WHILE it will not grab the attention quite as much as the 100th anniversary of the First World War, November 11, 2014, also marks the 20th anniversary of the Darlington bus wars.

It was an extraordinary few days, as 300 buses an hour leapfrogged one another through the congested town centre streets, fighting bumper to bumper to give bemused passengers free rides.

There was only one casualty in the bus wars – Darlington Transport Company (DTC), which was driven out of business by the predatory actions of its private rivals.

The townspeople were losers, too. In September 1994, the council-owned DTC was worth £1.5m. Two months later, it was bust, worth only the scrap value of its buses and buildings.

To understand why DTC existed, we have to go back to January 1902 when Darlington Corporation – the forerunner of the council – bought out the private company, Imperial Tramways, which operated the town’s horsedrawn trams, for £7,600. The corporation had just opened its own power station, in Haughton Road, and wanted to convert the trams to run on its own electricity.

The Darlington Corporation Light Railway duly opened on June 1, 1904, with 16 single-deckers clanking around the town centre.

By the 1920s, Darlington was expanding, which meant much of the population lived beyond the reach of the ageing tram network, so, with the help of the 1925 Darlington Corporation (Transport Etc) Act, the council began replacing the trams with “electric trackless vehicles”.

These were essentially buses, but they drew down their power via their rooftop arms from overhead cables.

Because the council still owned the power station, Darlington’s trolleybus fares were very cheap – a 1d fare was to go 50 per cent further than in any comparable town.

After the Second World War, the Government nationalised the electricity industry, preventing the council from subsidising the trolleybus network which, by now, was showing signs of its age. The last hurrah of the trolleybus era came in March 1949, when a route was added along McMullen Road to reach the new Paton and Baldwins factory at Lingfield Point, but thereafter, trolleys were gradually replaced by petrol-driven motor buses.

Until 1986, Darlington council uncontroversially operated buses in Darlington, but then Margaret Thatcher’s Government deregulated the bus industry. The council turned its bus department into a standalone company, valued at £3m, but refused to sell it.

Private operators began circling until May 1993, when a newly-formed company called Your Bus began running minibuses on Darlington streets. Competition gradually increased until July 1994 when the council felt pressurised into putting DTC on the market. Yorkshire Traction bid the most, £1.5m, which was nearly half-a-million more than the giant Stagecoach company offered.

Stagecoach then flooded the town with free buses – there were so many that the opposition football fans at Feethams sang: “Darlo, Darlo, give us a bus!” – and poached 60 of DTC’s 88 drivers by offering them £1,000 bonuses and better contracts.

With no income and no drivers, DTC lasted just four days. It collapsed on November 11, 1994, with debts of £300,000. Fifty staff were made redundant, and the road was open for Stagecoach to take control of Darlington’s buses.

In March 1995, the Competition Commission’s inquiry into the bus wars branded Stagecoach’s actions “predatory, deplorable and against the public interest”.