Many companies have tried over the years to create vehicles, trailers or wagons that can travel on road and rail – but this experimental bus is one of the more engaging examples, launched to considerable fanfare early in 1931 by the London, Midland and Scottish Railway (LMS). The bus, road registered UR 7924, was based on a Karrier Chaser bus with bodywork by Cravens Carriage and Wagon Company of Sheffield, to their B26C design, with 14 front facing seats in the forward vestibule and 12 longitudinal seats in the rear smoking saloon.
Karrier commercial vehicles (mainly municipal appliances, light commercial vehicles and buses) were built by Clayton and Co., Huddersfield, Limited. They began making Karrier motor vehicles in 1908 and in 1934 Karrier became part of the Rootes Group.
The connection between Karrier and the LMS dates back at least to 1930, when Karrier developed their “Colt” three-wheeler, originally a dustcart chassis for Huddersfield Corporation, into the “Cob” tractor to haul road trailers in LMS goods yards and beyond. This so-called “mechanical horse” was designed by J Shearman, road motor engineer for the LMS.
Shearman’s ingenuity was then directed to designing the Ro-Railer. It was a hybrid single decker bus, capable of running on both road and rail, and intended for use in towns and villages distant from a railway. It was tested at its launch in January 1931 by the chairman and board of directors of the LMS, travelling between Redbourn and Hemel Hempstead.
The concept was strong: the bus could be converted from road to rail in 2½ to 5 minutes and with a 120 hp six-cylinder engine it could run at up to 50 mph.
Initially used on the Hemel Hempstead to Harpenden branch line, the bus was moved to Stratford-on-Avon in 1932 for services from Stratford Old Town railway station to the Welcombe Hotel. The service launched on 23 April, Shakespeare’s birthday – a deliberate promotional ploy by the LMS, since there would be many influential people and pressmen around on the day. The LMS had converted a mansion at Welcombe into an hotel and the plan was to use the Ro-Railer to carry passengers directly to it without the need to transfer themselves or their luggage at the railway station.
The Ro-Railer was not a success. It was too light for efficient rail adhesion, in particular on the hilly Stratford line. Its suspension was not up to the task of rail operation, and hammer blow from rail joints and crossings was felt by the machine and its occupants. This no doubt was the cause of the failure of the front axle after only a few weeks of operation, and the bus was withdrawn. Its fate is uncertain. It was rumoured to have been transferred to Scotland’s West Highland line, to transport track ballast – but that would have needed a conversion to some sort of open-bodied truck. Other sources state that it was simply converted back to a bus.
There was one more limitation of this strange hybrid. It is said that the bus was one day sent out to Broom to substitute for an unavailable locomotive and coach (a new meaning of “bus replacement service”?). The turntable at Broom Junction was out of commission, so the Ro-Railer returned backwards!
Picture courtesy of the Richard Roberts Archive