Running numbers

Page last updated 30 January 2016


There are many puzzles in the subject of running numbers; the 213 is but one of them.  In the late 40s/early 50s, Sutton (A) put out a maximum of 22 buses and Kingston (K) a maximum of 14.  Nonetheless, both garages put out running numbers from 1 up to 21, and Sutton to A23 - presumably neither continuous.

(upper) In March 1950, LT1066 runs K21 at New Malden Fountain

(lower) Eighteen months earlier, CR27 runs A21 at the same location.

Both photos © Alan Cross


London buses, since the very earliest days, have carried codes on the side to identify to officials the schedule being operated.  These are additional to the route number (as used from 1908 onwards) and the fleet number (also known as the 'bonnet number', such as "RF486") identifying an individual vehicle.   Since 1911, these have comprised a two-part code showing the garage code, the garage from which the bus is operating, and the running number.  


The running number shows the time schedule being worked by the vehicle on the relevant route and from the garage shown; this does not correspond with the crew duty; crews changed buses during the course of the day and vice versa.


This note is merely scratches the surface of this subject; comment and contributions welcome.  


Early three-letter codes

The precursors to the garage code and running number were the three letters carried by horse buses and early motor buses.  These indicated, respectively, the depot, the route and the running letter.  The depot letters were based on the horse bus stable codes, which appeared to be randomly allocated.  The second letter indicated the route - originally, route numbers did not exist.  The third letter indicated the timetable slot (the 'time'), or running number as we know it today.  As an example, in November 1908 (after route numbers were allocated on the amalgamation with Vanguard), route 2 was operated by Cricklewood (E) and Battersea (T) garages and the route was represented by V or W, applied respectively to 'early-turn' and 'late-turn' buses.  Thus the first early-turn bus from Crickewood was coded EV-A and the first late-turn bus EW-A, those from Battersea respectively TV-A and TW-A.  Crew duties changed weekly, so three crews working early, relief and late turns each three weeks kept to the same two buses and buses stayed (except for maintenance, etc) with the same duties.
This system was replaced in November 1911 by the more familiar garage code and running number, for which garage codes were re-allocated (for example, Cricklewood changed from E to W and Battersea from T to B).  For at least the next ten years, the early- and late-turn letters were replaced by the use of odd and even running numbers.  The run-out on the 2 thus became W1, W3... and B1, B3... on early turn and W2, W4... and B2, B4... on late turn.

Running numbers

So from 1911, each London General (and later London Transport) bus carried a running number.  These relate to the bus running schedules ('time schedules') and were indicated by the stencil plate after the garage code on the side of the bus.  The roadside officials who controlled the route would need to know which garage the bus was from and what its position on the running schedule was.  Bonnet numbers were irrelevant to the Operating Department and only concerned the engineering staff - the bus identifier to the operating staff was the running number.  The time schedule was set out on the time card, mounted on a board and placed in both the cab and the conductor's slot when the bus was 'plated up' at the garage for that day's duty. 


Central buses (unlike Country buses) rarely worked different routes on the same duty, although there were some exceptions, known as jointly-compiled time schedules.  Because crew duties were allocated to buses for a spell, jointly-compiled time schedules usually implied jointly-compiled crew schedules.  Most obviously (but by no means universally), this occured on routes with suffix letters, such as 80/80A, which were jointly compiled for very many years.  Well known were the 15/100 at Upton Park and the 76/34B at Tottenham.   There were also the 9/23C and 62/23C at Barking, and Paul Wheeler and Keith Williams point out the 110/111 at Hounslow.


Joint-compilation also applied to a number of RF routes such as Kingston's 218/219 and 215/A (the work involved in changing the blinds on an RF to a different route is however not comparable to the task of altering all seven on an RT or RM); farecharts on the route pairs were often combined or printed back-to-back, or both located in the display case and changed by the conductor.  It follows that jointly-compiled routes shared running number sequences.  Frequently, joint-compilation applied on weekdays, Saturdays or Sundays but not every day.


