A Lerwick legend

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After over 100 years in business, one of Shetland’s best known operators will close its doors at the end of the summer season. Jonathan Welch visited to hear the history of the respected family firm

When I first arranged my trip to Shetland, I had no idea that the operator profile I was intending to write would take on the form of a retrospective as the company prepares for its final, now doubtless quiet, summer season. Leasks of Lerwick is a well known name, in Shetland, in Scotland, and across the wider UK coaching community, with over a hundred years of history behind it.

Just a few weeks after my visit, owners Peter and Andrew Leask would announce that following the loss of some local service contracts, and with prospects for the summer season looking poor, the time has come to enjoy a well-earned retirement.

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The company is based at Gremista, just north of Lerwick, in premises which include office space, a yard and a large workshop where it can undertake a range of work on its varied fleet. It was here that I met Peter to find out more about the history of the company, and what has kept it going for so long.

“My grandfather John Leask started the company in 1919,” started Peter. “He had one car, a second hand Arrol Johnson, that he used for private hire. My father, his son Jamie, joined the business in 1922 at the age of 17. They bought a Model T Ford, and that’s what got things started. They had various hire cars in the 1920s, and then bought a 1923 REO Charabanc in 1928. It was into the 1930s before they acquired their first big bus, a 14-seat Chevrolet with Duple bodywork.” During the firm’s early years, and indeed up to the 1960s, Duple-bodied vehicles would continue to be a major feature of the Leask fleet.

In those first early years, demand for transport was relatively low, and most needs could be met with large cars, with up to seven seats. As demand grew, so did the size of vehicles, the late 1930s seeing the arrival of 20-seaters, followed by 26- and 28-seaters in the late 1940s, rising to a number of 41-seaters by the 1950s and 60s, most still with Duple, and later Plaxton, bodywork. The arrival of a Plaxton-bodied Bedford YMT in 1976 heralded the arrival in the fleet of ‘large’ coaches with seating for over 50.

Airlines and oil arrive
The business grew through its early years providing a mix of private hires and summer excursions, as well as providing its regular service from Lerwick to the north, for connection with the ferry onwards to Yell. As well as a growing population, and the increase of leisure time, the arrival of air travel to Shetland in 1936 was another driver of growth.

“John Leask and Son were agents for one of the two airlines which served Shetland,” continued Peter. “They operated as an early travel agent for Allied Airways, they were the booking agent and did the airport transport, as very few people had cars on the island then. The vehicles got bigger as the need grew, and although during the war new vehicles were not generally available, the company did manage to acquire a Bedford OWB Utility in 1944, and then two more second hand later in the decade. As well as coaches and buses, we also did taxis, and in the 1950s we started to do car hire too.

“The 1950s and 60s were quite a quiet time here, there was not a lot happening, it was mainly fishing, crofting, and tourism in summer. The fleet gradually evolved, the standard thing at the time was the petrol engined Bedfords. In 1967, my younger brother Andrew joined the company straight from school. I joined in 1972. I was out of Shetland for around 4 or 5 years, I came back to help for the summer and I’m still here. I went to university and actually qualified as an optician.

“The next major change here came in the early 1970s with the discovery of oil in the North Sea. Things really took off then as far as travel and transport goes, with the construction of the terminal at Sullom Voe. Lots of operators benefited from that, there were a lot of workers needing transport. It tapered off a bit into the 1980s, and we settled back to the routine of service work, schools and private hire during the summer season.”

“We decided to pull out of taxis in 1990, and car hire in 2007 to concentrate on the coach and bus side of the business, along with our travel agency. However, with the advent of the internet, that side of things went in to decline as lots of what we did was airline bookings, people can do that themselves now at home easily, plus the airlines were no longer paying commission for bookings through us. Since then we’ve just concentrated on the coach and bus side of things – that’s plenty for me.”

A constant issue for operators across Shetland is recruitment. “Young drivers just aren’t coming into the industry any more. Four out of five drivers are in their seventies, we have lots of long serving staff here. Two have been with us for over 40 years. We employ 33 including drivers and garage staff. Three are engineers, and one works in our bodyshop.”

Leask’s fleet is known for its high standards of presentation, and whilst the islands of Shetland are not known for bad driving, there is still work to be done to keep the vehicles looking presentable. “The low floor buses are quite prone to damage to the bottom corners,” Peter continued, “and they cover routes which are quite long distance, which means they do a lot of miles.” Other hazards that might be less of a worry to many operators include road-side sheep, some of which seem distinctly to feel that there is no rush when it comes to moving out of the way, and of course the harsh weather which presents itself from time to time.

Current Fleet
The current fleet is a varied one, consisting of nine low floor buses, five full size coaches, two midicoaches and two minicoaches. The current low floor line-up includes a Volvo B7RLE with MCV bodywork, three Euro V ADL Enviro200s, two ADL Enviro200MMCs, a Wrightbus Streetlite and a pair of DAF SB200s, one with Wrightbus’ Pulsar 2 bodywork, the other bodied by Plaxton with its less common Centro body. In the past, the fleet has seen a number of different buses in service, including four rather unusual Ikarus-bodied DAF SB220s acquired in 1999. These were registered T20/30/40/50JLS, in line with other Leask vehicles which carry personalised number plates ending with the JLS initials, this trend having started with M20JLS on a Van Hool-bodied DAF coach in 1995. A Leyland National also featured in the fleet in the mid-1990s, a type unusual this far north, as was the ECW-bodied Bristol RELL6L which saw brief use in the mid-1980s.

