History of bus transport in Hong Kong

History of bus transport in Hong Kong

The history of bus transport in Hong Kong began with the introduction of the first bus routes in Hong Kong in the 1920s.


1920s: The beginning

Omnibus Transport in Hong Kong dates from the beginning of the last century. Several operators were managing a number of bus routes on both sides of the Victoria Harbour by the end of the 1920s. These included Kowloon Motor Bus, China Motor Bus, the Hong Kong Tramways (which served the Happy Valley area) and many more.

1930s: Pre-war franchise

In 1933, bus services were franchised. Rights were given to Kowloon Motor Bus (KMB) on the North side, and China Motor Bus (CMB) on the Island. Other bus companies had to cease operations and their buses sold to the franchised operators.

Records relating to the period before 1930s are scarce as they were mostly destroyed in the Second World War, but the surviving photographic and written evidence indicates that an extensive network of buses served both sides of the harbour. Some remote areas of the territory at the time, such as Yuen Long, Fanling and Stanley were also served. Buses of various British bus manufacturers, such as Leyland, Thornycroft and Daimler were present in significant numbers around the territory.

Early 1940s: During the war

During the occupation, the Japanese tried unsuccessfully to restore bus services to normal levels, due to an insufficient supply of fuel and spare-parts. The limited resources and buses available for service, was also responsible for the reduction in the total number of routes in service, as well as for the re-introduction of horse-driven carts to the territory.

Late 1940s - 1950s: Post-war expansion (part one)

When the British returned, they put the restoration of public transport to the highest priority. Before new buses were shipped to Hong Kong, both KMB and CMB had to use modified trucks instead of proper buses to transport passengers. These trucks were phased out by the end of the 1950s. The position eased when KMB took delivery of a batch of 50 single-deck Tilling-Stevens and CMB a further 108 during 1947/8.

The return of large number of people to Hong Kong after the war, and people who wanted to escape from the communists, caused a population boom. As a result, the demand for public transport skyrocketed and larger buses became necessary. Kowloon Motor Bus received 20 Daimler double-decker buses in 1949 as a trial. They turned out to be an unparalleled success, just like the AEC Regents (RT) in London. More than 1,000 buses in various specifications, including the Fleetlines, were to follow until 1970s.

China Motor Bus chose to use more single-deck buses instead. This was because the Gardner-engined double-deckers did not perform satisfactorily given the hilly terrain, and population levels on the island were more steady and predictable. The company partnered with Guy in Wolverhampton, England and became the second major buyer of Guy Arab buses - after Wolverhampton Corporation Transport.

1960s: Post-war expansion (part two)

A comparison the buses on both sides of the harbour in the 1960s: The KMB buses were larger in capacity with standard engines, while those of CMB were small yet over-powered. While KMB went for 34-foot double-decker buses, CMB chose to buy 36-foot version of Guy Arab, but with only 60% of the capacity of a 34-footer.

The growth of Hong Kong seemed to be out of control and squatter settlements sprang up everywhere. Areas like Wong Tai Sin, Kwun Tong and Chai Wan were developed at a rate that is unparalleled in any other British colony. The bus network had to grow accordingly. KMB started to call for double-deckers longer than 30 feet (after the British lack of regulations); to their dismay, Daimler did not respond and KMB had to buy a number of 34-footers from AEC to provide a decent level of service. Daimler finally regained ground by introducing the 34-foot CVG6 with the Gardner 6LX engine. This model found favour with KMB, which bought about 220 of them. Soon, these behemoths - for their time - were dominating the Kowloon streets, and replaced older Daimlers in outer areas, as well as the Cross-Harbour Tunnel routes later.

Meanwhile, CMB was tackling an equally big problem. On routes 8 and 8A (later to become route 82), buses have to travel up a hill, which includes covering a 1-km road with a gradient of 1:10. However, the small Tilling-Stevens and the Arabs which the CMB deployed were not up to the challenge due to the large population of Chai Wan, and the large double-deckers used by CMB did not have the required engine power. Finally CMB ordered 40 36-foot single-deck buses to shift the working crowds, after considering their early success in Africa. Those single-deckers, however, suffered from the same problem as their African siblings: They were too long, with a 10-foot overhang, 22-foot wheelbase and no upper deck to provide additional strength. The buses literally bent and their tail ends swung up and down. They were used for no longer than 10 years before being cut down to standard 30-foot length and re-bodied.

