The organisers of Showbus took a bold step in returning to Woburn Abbey this year, for the first time in over 20 years.
I have memories of some excellently organised Showbus rallies at Woburn and in my time have been privileged to take some award-winning buses. I have also, alongside some other industry professionals, been part of the Showbus judging team.
The problem with the Woburn site is that it relies heavily on buses and coaches being parked on the grassed areas and that was one of the reasons the organisers pulled out of the location after the rally in 1992. Buses and coaches are heavy and after a prolonged period of rain the ground becomes extremely soft.
Unfortunately that is what happened again last Sunday (20th September 2015) and several vehicles became stuck in the mud. But for many the delays stated even before they had arrived at the site as the road network struggled to cope with the volume of buses, coaches and cars. This was not a problem in the 1980s and up to 1992 so it brings home how traffic on our roads has increased over the last few decades.
Once on the access road which goes through the Woburn Abbey Deer Park, buses and coaches had to share roadspace with cars in a last minute change to parking arrangements.
But it was the soft ground that caused the main problems on the day with some buses spending almost two hours between arriving at the site and being able to park up, with much of the delay caused by an altercation between a coach driver and a JCB operator who was on site to deal with any instances of buses being stuck.
Most visitors were critical of the on site issues but were afforded a display of vehicles, albeit parked in various locations and many were certainly not where they were due to be displayed.
The organisers have said that they will not be returning to Woburn Abbey, but have also added that the venue for over a decade, at the Imperial War Museum, Duxford is no longer an option available to them. In a letter to bus and coach owners who were booked to attend the Woburn event there is also a hint that the Showbus rally may not survive the woes of Woburn.
As an explanation of what went wrong, we are reproducing part of the organisers letter here:
“We are sorry that many were disappointed by events on Sunday. The congestion on surrounding roads was not anticipated, it was never a problem in the 80s and the Abbey often hosts large events. The Met Office forecasting the last weekend of the summer probably exacerbated a bad situation, plus the wedding in the village that morning.
“Unfortunately a last minute change of arrangements by His Grace, the Duke of Bedford, meant that buses and cars shared the same entrance. That was literally two weeks before the event at which time signage and maps had all been prepared for a contrary plan.
“The problem that was more directly in our control was the on site display. With rain every day in the preceding week the ground was not good, but manageable by Sunday. We had JCBs and tractors on standby for any problems. Unfortunately the driver of one coach, which got stuck across the entrance road, refused help from the JCB driver and was verbally abusive towards him. Unsurprisingly the JCB driver left him to get on with it. A truce was negotiated but it took an hour before the JCB removed the coach. This was the main cause of the huge delay in getting from the Deer Park on to the display area.
“There have been complaints that this was not communicated to those queuing, but the truth of the matter is that the details did not get communicated to me at Parking Reception or something might have been possible to remedy the problem more quickly. I was unaware of the fact that the JCB driver had been abused and gone away until much later in the day. Two other coaches got stuck blocking the road, but were dealt with much more quickly.
“Suffice to say it was a major disappointment for all, myself included and I can only apologise if it ruined your day.
“We will certainly not be returning to Woburn and Duxford no longer wish to host the event. Some suggestions of sites further from the team’s base in Buckinghamshire have been suggested but there is a practical problem. Most of the team are married with young families and find it difficult to be away from home for a long period. It was gone 9pm when we got home exhausted on Sunday. More hours driving from the venue would not be welcomed.
“Whether Showbus can recover from this I do not know. Many of you have been sympathetic and encouraging but I am expecting Buses magazine will stick the knives in with a smile, so it may be the end of the road.
“Whatever happens, thank you for your support, some of you for many, many years”.
I personally feel that the comment about Buses magazine is unfair as any good journalist will report the facts. News is News. However, comment is comment and the Editor of any form of media has the right to comment on events and the Editor of Buses magazine has the right to do that. Whatever appears in Buses or indeed any magazine, I suspect that many bus and coach owners may think twice about attending Showbus again, if indeed it does get held again, until it can prove itself.
This is truly a sorry set of circumstances for a bus rally with its roots back in the 1970s.
Steven Knight is a Transport Specialist who has over 40 years experience in the bus and rail industries as well as in specialist transport journalism. He is a member of the Chartered Institute of Journalists.