Friday 31 May 2019

Success? Suicide? Sell-off?

Yesterday First Group made their planned end of year announcement. Company accounts are something of a mystery to mere mortals, fbb included, but there were shock-horror headlines on-line yesterday. When fbb studied economics at Northampton Grammar School, he was instructed to understand what a company's balance sheet meant.

He tried. (did get grade "B" at A level?!).

The important thing to remember is that any business exists for one purpose only and, in the case of First, that is NOT to run buses and NOT to run trains. The company exists to earn money for its shareholders who, after all, have coughed up the dosh (through their holding of shares) to pay for the business.

So we begin with the "highlights" on the First Bus web site.
Don't panic Cap'n Mainwaring?
It's doing better now so it might be a good time to try to sell it. The key phrase is at the end of the above quote which translates to ... "a separated company will be better for the shareholders". Does than mean that First Bus has been badly tun in the recent past? The jury is out. Certainly the Fearnley regime has brought improvements but, for reasons that are unclear, there are still basket cases amongst the various bus operating companies.
Everyone knows that First should never have bought American Greyhound in the first place and the operation has been a real pain in the gearbox since.
"Activist" shareholders have been demanding change, so should they be pleased with improving figures?
But losing 98 million quid cannot, surely, be good. But what's this?
333 million profit sounds well-good. But it isn't. Operating profit is what is left when you take in all the fares etc. and pay all the bills. But if you owe banks oodles of money, that profit vanishes in interest charges. OK, it's not quite as simple as that, but one of  Fearnley's tasks when he took over the poisoned chalice was to reduce debt.

So he sold the London business. And he is continuing to sell parts of the business that lose money and are thus adding to the debt "mountain". (Although nobody really understands why the company cannot make a profit in a big city like Manchester!)

And, assuming the bus business is hived off (somehow?), how is First going to improve its business in the future.
So the aim is to develop the American business and quietly lose the "challenging" markets in the UK. Some wonder how long it will be before the American markets become "challenging!

No surprise that "rail" in under review. The franchising system is no longer fit for purpose as almost everybody agrees; but First will make a decision when the "Williams" review is published. Don't hold you breath. And First, like every other franchisee, bid too much for their rail businesses.
The chairman (Matthew Gregory - above) was at pains to suggest that this shocker was not as a result of the mini shareholders "revolt" (as yet unsuccessful) ...
... but we ignoramuses will raise an eyebrow or three at the idea that you grow the US business by selling off a big chunk of it.

Greyhound was as American as Thanksgiving in the past:-
Greyhound is now the only operator of scheduled intercity coaches in North America, carrying around 17 million passengers a year and serving some 2,400 destinations.

FirstGroup invested in expanding and modernising the Greyhound fleet and terminals as well as marketing, but this has not proved enough to give it the returns shareholders expect.
“The issues at Greyhound have revolved around the impact of low cost airlines coming into some of our markets and (the) relatively low oil price over the year, which in the U.S. means more people get into their cars,” FirstGroup Chief Executive Matthew Gregory told reporters on a call.

And who will buy Greyhound if it is "under-performing". The phrase in company-speak "argot" is that it will be a "fire sale" implying "damaged goods", i.e. the Greyhound business "burnt" by continuing losses.

But, remember that all this is for the shareholders' benefit. The share price shot up by a whopping 13% in response to these announcements; the implication being that the people who matter like what they are hearing.
But what about First's other, less financially committed "stakeholders".

Aware of the angst that these revelations will generate in local authorities (will the bus services collapse?), amongst user groups (will the bus services collapse?) and in the hallowed portals of  government (DaFT - will the bus services collapse?), chairman Gregory has written to all political leaders in First's operating areas.

fbb expurgates and annotates (but is on a course of treatment!)

I am writing to let you know about some significant plans for the future of FirstGroup and our operations which we have announced this morning along with our annual results, which include pursuing strategic options, through a sale or another means, to separate First Bus from the Group. I appreciate this is significant news.

You bet!

