Tuesday 21 September 2021

And Two Turn Up At Once (2)

STOP PRESS added at 1100

National Express announced at 0700 this morning that it was considering a bid for the Stagecoach Group.

More tomorrow

The Rise And Fall Again For First

By Chapter 15 of Keith Shayshutt's book we are a little over half way through the tortuous story of buses in Cornwall, with the book's title ringing load and clear in our ears.
The one certainty is that things will continue to change. The "turning point" covers a success for First in winning tendered work and a consequent loss of work for Western Greyhound (WG). One gained 20 buses-worth of work, the other lost about the same.

It did appear that the First Bus management might be starting the fightback.

2013 was a bad year for WG.
Although other operators rallied round and services were quickly restored, it seemed that much of the heart of the company was damaged. A second, less destructive fire in January 2014 did nothing to bolster the company's fading morale.
As so often happens, Keith Shayshutt neatly and dispassionately records the decline of Western Greyhound throughout 2014. Drivers were leaving and costs were rising. Concession fare income was declining and tenders were becoming far less lucrative. First were nibbling back at their former empire and had the clout of the Big Group to weather the storm.

At the end of 2014 WG was sold to two entrepreneurs who had previously been involved in Buses Excetera in Surrey ...
... and Phil Stockley's Velvet Bus in Eastleigh.
Our diplomatic author makes no comment, but industry watchers knew that both had gone bust and saw a bleak future (if any) for Greyhound under its new ownership.

Keith's headline for 2015 was no real surprise.
WG closed abruptly at 1700 on 13th March. With a gargantuan effort by all concerned its services were carved up between First (the majority) leaving Plymouth City Bus to handle Bude, Padstow, Looe and the Torpoint area, a better geographical fit.

As subsequent events have shown this gave Go Ahead a greater toe hold across the Tamar and maybe sowed the seeds of subsequent development.

The map now shows a swathe of purple to hold back the trickle of red from the east.
This bit of good luck for First seemed to rejuvenate the company and there came a burst of positives. 2017 marked the emergence of powerful branding and pretty colours - well documents in fbb's blogs - which is well covered in the book and need not be repeated here.
It was a revolution and part of a surge of enthusiasm from various parts of First Group. Callywith College in Bodmin required a network of services which went to Go Cornwall ...
... but First held on tight to its much bigger network for Truro College, about two dozen buses worth of work.

One word describes the events from 2019!


Cornwall Council had decided that it wanted to create a "franchised" network for the whole county - effectively taking all the buses into Local Authority control. As a precursor to this, all tenders were bundled up into a single contract which GoAhead won.

At a stroke this took First's network back to its few commercial routes. Overnight the map became all red with a few minot purple additions.
Keith has shown routes operated by companies other than First or GoAhead in different colours, but, be not deceived, these were still part (albeit sub contracted) of the Transport for Cornwall network of bright red new buses.
The 35/35A is operated by OTS (Other Transport Services) of Falmouth, previously First ...
... previously Western Greyhound 535.
And previously Truronian and previously (again) First?

No wonder the book is called "All Change".

Again. the later chapters of the book have been covered in recent blogs. First responded to its loss of conventional bus business by a hug expansion of tourist routes ...
... whilst, it is rumoured, Transport for Cornwall (TfC) has struggled with its new network.

The Council continued the pretence of creating "one network" for the county when there are two separate networks with no coordination of timetables or fares.

Potty beyond compare!

Some of these developments just creep into Keith Shayshutts excellent volume. but some of the very recent registrations an de-registrations by TfC had not happened by print date.

Far from stability, fbb predicts that "All Change" will continue to be the norm in the County for some time yet.

Watch this space!

Meanwhile - BUY THE BOOK. It is a collection of lessons on how to mismanage public transport and none of the parties involved comes out of it squeaky clean in their success rate! Before the re-tendering exercise, First was definitely on the up.

Cornwall Council would dearly love to take them over and, as soon as possible, take full "ownership" of the whole lot.
As usual with these ideas, it is not at all clear where the money would come from!

The excellent "All Change" book is a masterclass of public transport history and excellently records a time of huge turmoil in Cornwall. It should be compulsory reading for any budding bus manager and student of the trade. It should also be read as a sombre warning to politicians reminding them of their apparently consummate in ability to mess up the service to the public.

The book is self-published by Keith Shayshutt and an email to the author will be a simple prelude to its purchase. At a modest £22.50 for a full colour production A4 size, 100 pages (including soft covers) and lavishly illustrated, it represents very good value indeed.


And the maps are a credit to the author and his designer and by far the best in any bus book that fbb has ever read.

And A Powerful P.S.
One correspondent has taken fbb to task for suggesting the Cornwall is a negative example of the "commercial" model.

You blame the commercial model for failure, but that’s rubbish.

If Cornwall County Council had not reduced Concessionary funding at a stroke, then cut subsidies overnight (and withheld monies not mentioned in the book) then my guess is that Western Greyhound and Mark Howarth would still be running a good service throughout Cornwall and Devon in 2021, and the subsequent Government intervention would have not been required .