“The Ikarus 481s were bomb-proof, very well made, if maybe a bit underpowered for some of our hills. We kept one of them for five years, and the others lasted 10-12 years.” Peter also speaks very highly of the Streetlite: “It has been a very good bus for us, despite the problems at Wrightbus over the last six months,” he said. “The garage like it better than the Enviro200s, and the corrosion protection seems better. The corrosion is much more noticeable on the Enviros, around the panels.” Again, the harsh operating environment of Shetland plays a part, surrounded by salty sea air, along with roads that require regular coverings of salt in winter, all adding up to make corrosion a much bigger issue here than many places. “The sloping windscreen also means much less reflection at night than in an Enviro,” he continued, “which is important for us as lots of journeys are on rural roads with no lighting. It has done over 300,000 miles. On the other hand, the back up we’ve had from Alexander Dennis has been better. Even right up here, if we’ve had any problems we’ve had very good warranty support.”

From north to south
The buses are used on a number of routes across the mainland, reaching as far south as the airport in Sumburgh, west across to Walls, and north to Sullom Voe and Toft, as well as the Lerwick town service, which runs hourly during the daytime Monday to Friday. In common with other Shetland operators, service buses are fitted with Ticketer equipment, and are able to accept contactless payments: fares are not excessive considering the mileages involved: for a visitor, £2.90 from the airport to Lerwick seems entirely reasonable for a journey of around an hour. “It’s a very modern system, it went in around March last year. Zetrans, the local public transport authority, provide the machines. It is working very well, the contactless facility is popular. There are a lot of kids who pay using their phone, and there is the Shetland discount card too, which is handy as it saves people carrying cash.

“For coaches, for many years we ran DAFs. Until 1999 they were our standard coaches. We now have a split fleet, with two Volvos – one B9R Plaxton Panther and one B12B Van Hool – and three Temsa Safaris. We used to have Plaxton-bodied DAFs but when they stopped offering that option, we switched to Temsa, which use DAF running units. The alternative was Van Hool, but we found they were out of our reach. The early Temsas gave some problems with corrosion, the newer ones are better. Our newest are from 2010/2011. We find they’re good for the passengers, and with the DAF engine and ZF gearbox combination, you can’t really go wrong, although the resale value might not be as high as for Plaxton coaches.”

Seasonal variation
“We do a lot of work over the summer with visiting cruise ships. Over the winter there are schools and private hires to keep us going. We use the quieter time to freshen up the coaches and get them ready for the summer season. Since 1999, when low floor buses were specified for the service runs, we’ve not been able to get as good utilisation out of our coaches. We can’t use them on service runs. Most of the low floor buses do have seatbelts though, apart from the SB200s, so we can use use them on schools.”

Whilst being so far away from the rest of Britain has its charms and advantages, one less obvious thing that impacts on all operators far and wide is the introduction of low emission zones. “We don’t go near any LEZs,” Peter continued, “but when it comes to selling vehicles, it can be a problem and affect their value. The more complex systems, with AdBlue, sensors and everything, also mean more to go wrong, which can be a problem when you are so far away from dealers. Remote access to vehicle systems would make a big difference, if Volvo or DAF could access the vehicle online.

“Accessing spares can be a bit of a challenge, it can sometimes take a few days, but you just learn to live with it. We don’t see it as a major crisis, compared to some of the big city operators. Its all relative, and part of doing business here.” On the other hand, said Peter, there are advantages to the location too: “Driving here is still a pleasure, it is a nice place to be, particularly in summer. And there’s a wide variety of work. You get to meet a lot of different people of all nationalities. We might see as many as 100 cruise ships in a summer. But the ships are getting bigger, and there aren’t enough coaches on the islands. We have acted as a coordinator, and hire in from other local operators to satisfy the demand. But even if we can carry everyone, the venues are limited in the capacity they can handle.”

The happy ending
At the time we spoke, Peter and Andrew were still considering the future of the business, and with a number of local service contracts passing to other operators when the current contracts run out in August, there was a tough choice to be made between retiring and continuing with a reduced fleet to concentrate on coaching work. It was a few weeks later, as reported in the News section of last week’s issue, that the partners decided it was time to take their well-earned retirement.

“There is no family to take over,” Peter said. “One of my sons already has a good job, otherwise he might have, and the other is not interested in running buses. We have finally come to a decision regarding the future. Myself and Andrew have taken the decision to retire at the end of September and wind the firm down. Retirement has been in both our minds for some time as we are both into our 70’s now and with the current local authority school and local service bus contracts coming to an end in mid August it seemed like an ideal time to bow out.”

Whilst that may be sad news for many, after such a long career in the industry, Peter has accumulated many stories and memories. One which stuck in my mind as we chatted was the tale of driving north to Toft Ferry one winter: “There was quite a depth of snow. Vehicles had cut tracks in it as it thawed, and as I came around a corner I met a Reliant 3-wheeler. I could see the guy was turning the wheel to move over, but his front wheel was stuck in the rut, he couldn’t get out of it. He managed to stop, got out, went around the front and lifted it across into the next rut!”