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 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.
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.
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.
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