Obscure Objects of Transport Beauty: The Bundy Clock

You’ll know by now that I went to Aston University in Birmingham during the mid-1990s to study transport (Class of ’98, whoo yeah! Several of us have done very well for ourselves in the public transport industry… and I was there too). Back in those days of blue and silver-grey Travel West Midlands step-entrance double deckers, you would occasionally come across the rusting remains of some peculiar bits of ironwork on the footways of the streets of Birmingham.

It’s a general rule of life that if you come across a weird but interesting-looking street furniture relic in a city, it will be something to do with trams or trolleybus, and so indeed was the case with the ones in Birmingham. They were the decrepit remains of an early tram (and later bus) driver tracking device, the Bundy Clock. That makes it all the more annoying that I never took a photo of a disused one when I was at university. Never mind, thanks to the magic of Google Street View, you can see an example of what drew my attention:

(That’s Scott Arms in April 2009. The Bundy Clock remains were still there in 2016, as Google Street View proves, although it’s not such a good view.)

Bus service regulation, and the monitoring of bus punctuality, has always been difficult. Until comparatively recently, making sure that your bus drivers were keeping to time was, by nature of the business, extraordinarily labour intensive for bus company managers, requiring armies of bus inspectors. They waited at route termini and/or important intermediate timing points, comparing a bus’s actual arrival time to its expected time.

In practice, although bus drivers never knew exactly where the inspectors would be, it was impossible to police large sections of a bus network on any particular day. Unless, that is, you were managing Birmingham City Transport. It had taken the unusual step on installing Bundy Clocks at the ends of its tram and bus routes to keep a reliable record of actual bus (and bus driver) timings. This, unlike the rusting remains I found on the streets of Birmingham, is what a Bundy Clock is supposed to look like:

Bundy Clock, preserved at the Wythall Transport Museum. Photo by Petecollier (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Bundy Clock, preserved at the Wythall Transport Museum. Photo by Petecollier (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Bundy Clocks were a product of the Bundy Manufacturing Company of Binghamton (New York), America. It’s fascinating that at a time when the British public transport industry wasn’t particularly outward-looking, Birmingham City Transport should have imported this technology from abroad. The Bundy Clocks used by Birmingham City Transport were key clocks. Inside, in the large box part of the clock, was a paper tape spool, which turned in synchronisation with the clock at the top. When a bus or tram driver reached their route terminus, they would insert a unique key into the Bundy Clock, turn it, and the clock would record on the tape the time the bus or tram was there. Once collected, this gave paper proof to Birmingham City Transport’s managers of the timeliness (or otherwise) of its buses and trams, and their drivers.

There’s a picture of a Bundy Clock at a tram stop here, but when Birmingham City Transport decommissioned its trams in the early 1950s, the Bundy Clocks were exclusively used to track the punctuality of buses. They were painted green, and latterly blue after Birmingham City Transport was incorporated into the West Midlands Passenger Transport Executive in 1969.

As well as being entirely useful devices, Birmingham’s Bundy Clocks were also lovingly designed pieces of street furniture. With their fluted pedestals, and mouldings on the face of the paper tape box and around/under the clock, it is clear that considerable thought went into their appearance. The coat of arms of the city of Birmingham/Birmingham City Transport appears at least once on most Bundy Clocks. Sometimes, it appeared twice: in large form on the pedestal and in a small version underneath the clock.

City of Birmingham coat of arms on the pedestal of a Bundy Clock, preserved at Walsall Arboretum. Photo by Andy Mabbett [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
City of Birmingham coat of arms on the pedestal of a Bundy Clock, preserved at Walsall Arboretum. Photo by Andy Mabbett [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Surprisingly, Bundy Clocks didn’t see widespread use amongst British bus operators, presumably because the purchase and running costs of such a system must have been considerable.

It would take until the digital age for the next great leap forward in bus punctuality measurement, when electronic on-bus ticket machines with built-in digital clocks were introduced, allowing the driver to record the time they started and finished their routes. At that point, Birmingham’s Bundy Clocks became redundant and fell into disrepair, like the ones I used to see around Birmingham.

Bundy Clock at Kidderminster Town station. © Copyright P L Chadwick and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence
Bundy Clock at Kidderminster Town station. © Copyright P L Chadwick and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence, via this geograph.org.uk page
As far as anyone seems to know, all but a very few of the remains have now been removed. In terms of complete Bundy Clocks, there’s one still (more or less) in-situ at West Bromwich bus station (a West Bromwich Corporation one, as it’s not in the city of Birmingham), though it’s not in working order. And there are preserved examples at Lea Hall station, Wythall Transport Museum, Kidderminster station (in working order) and Walsall Arboretum.