Our Board regularly reviews our strategic approach to ensure we are best able to deliver excellent service to our customers; good value to taxpayers and those with whom we contract; and growth for our investors.

Mainly the latter!

In light of recent performance improvements, we believe the most appropriate means to achieve this is through the rationalisation of our portfolio.

We believe now is the right time to pursue alternative options, ensuring the continued progression of the business and the best future for our employees and customers.

First bit, progression of the business, yes: future for employees and customers, not so sure.

Whilst this process unfolds, we will continue to operate our services as usual, including those in your area. We will, of course, be working with our employees in First Bus and their representatives to explain the detail of this plan and what it means for them.

Lets hope that "the lads and lasses" don't jump ship!

I am very proud of our achievements in First Bus.  Although there have been challenges along the way, the hard work and commitment of our employees has ensured that these businesses are now well placed to capitalise on the many exciting opportunities in the future.

Our plan for First Bus will ensure a clear focus in the future on providing bus services, building on the strong foundations we have put in place over many years, which will deliver in the future for customers and stakeholders.

He couldn't really say anything else, could he?

But we all need to remember that it is the people here ...
... that matter. The people here ...
... are not quite so important!

Final question. Is the "commercial" bus industry model really, really the best for (a) the passengers, (b) modal shift from the all devouring motor car and (c) for our health and the environment? 

Answers on a postcard to to whoever is crackpot enough to be elected as a next party leader (of any colour). (Please note: in this country we elect Members of Parliament; we do NOT, and NEVER have done, elect "the next Prime Minister.)

Whoops - Crunch
Thankfully no one was seriously hurt, just a few very minor scratches. Stagecoach service 2 (evenings and Sundays) runs via Norther General Hospital grounds.
The route is via the main entrance then up the hill ...
... to a turning circle outside the clock tower, the original part of the now vastly expanded complex.

Unfortunately the driver got a bit muxt ip in the dark and turned left one nibble to soon ...
... to turn via the Chesterman building (BLUE on the site map above). Sadly the "porte cochère" ...
... was not designed for double decks.
The "coming together" was inevitable ...
... costly and embarrassing for all involved!

The correct turn at the tower is not so encumbered!
Let us hope that First Group doesn't metaphorically lose its top deck by making a corporate wrong turn with its strategy announced yesterday. Big leaps are inherently more risky that tiny careful steps.

 The second Chesterfield blog will appear tomorrow 

Thursday 30 May 2019

Twisted Spire : Twisted System (1)

Correspondent Bob contacted fbb a few days ago with regard to one of his not infrequent visits to the wonderful Chesterfield Market. As well as a superabundance of traditional outside stalls ...
... there is also the magnificent Market Hall complete with tower and clock. The indoor hall was refurbished and re-opened in 2013 and looks posh but intriguing.
Chesterfield had three railway stations as per this map from the early 1950s.
The one remaining is Midland (upper right) on the former Midland Railway's main line to Sheffield.
It has change quite a bit over the years!
A little nearer the town centre, just off Brewery Street was Chesterfield Central.
This was on a loop line off the main Great Central route, running from Temple Normanton to Staveley.
The line lunged into a tunnel not quite under the  church with the twisted spire.
Almost all evidence of the GC line is now lost having been overcome by the super road for the A61.
The tunnel lies hidden behind the retaining wall just under the Brewery Street bridge.
There is what looks suspiciously like an access shaft on top of the wall.
The northern portal still portalling is pictured here on the last day of use.
But if you are very inquisitive, you can find the southern portal.
Walk down Hollis Lane passing the Galleon Steakhouse on your right and, on your left at the bottom ...
... is a ramp behind locked gates which leads down to said tunnel. Some urban explorers have been down there.
Creepy, dangerous and probably illegal. 

Which leaves the third (and least known) station called Chesterfield Market Place. In the map above it stands centre left.
The problem in tracing this terminus (Lincolnshire, Derbyshire and East Coast Railway) that its approaches have disappeared completely AND the road network has changed. The location can be gleaned from this painting.
Straight ahead (behind the corporation bus) is the market hall. To the right of of bus is the distinctive "half-timbered" building ...
... now (no surprise here) a Wetherspoons pub/nosh house. Ironically the present end-on car parking bays mirror the arrangements outside the station building of old. The line closed in 1951.