Moving on when Cornwall had money thrown at it 3 years ago as it’s super depressed and First we’re given a new fleet of vehicles, Western Greyhound might have received a share of these.

It’s local government stupidity that has caused this, wasted £40m Of public money and put off many bus passengers for ever. You have only to look at the current Go Cornwall non integrated network with First to show that they have learned nothing.

My guess, and we shall never know, is that Go Ahead put in a very lowball bid to win it, assuming First would pack up. Then Covid intervened and of course all losses now Dft covered.

In his defence, fbb argues that his complaint is against the commercial "model" which includes all the things that the comment writer suggests are to blame in Cornwall. fbb is NOT blaming "commercial operation" as such, but the whole crazy package!

Sorry if that is not clear from the old man's ramblings.

 Next Book Review blog : Wednesday 22nd September 


  1. Western Greyhound is an interesting case - it is an operator that is held in high regard by many enthusiasts, but the story isn't entirely rosy. My recollections (as a user of their services) were that they provided an excellent service in from 1998 to c.2008/10. Through clever interworking, clock-face timetabling and using hubs for connections they were able to build themselves a network of services greater than the sum of its parts. They were fortunate to be expanding at a time when First (Western National) was a lame beast and funding for improvements was available to those canny enough (from sources like the Rural Bus Challenge and Countryside Commission).

    But... I'm not convinced even pre-fire that everything was rosy at the company. Certainly, cleaning standards and presentation (and maintenance?) weren't totally up to scratch in the early 2010s. The once cleaver scheduling didn't seem to work as well either (increased traffic and tighter running?) and I recall some driver grumblings. Plus, the company was late in addressing PSVAR requirements – continuing to buy non low floor Varios when others had long ceased doing so. I’m convinced there was a genuine plan (or capital) to replace such a large percentage of the fleet in a relatively small timeframe. Yes new Solos were brought – but these were off the back of new tender wins – the legacy fleet still needed dealing with

    FBB's commenter places heavy blame on the council's cutting of concessionary fare funding, but I'd argue there were greater and pre-existing troubles. Yes, Cornwall's initially generous approach to reimbursement provided a sticking plaster, but only a temporary one and the companies underlying issues remained (and once the reimbursement was cut / realigned came back to the fore).

    The directors did an excellent job of starting and growing the business, but I’m not convinced there was a genuine (and costed) plan for the next stage in the company’s development. I’m not convinced “Western Greyhound and Mark Howarth would still be running a good service throughout Cornwall and Devon in 2021” as argues by FBB’s commenter. Indeed, if there was any long-term strategy for the company, it seemed to be to get the company to a position where it would make a good nest-egg the owner at retirement (nothing wrong with that).

    1. Well done, 100% correct, I too followed & used Western Greyhound & totally agree with you. Others unfortunately have rose tinted glasses or just believed the hype (usually from afar)!

  2. FBB notes that "In his defence, fbb argues that his complaint is against the commercial "model" which includes all the things that the comment writer suggests are to blame in Cornwall. fbb is NOT blaming "commercial operation" as such, but the whole crazy package!"

    But... what is the alternative non-commercial "model" that FBB would promote. Nationalised and regulated bus services had already failed in North Cornwall (see Western National's wholesale withdrawal from a large part of the county in 1971)...

    Are the results of the commercial model that much worse (I'd argue in some ways they're better)...

    Yes, there is much that can be improved, and FBB points out some of the right howlers being made... but I don't see operating commercially as the problem.

    I'd genuinely be interested to hear what FBB's non-commercial model would look like and how he sees it working...

  3. At the risk of jumping on my soapbox again . . . the "commercial" model for the bus industry relies on appropriate support for "non-commercial" services and journeys. This model, when used correctly, did result in considerable service and vehicle improvements throughout the 1990's and 2000's.

    I think what fbb is trying to get at is that the "commercial" model doesn't provide the inclusive "service" that we all recall from NBC days, where an, often limited, evening and Sunday service was provided on most routes, irrespective of usage and need.

    That, however, was then . . . and we are living in a very different age, with different ideals. As constituted outside London, buses are designed to move significant numbers of passengers; not penny numbers. We do NOT provide a "social service", unless someone wishes to fund this. London does; although it costs a lot of money, this is probably correct, as the alternative would be rampant congestion, poor air quality and serious health issues amongst many people.

    If other cities wish to go down the same route as London, then they must realise that it will cost money, and that external funds will be required. Tyne and Wear realised this, and stepped back . . . Manchester has yet to do so.

    I think that fbb's "non-commercial" model will look a lot like London's operations . . . very inclusive; all encompassing and hugely expensive.

    Can the UK afford an experiment to try it out outside London?? I don't believe so, at least not for 10 years . . . there are other calls to be made on the public purse just now.

    1. Your comment that "we are living in a very different age" is astute and one that needs remembering when looking back on what went before - otherwise we end up simply donning our rose-tinted spectacles without looking objectively at the issue in hand.