At that time, even with larger buses and increased ridership, costs were still high. On KMB buses, there were up to four people employed on each bus - a driver, one or two conductors to collect the fares and the last, the gateman, supervised boarding and alighting by opening and closing the gates at each end. CMB buses had two crew on each bus, with the fare collector and the door-keeper being the same person. This level of manning was soon deemed unacceptable and the bus companies replaced manual doors and gates or open platforms with pneumatic doors, which eliminated the need for the gateman. However, there were no layoffs, as both bus companies were expanding and the surplus staff were soon retrained and deployed on new routes.

1967 Riot and the PLB Detour

The outbreak of 1967 riots halted the bus services because of the intimidation of the front-line operational staff in the latter part of 1967. Services slowly resumed back to previous levels in early 1968, but this interruption had given the opportunity for dual-purpose vans to flourish and provide illegal - but at that time, necessary - public passenger services, which were then later to be legalized by a weak Transport Department and become the Public Light Bus.

In 1968, two new towns, Kwun Tong and Tsuen Wan, started flourishing and KMB extended its service by opening a new route 40 to and fro these.

Early 1970s: The tunnels and the towns in one-man-operated, in joint forces with the Arabs on the peak

As the demand of bus service was increasing and production of front-engine buses in UK was terminated, CMB and KMB acquired a number of second-hand buses such as Leyland Titan and Leyland Atlantean from UK in early 1970s.

In 1970, CMB started fitting more powerful engines to its Guy Arab double-deckers, giving them enough power for climbing up slopes and servicing areas such as the Mid-levels. In the same year, CMB also decided to convert its Guy Arab MkV single-deckers to double-deckers. Some of the short-wheelbase buses were rebodied with low-height double-deck bodies, enabling them to provide service on the Victoria Peak.

In 1971, CMB carried out tests of one-man-operated (OMO) bus with the post of the conductor eliminated. Passengers paid their fare by putting coins into a collection box. The tests were considered successful and so CMB converted all their buses to OMO by 1976. KMB had also likewise started to operate OMO buses since 1972.

In February 1972, CMB received one Daimler Fleetline rear-engine double-decker for evaluation, and subsequently started to introduce more Fleetlines in 1973. KMB also introduced their first Fleetline in 1974.

In August 1972, Cross Harbour Tunnel connected Kowloon and Hong Kong Island. KMB and CMB joinly operated 3 new routes servicing both sides of the Victoria Harbour. The three routes are:
* 101: Kwun Tong (Yue Man Square) - Kennedy Town,
* 102: Lai Chi Kok - Shau Kei Wan, and
* 103: Wang Tau Hom - Pokfield Road

On 1 April 1974, New Lantao Bus Co.,(1973) Ltd. became the third franchised bus company in Hong Kong.

Late 1970s: The Fleetline and the Victory

In 1970s, CMB and KMB purchased almost 800 Fleetlines. With the new 3+2 seating arrangement in both decks, these Fleetlines could carry more than 120 passengers. Due to the high capacity, the Fleetlines were usually allocated to highly-demanded cross-harbour routes.

However, the Fleetlines in Hong Kong were unreliable and poor in climbing slopes, so CMB and KMB had to find the alternatives. CMB evaluated the Ashok Leyland Titan, Scania Metropolitan and Volvo Ailsa B55, but these models were not successful. KMB evaluated the Guy Victory J modified by Bus Bodies (South Africa) Limited and Dennis Jubilant. Later British Leyland reacted by producing the Leyland Victory Mk2, which was modified from the Victory J chassis and, like the Dennis Jubilant, had high-powered engine and automatic transmission. KMB and CMB purchased large number of Dennis Jubilant and Leyland Victory Mk2 buses in late-1970s/early-1980s.

In 1975, KMB introduced its coach services, with the aim to attract more wealthy people to travel by coaches instead of driving; the company also introduced two airport coach routes in the same year. CMB introduced two suburban coach routes in 1978, using the first model of second generation rear-engined double-decker (MCW Metrobus) in Hong Kong.

Early 1980s: Race to the 3-axler, Dragons chasing the Mercedes

In early 1980s, CMB and KMB acquired a number of second-hand buses from UK, but this time all of them were ex-London Transport DM/DMS-class Daimler/Leyland Fleetlines.

In 1980, KMB started to evaluate air-conditioned double-deckers, but the trial was unsuccessful and the air-conditioners of the two buses (one Dennis Jubilant and one Leyland Victory Mk2) were removed in 1983.

In 1981, CMB and KMB introduced the first 12-metre 3-axle double-deckers (MCW Metrobus). Another three 12-metre 3-axle double-decker bus models were introduced in late 1981/early 1982, namely Volvo Ailsa B55, Dennis Dragon/Condor and Leyland Olympian, all except the Volvo Ailsa are second generation rear-engined double-deckers.