Today, technology has moved on yet further, and many on-bus ticket machines are linked to GPS trackers, capable of storing bus movement data or transmitting it back to bus company headquarters and/or local authority data service operations. There, it can be manipulated and transmitted back to bus stops, displayed on real-time displays giving information on expected bus arrival times at that stop.

624px-erg_tp5000_ticket_processor
ERG TP5000, an on-bus ticket machine which also contains the modern equivalent of a Bundy Clock. Photo by Bidgee (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

In the event of complaints from passengers about late running buses, bus company managers are now able to go back through their digital records to see exactly where any given bus was at any particular time, and whether it was running early or late. There might be a million reasons why a bus runs late, a bus company managing director once told me, but there’s never any excuse for running early, and GPS tracked buses make it easy to tell which is happening, and very often why, upholding or politely dismissing customer complaints in the process. It is possible to plot on maps the points at which bus services lose time, and relate them to traffic congestion hot spots, roadworks, or on-street parking which is blocking the highway. Of the million reasons why buses can run late, a good proportion of them are in the hands of local highway authorities rather than bus companies, as that same bus company manager knew, but politely didn’t say so, given that I was working for a local authority at the time.

The Bundy Manufacturing Company eventually became part of International Business Machines (IBM) whose development of the personal computer is part of the story which led to the machines which now sit in bus company offices, receiving the tracking information from buses many miles away. Yet in Birmingham, their illustrious clockwork predecessors allowed similar insights, if not quite so instantaneously, decades before.

Bibliography and Further Reading

Friends of Kidderminster Town Station’s website, for information on their restored Bundy Clock, and how they worked, here

Some information on Bundy Clocks on the Wythall Transport Museum website, here

A discussion of Bundy Clocks on the birminghamhistory.co.uk website, here

A discussion of Birmingham street furniture, including Bundy Clocks, on the birminghamandsuburbs.co.uk website, here

IBM Archives, here

11 thoughts on “Obscure Objects of Transport Beauty: The Bundy Clock

  1. To my knowledge, the last Birmingham Bundy clock to be erected (though presumably one that had been removed from elsewhere) was at the new estate of Kitwell, the terminus of route 72 from Birmingham City Centre, introduced in August 1980 (replaced by route 22 in October 1981).

    Several disused Bundy clocks were also moved out into Solihull & Sutton Coldfield to service former Midland Red services from November 1975 onwards.

    Another complete, though non working West Bromwich example (which were virtually identical to the BCT versions and, I believe, came about because BCT used to operate the main 74 & 75 tram services through the town) is at Spon Lane, West Smethwick (Spon Croft), once the terminus of West Bromwich Corporation route 16, it’s now been adopted by the adjacent industrial estate, being painted in an unusual colour scheme!

    Another example exists at the Crich Tramway Museum, Derbyshire, though although to a similar design, I’m not sure whether it was from Birmingham.

    Other, more basically designed Bundy clocks existed in Blackpool until the late seventies and Nottingham until the early eighties!

  2. Pingback: Buses for fun!
  3. I’ve read somewhere that London Transport also used a variant of the Bundy clock but whereas Birmingham’s recorded a key press on a paper tape retained in the clock, London’s punched a time card instead.
    I have absolutely no idea that is true, or if LT crews perhaps used the name “Bundy” to refer to another manufacturer’s time-clock.

    But I do have a Bundy key of my own and I keep meaning to take it with me to Wythall just to see if their clock is still working!

  4. “there’s never any excuse for running early” – I’m slightly proud to have helped improve our local services using this. A decade or so ago, one of the routes locally was re-tendered to a mickey mouse company operated glorified minibuses instead of proper vehicles. They were cheap but for a reason.

    As a regular on the service, I quickly got fed up with the early running (causing me to miss my bus) or simply skipping bits of the route altogether.

    Sadly for the bus company, I worked for the council and enjoyed good contacts with the public transport team. I don’t think they were happy with the change and so after regular early running requests, plus mentions of drivers operating mobile phones and listening to iPods while driving, the company got the push and we passengers got proper buses again.

    Of course, this doesn’t always apply. Evenin services locally are often in the hands of drivers who couldn’t care less what the timetable says. Oddly, although the company has an App that tracks the buses, they don’t seem bothered by this. Having been left behind by early running services recently, I will be reminding them to check. It’s difficult to encourage people to get on a bus if the service is it’s own worst enemy.

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