      Cornwall has long been difficult/marginal bus territory and as mentioned before all was not rosy back in NBC days as witnessed by the mass retrenchment from North Cornwall. Then we have the "Market Analysis Project" and focus on managing demand, recasting networks (and invariably increased subsidy requirements).

      Perhaps we need to look back further to the days of the British Transport Commission (BTC) and British Electric Traction (BET), but then the "halcyon" days of the 1950s and '60s really were a different age...and of course one of the drivers for the new transport policy that led to the creation of the NBC was that buses had been rapidly losing patronage and profitability... indeed it wasn't until the time of the post-deregulation commercial model that this decline started to level out.

      As you rightly point out the cost of reversing this trend would be very great. That's not of course to say that present day operators can't do better - they most certainly can.

  4. " . . . that present day operators can't do better - they most certainly can".

    Perhaps something of a generalisation . . . the oft-quoted Brightons, Oxfords, Nottinghams all do quite well, as do TrentBarton, some of the Stagecoaches, a very few Firsts . . . indeed, in some towns it is the competition that keeps both operators on their toes!!

    I'm thinking also of Compass, Lynx and others of the smaller independent variety . . . and not forgetting Transdev, of course. There is much to celebrate where the "commercial" model has done well.

    I will concede that pretty much all of Arriva; regrettably more of Stagecoach now, still large chunks of First and smaller bits of GoAhead need improvement urgently, and perhaps Boris' BusPlan will provide the stimulus . . . but I'm not sure.

    A final thought . . . what links many of the "good" bus operators? It's actually people . . . not the same people, but the same ethos. James Freeman, Martijn Gilbert, Roger French, Alex Hornby, Mark Fowles . . . these spring to mind as being visionaries that also innovate . . . but perhaps more than that have "service" at the forefront {but NOT "social"!}. If we could distill that . . .

    1. I think your last point is an important one to remember, it doesn't matter how the industry is owned it is who is in charge - you can hide it with money but money won't actually fix a weak management. From a passenger perspective London is behind all the curves on customer quality (though ahead of the curve on technology innovation) but has high enough frequencies and low enough fares to be allowed some room (though customer satisfaction is routinely lower than the deregulated provincial market). The best companies on either side (privately owned or municipal) have been led by innovative managers who keep an eye on quality and have found a way to combine service with profitability. Staff take their lead from senior management, if they are more focussed on the bottom line and not on the delivery on the ground then many of the staff allow their quality to slide to what they can get away with (why work harder than you are asked to?) but if the customer is the focus staff will step up to that challenge.

      People like to point to the successes of municipals like Nottingham & Reading (both of whom actually run fully commercial concepts of high-frequency core corridors and leaving low-frequency marginal routes to others to cover) but don't look at Halton (for several years before it finally failed) or Ipswich (at least at its low point, I haven't been over that way in a while to see whether the new management have found a successful path but the council have always hamstrung the operator by treating it as a money generator not a social asset as we are told councils would) where service delivery was down with the worst.

    2. I'm in full agreement with everything you've written there. And I absolutely agree that there is much to celebrate. Indeed, it is one of my regular exasperations (for want of a better word) with FBB's blog is that there is too much concentration on the failings (dare I say nit picking on occasion) and it would be good to see a little more celebration of the successes.

      You are right that my comment about doing better was a generalisation - but I'd hope (expect even) that those managers and companies you mention would readily admit that there are elements that they could (and want to) do better. Indeed, it is that constant striving to improve that marks these companies out. Which I think is part of the ethos that you mention and is sorely needed with some operators. So yes, I did over generalise and there is certainly a substantial range in how much "doing better" is needed.

      I'd agree with all the names you mention and there are others too... Andrew Wickham, Ben Wakerley, Nigel Eggleton, Marc Morgan Huws, Peter Newman and many, many more besides. Of course, a quality they all share (in addition to being good and inspirational managers) is that they wholeheartedly believe in the benefits of their product and they have a passion for buses and public transport.

  5. A very thoughtful and informed exchange of comments today. Thanks guys - do keep commenting. These exchanges add to our knowledge of where we are, and how we arrived here, in the bus business.

  6. Just one last comment from me . . . I agree with Petras409 that we need to keep the informed comments coming; I always learn something new from them.

    As Ben says, there is much to celebrate, and it would be nice for fbb occasionally to recognise this (although it is, of course, his blog!!).

    The phrase of the day needs to be "a passion for buses and public transport". We are lucky to have several of those as operators (and let's not forget Ray Stenning . . . who could?!). They do need to be supported by shareholders and finance people, though . . . maybe that's the problem??

  7. Nowhere else in Europe is there an expectation that bus services, urban or rural, can be fundamentally commercial. The ideal would be Switzerland- a genuinely integrated system with, one presumes from the universal coverage offered by the network, national criteria on the level of service that should be provided. Yes, it's expensive, but is recognised by almost all politicians, including those a fair distance to the right, as an essential part of a civilised society and its resopnse to climate change. The comparison with rural transport deserts like large chinks of rural Shropshire and Cumbria is not a confortable one.