In 1982, KMB finished the conversion of all of its buses to OMO.

Following the end of restriction of buying new buses from countries of Commonwealth of Nations, KMB introduced one German-built Mercedes-Benz O305 double-decker in 1983. It was followed by another 40 in 1985.

Late 1980s: It's too cool to be in an Olympian, yet cooler in a Falcon

In 1985, KMB upgraded its airport coach service by introducing air-conditioned Dennis Falcon, which had the air conditioner driven by the main engine. The service was later named the "Airbus" service.

In 1986, KMB introduced the first 11-metre 3-axle double-deckers. These buses were designed with better manoeuvrability than 12-metre buses, with the feature of high capacity retained.

KMB resumed the evaluation of air-conditioned double-decker in late 1980s, unlike those evaluated in early 1980s, all these buses evaluated had the air-conditioning directly driven by the main engine. In 1987, the trial of one air-conditioned MCW Metrobus was started, but it was unsuccessful and the bus had its air-conditioning removed. Later Leyland Bus delivered one air-conditioned Olympian to KMB and the bus entered service in 1988, it was successful and later KMB started to place orders of air-conditioned Olympians (the prototype Olympian was finally withdrawn in 2005 and was preserved). An air-conditioned Dennis Dragon, which was also successful, was evaluated by KMB in 1990.

1990s: Interchanging when one saw the other's demise

In September 1991, Citybus started to operate one franchised route on Hong Kong Island, becoming the fourth franchised bus company in Hong Kong.

In January 1992, New Lantao Bus was acquired by Kwoon Chung Motors.

China Motor Bus's service was being protested by the passengers since 1980s, and was being criticised by the councillors of Legislative Council, finally CMB was forced to hand 28 routes to Citybus in 1993, and another 14 routes in 1995.

In 1995, KMB introduced its last non-air-conditioned buses. Since then, all the buses introduced by the franchised bus companies were air-conditioned.

In 1996, super low floor single-deckers were introduced in Hong Kong, Citybus introduced ten Volvo B6LE, then KMB followed by introducing 12 Dennis Dart SLF buses. Later in 1997, the first super low floor double-deckers (Dennis Trident) were also introduced by KMB and Citybus; in the following two years, different models of super low floor buses were being introduced.

In May 1997, with the Tsing Ma Bridge coming into operation and commencement of settlement in the Tung Chung new town, Citybus and Long Win Bus (subsidiary of KMB) started to operate new franchised routes serving Tung Chung. Both of them, together with New Lantao Bus, started to operate the new airport bus services when the new Hong Kong International Airport came into operation on 6 July 1998.

In March 1998, Citybus became the first franchised bus company to operate fully air-conditioned bus fleet.

After China Motor Bus handed 42 routes to Citybus, the public and the government were still not satisfied, however. Finally, CMB's bus franchise was terminated in August 1998, and its routes went to New World First Bus (NWFB), Citybus and KMB on 1 September 1998.

In March 1999, Citybus was acquired by Stagecoach Group of United Kingdom.

The 1990s also saw the withdrawal of Daimler/Leyland Fleetline and Leyland Victory Mk2 buses. CMB and KMB started to withdraw their Fleetlines in late 1980s and the last KMB Fleetline was withdrawn in 1995. All the KMB's Victories were also withdrawn in 1990s. After New World First Bus acquired the whole CMB fleet, it also replaced the Victories and the remaining Fleetlines with new super low floor buses, the last Fleetlines and Victories were withdrawn in August 2000.

:"This section will also talk about the advent of bus-bus interchange in Hong Kong, an old concept elsewhere but new in Hong Kong."

2000s: On the edge, to the scrapyard

In 2000s, the franchised bus companies continued to introduce new super low floor double-deckers. In 2003, KMB introduced the first new generation super low floor double-decker (TransBus Enviro500) with wider (with the width of 2550mm instead of 2500mm) bodywork and straight staircase.

In August 2002, NWFB withdrew its last non-air-conditioned buses and became the second franchised bus company to operate fully air-conditioned bus fleet.

In June 2003, Citybus was acquired by Chow Tai Fook Enterprises, the parent company of its major rival operator New World First Bus.

The 2000s also saw the withdrawal of second generation rear-engined double-deckers. Actually CMB had already withdrawn several in the 1990s. When NWFB took over in 1998, they withdrew the rest of these buses, with the last leaving the fleet in 2002. KMB also started to withdraw these double-deckers in 2000. As of 2007, the withdrawal process of KMB's second generation rear-engined double-deckers is still underway.

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