When fares were supposed to be fair

I bought something the other day that cost £4.05 and to be helpful I gave the shop assistant a £5 note plus 5p, expecting to be given a £1-coin change.

The young man looked perplexed. He scratched his head, gave me back the 5p coin, entered some figures into the cash till and then gave me 95p change, an amount that had been calculated for him. I ended the transaction by scratching my head and looking equally perplexed.

It made me wonder just how bus conductors managed in earlier days. My fare to and from school was a three ha’penny return (three half pennies), and bus conductors didn’t seem to have that much trouble dealing with this and other similar fares.

Conductors had to know the fare between any two stops, and they calculated what had to be paid by consulting a printed fares table, which meant that they had to know every stop on every route.

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Preparing documents for a Public Inquiry while at Blackburn was important training

And, when it came to paying-in at the end of shift, they managed to work out the day’s takings in halfpennies, pennies, shillings and pounds in an era when one-pound sterling comprised 240 pennies.

Life became simpler in February 1971 when the currency was decimalised. Someone on social media recently claimed that unscrupulous businesses hid behind the process so that prices doubled, including bus fares. What utter nonsense!

The government issued clear conversion tables and with bus fares controlled rigidly by the Traffic Commissioners, there was no possibility of such skulduggery.

Part of a young busman’s apprenticeship was attending a Public Inquiry held by the Traffic Commissioner (TC) where an operator presented a case to increase fares.

I helped prepare the mountain of documentation that was needed when I worked for Blackburn Corporation Transport.

Operators often argued that service cuts would be necessary if fares were not increased, although service cuts invariably followed because passengers were driven away by higher fares.

Despite objections from various quarters, including local authorities, operators usually got what they asked for.

Strangely enough, I’m not sure that TCs ever had the powers to regulate and control fares in the way that they did.

Their statutory duty was simply to see that fares were “not unreasonable”, although that duty seems somewhat hollow when history shows that the TCs rubber stamped fares increases at regular intervals, many of them substantial, in the years leading up to so called de-regulation.

Operators of the day largely accepted the way in which the TCs exercised control, even if privately they thought that how they did it and the conditions they applied might be questionable.

I suppose if there was a song that epitomised the TCs of yesteryear, it would be My Way. Thinking about it, some might say that the song is just as appropriate today. But then again, some might also say that it’s not just the song, it’s how you sing it.