Leon Daniels in his blog comments on the 81/C:

'Duties provided for crews to work from Hounslow to Slough as an 81, to Heathrow and back as an 81C, and then back to Hounslow again as an 81. Half a duty - done.  But Central Bus crews did not change routes during their shift, like their Country Bus cousins. Indeed changing route number blinds were just not in the Union agreement. A small handful of routes were exempted from this agreement, by dint of history, of which the most famous was the service from Barking to Beckton Gas Works as route 100 which was run off the back of journeys on route 15.  But the 81C was a new one and Hounslow was amongst the least co-operative of sheds. Nevertheless it was achieved and in this isolated outpost, Central Bus conductors changed the number and via blinds at the front, side and rear of RTs, and then RMs, between 81 and 81C.  I know it sounds funny now but it was HUGE in the 1960s!'  Having said that, some crews ignored the requirement to change all the blinds.


A further variations was the use, noted in the allocation books, of buses from oen route on another.  This was known as cross-linking.  Where buses were cross-linked from one route to another but there was no joint compilation, the changeover would take place in the garage but although a link between the two routes is nominally made on the time schedule, it was down to the engineers which bus actually went out on the second working and it may in fact have come from a completely different route to that shown in the allocation book.


Running number sequences

In general in the Central Area (but not in the Country Area), the running number sequence for each route started at 1.  For example, when Muswell Hill (MH) operated RFs on the 210, 212 and 251, each route had buses working as MH1 and upwards, so there were three RFs each day bearing the code MH1, as well as a number of RTs carrying the same code. 


Where two (or more) different garages worked a route, there was no consistency on whether they used the same number sequences - some did.  On double-deck routes, an example was the 134, where there was a J1, an MH1 and a PB1.  See the next page for RF route examples. 


Upton Park (U), Barking (BK) and Hornchurch (RD) operated a system more akin to the Country Area with a single sequence of numbers, divided into separate blocks for different routes.  This started at Upton Park (at an unknown but early date) and was soon followed by the other two garages, as in order to maintain special journeys to Ford Works, buses were taken from several routes leading to duplication of numbers under the old system.  A number of other garages changed to this system during the 1950s, and it was used by North Street (NS) when it opened.


Although trams and (pre-1950) trolleybuses did not carry depot codes, they did carry 'running numbers', although (in true Tram & Trolleybus Department style) they called them route numbers - the 'route' the tram was running on was called the 'service'.  These formed a single sequence at each depot, a practice that was continued when the depots were converted to diesel bus operation.


Paul Richards and others note that the routes which were 'Bus Electronic Scanning Indicator' (BESI) controlled used different blocks of numbers from different garages.  This method of control, which ran throughout the 60s and whose 'epicentre' was routes passing Hyde Park Corner, applied amongst others to the 9 (Dalston D1-D20, Mortlake M21-36), 22 (Clapton CT1-17, Battersea approx B51-67), 73 (Tottenham AR1-49, Hounslow AV50-55, Mortlake M56-90) and 74/B (Putney AF1-17, Chalk Farm CF18-22, Riverside R23-28). 


The London Historical Research Group of the OS reports that Tillings used a similar system for routes worked from more than one garage, thus the 75 used Croydon TC1-12 and Catford TL13-26, but changed to the normal LT system before the formation of London Transport.


During the 1970s, the remainder of Central Area garages started switching to a single sequence of running numbers.  The changes were made piecemeal as schedules were revised, based on a planned allocation.  The allocation of numbers was usually done by reserving a block of 20 numbers for routes with a PVR of up to 5, 30 for up to 15, and so on.  The same series were used for weekday, Saturday and Sunday workings, so these PVRs were the maximum on any day.  The result was of course that the higher running numbers were greatly in  excess of the number of buses at a garage.


Paul Richards provides details of the change at Sutton.  On daily route 213A, A1 to A13 became A171 to A183. The Mon-Sat 213 run of numbers (a much smaller allocation) became A161 to A164.  Norbiton's 213 allocation was numbered from NB91 (working 213A instead on Sundays, numbered from NB101).  Although there were a number of OMO conversions at Sutton around this time, this certainly wasn't the trigger for each route changing its numbering, as the RT-worked 164/A changed at the same time as the DMS routes.  The flagship 93 route kept 1 as its starting number.


