These Special 1960s Bike Buses Were Used To Transport Cyclists Across The Thames

Laura Reynolds
By Laura Reynolds Last edited 12 months ago
These Special 1960s Bike Buses Were Used To Transport Cyclists Across The Thames
A black and white photograph of a double decker bus. The lower deck is open on either side and fitted with bike racks. A staircase starts halfway up the side of the bus and leads to the upper deck, where there's a covered seating area.
Image: public domain

These days, cyclists have plenty of ways to get their trusty metal steeds from one side of the Thames to the other — bike lanes on bridges, for one. But there's one cycle-friendly river crossing that's no longer in use — and we really wish we'd seen it when it was.

The Dartford Tunnel Cycle Service was a special bus service used for just a couple of years in the 1960s, to get cyclists and their bikes across the river at the Dartford Crossing, the most easterly Thames crossing.

When the Dartford Tunnel opened in November 1963, joining Kent to Essex via a road beneath the river, traffic volumes were significantly lower than they are today. But it was still thought that the subaquatic journey was too dangerous to be done on a pushbike. At the time, there was only one tunnel — the second was added in 1980, and the neighbouring bridge didn't open until 1991 — so initially, traffic ran in both directions in a single shaft.

Two years before the tunnel was due to open, London Transport, responsible for the crossing at the time, commissioned five specially designed double decker buses, to convey cyclists and their bikes from one side to the other. Handily, these were made just down the road, at the Ford Dagenham plant.

The lower tier of these double deckers was given over to cycle racks, with space for 23 bikes per bus, while the upper deck was fitted out with seating for 33 passengers. However, unlike... well, pretty much every other bus in the history of buses, passengers couldn't access the bus from the ground. Instead, special platforms were built at each entrance to the tunnel — something like a mounting block used by horse riders, we imagine — to help cyclists onto the staircase which started a few feet above the ground.

According to the National Archives, concerns about the safety of the buses were raised before they were even put into action. Those staircases, built into the side of the buses, had no doors to prevent passengers from tumbling down the stairs and off the vehicle while it was in motion, and though there aren't any records of this actually happening, it wouldn't have ended well, especially as the bus driver wouldn't have been allowed to stop in the tunnel if an incident did occur.

Heading towards the northbound tunnels from the south side of the river in 2006. Photo: Simon Leatherdale via creative commons

Four buses ran at a time, with the fifth waiting in reserve, offering a service every six minutes between 6am and 10pm daily. By our calculations, that's capacity for 230 bicycles an hour in each direction under the Thames. In reality, there was nothing like 230 cyclists wanting to cross the river every hour. In fact, by April 1964, the service had been reduced to just a single bus, as the rest were no longer required.

By 1965, the Dartford Tunnel Cycle Service was removed completely, for two reasons: the safety concerns that had niggled the buses from the start, and the lack of use, which meant the service was costing significantly more to run than it was making. A replacement service was brought in, a transfer vehicle — a Land Rover — with a rear cycle rack. Contrary to popular belief, cyclists can cross the Thames at the Dartford Crossing today — they just can't cycle anywhere in the tunnels or on the bridge. A special transfer service still runs. Just go to the safety point on your side of the river, and use the yellow phone to call for assistance.

It's thought that only one of the five Dartford Tunnel Cycle Service buses survives, and it's rumoured to be owned by Leon Daniels, a renowned transport consultant and expert.

Last Updated 13 April 2023

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