Capturing the NSW bus journey

By: Paul Aldridge, Photography by: Paul Aldridge

What started as a plan to recognise and pay tribute to the history of the NSW bus industry ended in a written and visual record that is now available for all to enjoy

Capturing the NSW bus journey
NSW assistant minister for transport and infrastructure Mark Coure, NSW bus history book author John Birchmeier and BusNSW executive director Darryl Mellish at the book launch in Sydney last month


My usual bus reviews involve meeting company owners and representatives and having the pleasure of test-driving impressive and innovative vehicles and finding out how these new vehicles came to be.

But I wasn’t sure what to expect when attending my first book launch. It was BusNSW executive director Darryl Mellish and his initial gathering of historical records that set the wheels in motion for a plan to recognise and pay tribute to the history of the NSW bus industry.

Mellish investigated funding options and applied for a NSW Transport Heritage Grant to offset some of the costs and this grant allowed them to engage an author/historian to undertake the research while BusNSW provided the bulk of the funding as recognition to the rich history, achievements and relationships within the NSW bus industry.

"There was also a growing awareness that time catches up with the legends in our industry and the pressures from government were challenging family operations, and memories could be lost," he says.

"I decided to put together a project plan to recognise the history of the industry. I was also aware that BusNSW was the oldest bus association and a founder of ABCA and it occurred to me the government agencies staff we were dealing with did not have an appreciation of the history and the investments and risks operators had taken."


Best man for the job

Looking at what publications and knowledge existed in the bus history area to ensure the right person was chosen for the role, Mellish approached John Birchmeier initially to undertake research and then subsequently write the book. Birchmeier has authored a number of books on family bus businesses and is the editor of Australian Bus, the magazine of the Sydney Bus Museum, so he was chosen as the best man for the job.

"Darryl phoned me in December 2015 to see if I would be interested in undertaking this project, the first question I asked myself was how to approach such a vast topic," Birchmeier says.

"On reflection, given that researching and writing the book proved an enormous undertaking within a short timeframe, perhaps the first thing I should have asked myself was: why did I say yes?

At first I attempted to include everything about the NSW private bus industry into a single book but that would have been an impossible task.

"As a result, it was decided that the book would start from the beginning of the motor bus era and would refer mainly to route service and school bus operations – the industry’s major sectors."

After that decision was made, it became clear to Birchmeier that each decade since 1900 had experienced major events that impacted the future of theprivate bus industry and so it is a decade-by-decade chronological journey through the changing NSW bus industry.


Defining moments

"I think it’s important to document this history for future generations, but also its important to document the people in the past that have made sacrifices to bring bus services to people – some have established in country towns to provide services that the communities didn’t previously have," Birchmeier says.

"I feel that although everyone is in business to make money, over time governments and changing regulations have meant that proprietors must have a genuine passion for the industry – many have shown a lot of resilience to survive and prosper over the past 50 or so years."

When asked what he felt were the most defining moments in the bus industry, he says there had been so many – most technologically driven.

"Probably the first was the introduction of the motor bus in the early 1900s," he says.

"A flood of motor buses hit the Sydney market in the 1920s; in 1919 there were only 57 bus routes and that flourished to almost 250 routes by 1925, so it was a huge period of change.

"In this short period the numbers of buses grew to over 500, this was a period of great competition and growth never seen again."

The next change to this rapid expansion, according to Birchmeier, was the introduction of the transport legislation in 1931, which imposed a passenger tax on bus services.

This tax immediately laid up hundreds of buses and bankrupted many operators.

These decades were also a great period of change and development for how a bus looked – it changed dramatically in a very short time.

Another was the 1970s, when car ownership flourished and for the first time the population didn’t only rely on buses for daily transportation.

In this period many operators made the transition to charter and tour work. One of the most positive defining moments however, was the removal of the harsh 1930s legislation in the 1990s.

This finally gave operators the freedom and security to be innovative with their services. More than historical Birchmeir and Mellish both acknowledge that the book wouldn’t be what it is without the help and dedication of many past and present bus people.

When you read the introductions, you understand that many past bus people have started
this great documentation and this book is a way of honouring their industry contributions.

Something I have learnt fast about this industry is that it is made up of many people that are passionate about what they do in an era where many industries have long lost their personal and human side.

The NSW bus industry is made up of many long-serving and dedicated individuals, families and companies that both currently and historically have helped make it what it is today. Birchmeier and all the people involved with this book have done an amazing job of capturing and documenting the proud historyand major achievements.

Bus enthusiasts like myself will find many pictures and stories that will surprise. Those who are old enough will read about buses they have had an association with and companies they have been a part of.

I even found a bus that I had actually driven! Congratulations to all involved.

This book not only captures more than 100 years of service to the community and captures
the industry’s changing face over time, it also showcases the current dedication within the
industry and BusNSW to bring this accomplishment to print.

An interesting and nostalgic read for any bus enthusiast, The Private Bus Industry in New South Wales – A Mirror of our Times is available via the BusNSW website.



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