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Thursday, June 22, 2017 7:58 PM

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WHATEVER HAPPENED TO... the private bus companies?


Before ZRs, before minibuses, even before the Transport Board, we had Rocklyn, Elite, Liberty, Progressive and more.
These were just some of the names of the private bus companies that ran the route in Barbados in the middle part of last century. These mostly black-owned private bus companies pioneered the local transport industry.
They ruled the roost until former Premier Sir Grantley Adams bought out many of them and nationalised the transport industry in 1955 and for many Barbadians of the older generation, was their main mode of transport, aside from foot or beast.

On our online edition,, memories of these bus companies flowed recently as readers reminisced in response to our Whatever Happened To post.

“I remember the ‘board and shingle’ buses, as we used to call them before the introduction of the Mercedes Benz buses. In St Philip, the red buses of the General Bus company were owned by H. A Dowding. The Crane to Bridgetown bus P148 was driven by Mr. Gibson. The Bayfield/Well House to Bridge town bus P205 was driven by a Mr. Williams, and the Marley Vale to Bridgetown bus P77 was driven by a Mr. Grafton Holder,” recalled one reader, perhaps appropriately going by the handle of Oldtimer.

Most of these ‘board and shingle’ buses had actually been trucks in a former life - Austin and Bedford trucks from England which were converted with siding boards, canvas or tarpaulin to protect passengers from the rain.
Oldtimer vividly described how nimble conductors adapted and operated to suit on these modified vehicles.

“The conductors travelled on the running board of the bus and [were] quite expert at moving along the running board from the front of the bus stretching over the back wheel to reach the passengers in the rear seats.
I also recall how the conductor registered the number of passengers on board - there was a machine located at the front of the bus to the left of the driver just over the windscreen, and there was a rope attached to the arm of the machine which ran just below the ceiling of the bus to the rear of the bus.
 The conductor wold pull the rope to register each passenger and a bell would ring on the machine. So when a bus was about to leave the bus stand in Bridgetown and the conductor had collected all the fares he would pull the rope for each passenger and all you would hear is ding, ding, ding, ding until every passenger was registered. By the way, the conductor also issued tickets for fares collected, and if my memory serves me correctly, he also had a machine called a punch machine with which he punched tickets issued so that they could not be used again for another journey.”

Readers also recalled fondly and with humour, some of the characters associated with these bus companies.

“ I remember the conductress we called “Baby Rock”. She was a no-nonsense woman who did not make any sport. You couldn’t behave badly around her. She might tell your mother. I remember Gwen-Gwen, she was a softie. She is still living I believe and working fo the NCC when last I saw her,” commented J.

“[Does] somebody remember Lightning, the bus driver? I think it was first the St George Bus Company and G767, with a conductor named Lil Man Linton,” offered another reader, Flaher.

Interestingly enough, some of our readers’ reminisces show that some of the same ‘colourful’ behaviour and habits which mark the private trans public service vehicle sector now, were around as many as 50 years ago. Reader J recalled enjoying “a kind of 60s milkshake” during her school days on Rocklyn buses.

“I remember the driver we called “Trini” He used to “juice” the bus when pulling up to the bus stop; that is he made a lot of noise with the engine and pulled up sharply. I suppose a kind of 1960’s milkshake. We children liked it. I guess we were ‘bad’ 1960s kids,” declared J.

‘Lightning’ the bus driver also seemed to make an impression, as more than one reader recollected their experiences with him. Reader Mr Whitehead recalled driving home from school on buses driven by Lightning, after the St George Bus Company became part of Elite.

“As I reminisce the Elite buses were fun coming home from school. I remember one bus - M2541 I think was the number. His nickname was Lightning or Flasher [and] if you called him by that or pulled the bell more than once it meant you would miss your stop and would have to walk back to your home. ... That man could curse - you heard every ‘hole’ when being driven by Lightning.”

Besides colourful characters with colourful language, there are other ways in which the privately run public transport sector has come full circle since those days.

In 1978, the era of the private bus companies came to an end when the government took over the last two remaining private bus companies - Rocklyn and Elite. These companies had resisted government’s initial entreaties that started in 1955 when the government took over 116 buses from eight private bus companies.
This process of change had started after a number of the companies, which were then licensed by Highways and Transport, put forward claims for increased fares on January 31, 1955.

However, just as one era was fading away in the late 70s, another one was starting. With the Transport Board unable to meet the needs of a growing Barbadian population that had spread beyond the traditional villages and tenantries, a new breed of private transport entrepreneurs came to the fore.
Minibuses, again largely run by black businessmen and women, started off - at first illegally and hotly pursued by the police force. However they were eventually legalised by the government in 1976, opening the door for the ZR vans which came along in the late 1980s, and bringing about the next era in privately run public transport.

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