Paul adds that, contrary to what might be expected, the change did not coincide with the switchover from metal stencils to plastic plates - that came later at most garages although the white on black plastic running number plates were already being trialled at Cricklewood and Edgware by 1974.  White on red plates became the norm, adopted across most if not all garages, with black on yellow plates being phased in later (very late 70s). 


There were two periods when both systems would be operational at the same garage.  Former trolleybus depots continued the 'single sequence' system for the replacement routes, but where routes were transferred in (such as workings on the 29 and the 233 to Wood Green (WN) on closure of West Green (WG)), they retained their 1 upwards numbers.  The other was during the post-1973 changeover.  The LOTS publication 'Route Working Index 19 Mar 1977' notes: "A comprehensive plan, now almost completed after several years, eliminates all duplication of numbers within a garage, and from different garages operating a route. Only a handful of routes remain to be altered, and will be dealt with when a convenient schedule change occurs."

Paul Richards notes that this applied to Palmers Green (AD) and Muswell Hill (MH) on the shared 102 route, and at Enfield (E), Camberwell (Q), Croydon (TC), Thornton Heath (TH) and Catford (TL) with only 1 or 2 routes within each garage - e.g. only the Sunday 166A at TC.


Exceptions and curiosities abound.  Stuart Perry cites as an example Muswell Hill's 134 and 134A on Sundays.  'Five buses from MH ran on the 134 (MH1-MH5). Although the 134A was a separate service, the running numbers didn't start again at MH1 but continued in the sequence and began at MH6.  There certainly seems to have been no strict pattern adopted by LT in the Central Area.'


Paul Wheeler comments that drivers changing plates to get a better bus than allocated was a big enough problem, but giving them an easy option of two buses with the same number and there could be anarchy!  However, this must have depended on the overnight stacking system in each garage.  Stuart Perry notes that at MH, 'buses were parked overnight in rows nose to tail with the first buses out at the head of the queue. So for example on the 210 everybody would have chosen to have RF500 - I would have loved to pick the best buses but in reality it wasn't that easy.  Presumably the abuse he mentions may have occurred in garages with a perimeter stacking system.'  [Any other drivers have comments?  More welcome.]


More details of RF running number sequences is on the next page.


Time cards

Every bus carried two time cards ('running cards'), one for the driver and one for the conductor, detailed the duty as shown by the running number [trolleybuses carried only one, in the cab].  These showed the journeys to be made by that bus throughout the day, with departure times from the termini and passing times for the intermediate checkpoints with crew change times circled [underlined on trolleybus time cards].  These cards were permanent items, with the duty details glued onto a board, changing only when the schedule changed, and stayed with the bus when crews changed during the day.


Paul Wheeler comments 'When I was working as a compiler on Central West schedules section, one of the jobs I was given involved updating the schedules and applying revised timings to most of the night bus network. Most of these had not been altered for decades and many still had “maintained connections” with trams as they had not been updated for over 20 years.'


As time passed these cards became embellished with "helpful hints" from drivers who had worked the duty previously. For example, Stuart Perry notes that 'on the 43 route, MH28 was one of the four buses left out on the road for the sparse evening service to Moorgate (the other three were MH6, MH21 and MH26). On the running card for one of the southbound journeys on MH28 it had been marked TOE DOWN BINGO OUT. This referred to a very busy bingo hall on the Holloway road near the Nags Head. This told you to run early on this section and avoid the crowds pouring out of the bingo hall, leaving a following 104, 172 or 271 to get slaughtered.


'On longer routes you needed to be able to see the running cards all the time. On the RT, common practice was to balance the running card on the handles for opening the windscreen [this explains why you can see a board perched inside the windscreen in so many RT photos]. On the RM there was a useful ledge and I always left the running card there above the trafficator switch.  As far as the RF was concerned, after you had done several hundred journeys between Finsbury Park and Golders Green you knew all the timings off by heart and I always let my conductor have both cards. If I needed to check anything you could just ask to see it.  You were chatting most of the time anyway when he or she wasn't collecting fares.'