunnels or bridge is the ill-fated cycle bus service which ran through the tunnel for cyclists.
From the early planning stages it was thought that cyclists meandering along in heavy traffic would not be safe and, more to the point, would slow down vehicles moving through the narrow passageway of the tunnel. It was therefore decided that a fleet of special buses, running from 06:00 until 22:00 would give cyclists a lift, providing a safe and convenient journey for them to the other side of the river.
Specifications were drawn up by the Ministry of Transport, and invitations to tender were issued in August 1961, with Strachans Coachbuilders winning the contract to build 5 new double-decker, cycle carrying, buses. Plans and photographs of the buses can be found in MT 102/228 and MT 98/107.
The design of the buses was unique and bizarre. The lower deck comprised two cycle racks capable of taking 23 bicycles, accessible from either side of the bus. At the rear of the bus was a large space to accommodate tricycles, tandems, perambulators and sidecars. The upper deck of the bus provided seating for 33 passengers and was accessible via a series of steps built into the side of the bus. The cost of the whole fleet was a little over £12,000, and they were heralded as the first of this type of bus in the world.
However, it wasn’t long before the buses ran into trouble. As late as October 1963, only days before the service was due to start, the Tunnel Manager raised safety concerns. With no doors to the upper deck of the bus, no conductor, and a severely restricted view of the passenger area from the driving seat, the Ministry of Transport had to rely on mere signage and the common sense of passengers not to move around too much, putting themselves in danger of falling from the bus. Once in the tunnel the driver would not be able to stop should anything happen and there were a number of concrete abutments in the tunnel walls which protruded to within inches of the passing bus. Nevertheless the service went ahead when the tunnel opened, with four buses actually running and one in reserve, the buses leaving every six minutes.
Five months later, in April 1964, the service was down to one bus, with far fewer people using the service than had been predicted, sometimes with only one or two cyclists on board. Costs were running at £2,550 per month, with revenue at only £45 per month, and the service was dropped in 1965 to be replaced by Land Rovers with trailers instead. Even today, cyclists are given a lift through the tunnels by Land Rover, with the bike being attached to a cycle carrier on the back.
So there we have the story of the Dartford Tunnel Cycle Service bus. Not as grand as Titanic, not as fast as Concorde, but another short-lived and unique vehicle in the history of British transport.