THE AEC SWIFT
Cuckoo in the nest?
By the mid-sixties it was obvious that the combined trends towards a car-owning public and rising competition in the labour market was affecting the economics of bus services nationally. In London, often a trend-setter because of the huge urban and rural bus fleet under one management, something akin to panic set in when an operating loss was returned in 1966. This was serious because the financial structure of LT did not allow a loss to be made on operations. In addition to reducing mileage, a move towards the operation of the system by one-man buses was seen as the answer to staffing difficulties, and it was necessary for them to be single-deck because double-deck vehicles were not allowed to be one-man operated at that time. A small experimental programme was thus started to define a new urban single-deck, one-man bus and ticketing arrangements that would overcome the perceived problems.
The new bus had to be 'accessible' for rapid loading and unloading, and this demanded a low floor for boarding, which ruled out almost all contemporary bus chassis. A new chassis developed within the Leyland/AEC combine and marketed under the name Panther or Swift was adopted. The alternatives were a Daimler Roadliner, which was idiosyncratic and untested or a Bristol RE, which was not perceived to be an urban vehicle. A batch of 15 11m Swift chassis were ordered to be bodied by Strachans, but by the time they had been delivered, never mind put into service, the forward order situation had deteriorated sufficiently that the panic button was pressed for 150, and then 650 more vehicles with bodies by MCW, one of the few companies with capacity at that time.
Worse was to follow, because once the Merlin, as LT insisted on calling them, had entered service its shortcomings were manifest, and the remaining order was changed for shorter vehicles with smaller engines - the 10m Swift. Before the last Merlin had entered service, 750 Swifts were on order with bodies by Park Royal, MCW and Marshall. With the benefit of hindsight, it seems almost laughable that before the delivery of the new one-man fleet was complete the prohibition on one-man double-deckers had been lifted. And the unhappy Swifts were to be replaced as soon as possible by modified Fleetlines, which went on to disgrace themselves almost as badly. While all this was going on, passengers were deserting in droves - and with good reason. Only with the advent of the Leyland Titan and National models did things calm down a bit, but even these were not the perfect vehicle that everyone sought. Nowadays, whole fleets of Darts, Tridents and Citaros (apart from a spontaneous combustion problem) enter service without a murmur.
So what went wrong? Why were they so bad? Or were they so bad after all?
If you were a major transport operator who was offered new double-deck buses at half price, would you persist in rectifying the operational problems of a fleet that was not what you wanted in the first place? Probably not.
If your garage staff were 'set in their ways' and quite unprepared for a new regime with buses more complex than those they were used to, would you expect them to cope?
If you bought an untested design straight from the drawing board, would you expect to put some effort into modifications that would alleviate the problems? You would - and let's face it - even the Routemaster was a decade in development and had its own special problems when it went into volume service. The difference was the will to succeed, and by 1968 the British Leyland empire had just one vehicle on its mind - the epoch-defining Leyland National. There were modifications proposed, and kits of parts provided that were often not applied - like the hydraulic fan drive, which is a 'must-have' on performance SUVs these days.
It is difficult to comprehend just how badly the British manufacturing industry was performing at this time, and the vehicles sector was among the worst. At times, almost 30% of the Swifts belonging to London Transport were off the road awaiting spares. In a perfect world there would be no need for spares, but that's the reality and a trivial-seeming item would stop ANY vehicle if it broke or wore out and could not be replaced in a timely fashion.
The SWIFT was more complex structurally and mechanically than its predecessors. RTs and most RMs did not have doors, and neither had a big hole in the centre of its stressed structure. They did not have automatic fares machines and they had two men to watch over them while they were working. Traffic conditions also deteriorated markedly during the early one-man years and this stressed the buses and crew even further. AFC machines did not work on the DMS, and there was never another attempt at on-board automatic revenue collection. The British could not cope with the 'foreign' idea of buying a ticket from a machine at the stop - and now it is common practice in central London they still don't, but travel free when they can instead. Fortunately the convenience of the smart (or Oyster) card is making inroads into the revenue-collection business.
The SWIFT (or Merlin, if you prefer) could and did work under conditions where they were well-matched to their task, and the RED ARROW network was eventually one of them. Long-distance Country area routes were not a good application for them. Other transport companies used SWIFTs satisfactorily right into the 1990's, including cast-off London examples. The largest fleet outside London (over 200) was in AUSTRALIA, which is well known for not being a cool place, nor a happy place for buses with cooling problems. What about Malta, where a handful of vehicles still operate in completely unmodified form? They don't even have the extra vents in the 'boot' lid that London Transport finally realised were necessary for getting rid of cooling air from the engine compartment!
Several factors contributed to the failure of the London fleet, and many of them were organisational as much as mechanical. The ultimate end was the realisation that it was just too expensive to put them through the traditional overhaul process applied at Aldenham, which was intended to deliver a virtually new bus every four years. So they were sold or scrapped after a very short operational life, and the question no-one asks is this: who was taken to task for the appalling waste of public funds that this episode must have represented?