Obituary: Bill Murray, Glasgow transport manager

Born: 5 January, 1917, in Dalmellington, Ayrshire. Died: 27 January, 2014, in Renfrewshire, aged 97

Bill Murray
Bill Murray

BILL Murray, last general ­manager of Glasgow Corporation Transport (GCT), was also possibly the final surviving head of Scotland’s old municipal transport systems – and came of that tradition stretching back to Victorian times of having his name inscribed on the sides of Glasgow buses and ­Subway carriages.

Possessed of immense knowledge, his managerial skills were leaned on when Glasgow, last city in the UK to operate trams, produced an unforgettable gala occasion in a Last Tram Procession on Tuesday, 4 September, 1962. GCT general manager Eric Fitzpayne delegated the entire event to Murray and his trust was amply rewarded when Murray produced an occasion in which more than a quarter-of-a-million Glaswegians turned out to say farewell to their “caurs”.

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There was no coincidence that the massive event went with military precision, for Murray held a commission as a major in the Royal Signals during the Second World War. Trams were marshalled under cover of night from Coplawhill Car Works on the city’s Southside to Dalmarnock Depot in the east end. With foresight, Murray had Lord Provost Jean Roberts driving the oldest tram, with her driving skills polished in the weeks before to pass as a “temporary motorwoman”.

The resulting spectacle proved an unforgettable sight, and Glasgow’s ardour could not be dampened by what was the downpour of the century. Murray’s strategic planning extended to training a pair of horses from the cleansing department to haul the only surviving Glasgow horse car, and having breakdown vehicles stationed anonymously along the final route, should a ­tram fail.

But even his detailed planning failed to halt journalist Alistair ­Campsie of the Scottish Daily Mail stowing away on the top deck of the horse-drawn car leading the procession, a feat that provided a minor scoop for a grandstand eyewitness account that headed the nationwide coverage next day.

The decision by Glasgow Corporation to embark on progressive tramway closure from 1957 saw Murray take charge of a massive programme of bus replacement. Further political decisions, bringing forward the scrapping of the trams from 15 to five years, meant a call for the sudden purchase of buses – with the result that the existing rolling replacement ­programme was not only knocked out of kilter, but took some two decades to put back on track.

Financial ramifications lasted far beyond the running of the last tram in 1962 and proved an early priority when transport in Glasgow was subsumed in 1973 by Greater Glasgow Passenger Transport Executive (PTE).

Murray’s skills were taken up at the PTE by Ronald Cox, newly appointed director-general and previously general manager with Edinburgh City Transport.

“I said I’d only take the job if I could have Bill Murray as my director of operations”, Cox later recalled.

In a typically characterful move, Murray quietly added a personal role to his new responsibilities – that of integrating long-serving staff into changed ways of working. To him, GCT was everything because of the dedication of the men and women who staffed it. For years after his appointment, he would return late to his Bearsden home after attending meetings and functions, making appearances to maintain staff morale at the city’s three dozen bus garages, depots and transport installations. In 1969, on his appointment as GCT general manager, he had done the same circuit, shaking hands with every member of staff he could meet. The abiding memory was the astonishing number he knew by first name.
A tall, intensely private man, Murray’s booming voice and gruff manner disguised a warm heart devoted to the ethics of service, values and fairness. When his predecessor Fitzpayne died, Murray looked upon one newspaper report as offering scant praise, and fired off an immediate letter to the offender. It was an action of some courage from someone who rarely felt at ease in the presence of the press.

William Murray grew up in Riddrie in Glasgow’s east end, joining Glasgow Transport in 1933 when trams sported colour coding for the routes they served. He started work with general manager Lachlan Mackinnon – who in 1927 had taken over from the ­legendary James Dalrymple. The ­latter, an ambitious tram man, even envisaged route expansion as far as Edinburgh. The more practical Mackinnon opted to improve on the existing network, and successfully updated the Subway from a cable-drawn system operating through dank stations to a modern electric railway.

An early task for the youthful ­Murray concerned work on Subway electrification.

Latent managerial talent saw him posted in a junior role in the consultancy GCT provided for developing the tram system of Oporto, Portugal, as well as being entrusted with the scheduling of brand new “Coronation” cars for the 1938 Empire Exhibition, trams that earned a reputation as “the finest short-haul passenger vehicles in Europe”.

The outbreak of war in 1939 saw him enlisting in the 1st Battalion Cameron Highlanders in Inverness, billeted in the long-closed Milltown Distillery. Commissioned into the Royal Signals, he served in India and Burma, and was one of those charged with having to deal with troops hurriedly returned from Madagascar, despatched there to fend off threatened Japanese invasion.

Darjeeling in 1944 proved his first meeting with then Major Tom Fulton – who 14 years later in peacetime became Bill Murray’s political boss as convener of Glasgow Corporation transport committee. Later again, the pair met up when Fulton went on to become chairman of Greater Glasgow Passenger Transport Authority, the political arm of the PTE (and still later again, chairman of the Labour Party in Scotland).

Politically acute, Bill Murray was wise enough not to cross swords with politicians – though not afraid to speak his mind occasionally. When one meeting grossly overran, he memorably quoted his grandmother: “Nice to see the weans, and nice to see them go”.

Murray sacrificed much private time in making GCT work. The onerousness of keeping Glasgow’s transport on the move was reflected in the inflexibility of a system under which all investment was expected to be funded solely through fares, a state of affairs many thought was unfairly upheld by local politicians. Murray had no choice but to make the system work, while on mainland Europe, his counterparts gained access to capital injections for direct investment.

Bill Murray took pride in being a long-time Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport. A modest man, he was a born wanderer from his earliest times, and pre-war, covered Europe by bus and rail during his annual Glasgow Fair fortnights, developing particular loves for Switzerland and Scotland, a post-war activity he kept up with his beloved wife Margaret until a few years ago when he became too frail to travel.

He suffered a stroke in 2001, and though largely housebound after that, greatly enjoyed telephone calls from former colleagues and transport friends.

A committed family man, he was devoted to his wife Margaret – who predeceased him in September last year – his son and daughter, and his grandchildren.