The approaches to all three Chesterfield stations come into close proximity to the south of the crooked spire. This old photograph might help.
The Great Central runs under the pedestrian footbridge then under the Midland line. The Midland runs across the low arches to the left then under the line to Market Place which crosses above just beyond the line of cottages.
Horns Bridge, he big brick arch over the old A61 junction, ...
... was the last vestige of this approach line to remain.
In fact one small part of this complex weave of railway infrastructure can still be traced. The Midland Railway had a branch line to Brampton (a k a Brampton Wharf).
Oddly, when the super-duper road network was built the bridges for this unused line were also replaced. 
They now carry a footpath and cycleway!

Have you followed all this? Probably not!

But open up the maps, look at the pictures, take a couple of strength pills and you might sort it all out. fbb can only apologise if he has failed to communicate all this stuff with 100% accuracy and adequate clarity.

Tomorrow it is Chesterfield's bus stations that feature and, indeed, the real reason for correspondent Bob's e-mail.

 Next Chesterfield blog : Friday 31st May 

Wednesday 29 May 2019

The X Files - A New Brand (2)

Bishop William St Carileph, 1081-1096, became first head of the County Palatine of Durham. His Palatine was a virtually separate state, a kind of defensive `buffer zone' sandwiched between civilised England and the often dangerous Northumbria-Scottish borderland.

The "Prince Bishops" of Durham were thus given powers enabling them to:- 
hold their own parliament
raise their own armies
appoint their own sheriffs and justices
administer their own laws
levy taxes and customs duties
create fairs and markets
issue charters
salvage shipwrecks
collect revenue from mines
administer the forests
mint their own coins.

They lived like kings in their castles (palaces!) at Durham City and Bishop Auckland.

Had they been ruling today, they would have definitely run the buses!

But this does explain where the branding for GoAhead's service 20 came from.
In the early days its logo was obviously a Bishop's mitre.
For the benefit of our non-ecclesiastical readers, the Bishop's ceremonial titfer (called a "mitre", historically meaning "turban") and its shape represents the anointing of his reverence by the "tongue of flame" as in the gift of the Holy Spirit to the disciples on the Day of Pentecost (a k a Whit Sunday).

GoAhead's mitre deteriorated over the years ...
... until it is now a feeble gold squiggle almost overwhelmed by some equally feeble rays emanating from the name.
A bigger and somewhat more magnificent mitre materialises further aft.

The 20 and its variants run from Sunderland to Durham.
There have been several re-jigs of the timetable ...
... but until recently the service ran every 10 minutes with variation at Houghton-le-Spring.
But note, however, that, at peak times, some journeys ran limited stop as X20 ...
... between Rainton Bridge and Durham, saving 9 minutes over the all stops version.

But all has now changed. The 20 now runs every 12 minutes ...
... with the 20A route being covered by the newcomer.
The new X20 is the second service to carry the Xlines brand.
It runs every 30 minutes (so Rainton Bridge has a worse service - previously every 20).

Between Sunderland and ...
... Houghton-le-Spring there is no "Xness", but thereafter ...
... it has long sections where it makes no stops at all.
Although the X20 has its own separate leaflet, the times are also shown in the revised 20 publication.
Perhaps unfortunately, the combined publication lacks any maps. Rainton Bridge N-power look well worth a visit!
fbb was doubly excited to see, according to Google Maps, ...
... that the every 10/12 minutes Red Arrows X1 goes that way as well.
No, it doesn't really.
One evening trip diverts there, presumably at shift times, and the Red Arrows 921, although carrying the brand, is merely a "works" service.
Perhaps a mis-use or dilution of the brand?

It is unlikely that the X1 will get the X-lines treatment as it is not very "X".

It will be interesting, however, to see whether real "X for express" services catch on. The two new examples (Lothian Country and Go North East) may be setting a trend?

 Next Chesterfield blog : Thursday 30th May