Sunday 8th August 2021
It’s always a pleasure to visit one of Britain’s quality smaller bus and coach companies.
Safeguard Coaches has been trading for nigh on 100 years having been established in 1924. The company is still owned by the same Newman family (and that’s not the famous Ensign Newmans), albeit now into their fifth generation of directors from the original owning team of Mum Annie and sons Frank, Arthur, John and Albert after Dad Henry sadly passed away a year earlier in 1923.
A few months after I blogged almost three years ago about the bus war that had broken out in Guildford when Arriva unleashed a fleet of minibuses on Safeguard’s bus routes which had always run to their customary high standards, managing director Andrew Halliday invited me over to take a look at the company’s then new garage located in Jacobs Well. After a busy 2019 and Covid dominated 2020, I finally got round to taking up his kind offer on Friday and spent a hugely enjoyable couple of hours taking a look behind the scenes at this highly respected, long standing, award winning, family owned business.
Andrew is a a very hands on managing director. The Newman family control the Board, along with Andrew, and take a keen interest in how the business is doing but they leave all the day to day running to Andrew and his dedicated small team based at the garage together with a loyal band of drivers and maintenance staff. Andrew has a wealth of industry experience having cut his teeth in London working with the redoubtable Roger Bowker at East London as well as a spell at Westlink and some time at the MVA Consultancy before taking up his role with Safeguard twenty years ago and where he’s been ever since.
Before the company’s move to Jacobs Well which lies just north of Guildford not far from the A320 to Woking, Safeguard had been based within a stones throw of the town’s railway station in Ridgemont – where it had been located since the very first bus ran in 1924.
Andrew arranged for the company’s superbly preserved 1956 vintage AEC Reliance with a Blackpool built Burlingham body to take me on a short tour of the town including those former premises, still owned by the Newman family, and now leased to a car sales and repair business.
The garage is deceptively larger inside than it looks from the outside, but business growth over the years had rendered it unable to meet Safeguard’s needs as well as having difficult access arrangements with buses and coaches having to be reversed in from a busy main road (The Chase) on an awkward bend.
Moving to Jacobs Well was an emotional wrench after all those years but a sensible and practical move and a relief after many years of searching for a suitable property in the town.
Safeguard own the freehold of the premises which was previously used by a waste company so it already had facilities for maintaining large vehicles although the Newmans invested in a new ramp to compliment a two/three bay enclosed maintenance area with vehicle hoists …
… as well as a new fuel tank and fuelling bay.
The fleet expanded in 1988 when the Newmans bought out Farnham Coaches, a company with synergies and a similar ethos based ten miles west of Guildford which also came with freehold property including maintenance facilities. Covid has brought the two fleets and staff together at the Jacobs Well location with the Farnham property currently mothballed.
Safeguard has three income prongs to its business portfolio – local buses in Guildford, coaches based in Guilford and, normally, Farnham and property rental from the land no longer needed for operations. Andrew admitted this has helped the business get through the tough times fate has thrown at it, especially during the last few years, but also over decades past too. When the bus side has struggled from unwelcome competition, the coaches have been there to support the business, and in recent times the coach side of the business all but disappeared during the pandemic while the buses were an ‘essential service’ funded by the Government.
The intense competition in Park Barn, the ‘good bus territory’ Safeguard have been admirably serving since 1924, with Arriva’s incursion in 2018 wasn’t the first competition the company has faced on these routes, now numbered 4 and 5 and operated on a circular routing to also serve the busy Royal Surrey County Hospital. Back in the early 1990s Alder Valley Guildford & West Surrey diverted routes through the area to compete and fellow independent operator, Blue Saloon, also muscled in during the mid 1990s before it sold out to Guildford & West Surrey which became part of British Bus, then Cowie and then Arriva.
Even though Arriva pulled out from its competitive foray into Park Barn the company still runs a competitive route A shuttling up and down between the town centre and the hospital with three buses providing a ten minute frequency on a round trip time of twenty minutes at rock bottom fares. I struggle to see how that’s helping boost the Group’s ‘bottom line’ and suspect once Covid support payments tail off over the next six months, the financial reality of roosting chickens coming home won’t be far away. One things for sure, Safeguard aren’t going anywhere.
Out of a bus fleet of thirteen Safeguard currently have seven buses allocated to routes 4/5 as well as its other town route, the 3S to Bellfields – another route that saw intense competition in January 2019 until Arriva withdrew from their own parallel route 3 later in the year. All three Safeguard routes are currently operating on a 20 minute frequency but Andrew expects to increase the 4/5 back to every 15 minutes in the next few weeks.
Andrew was also pleased to report Safeguard snd Farnham’s coach business which dominates the rest of the total fleet of around 40 vehicles is picking up after the Covid battering with bookings coming in for private hires and the occasional excursion – a recent foray to Swanage proved hugely popular with a loyal and regular client base – and work as a sub-contractor for coach holiday tours is also reappearing.
Back on our town tour on board the wonderful 1956 AEC Reliance, which had left the fleet in 1963 but was reacquired and lovingly restored in 2001, we called by at the Royal Surrey County Hospital with an appropriate pause alongside the Ambulatory Emergency Care sign to signify the renowned manufacturer known by the same initials.
The interior of the bus has some great nostalgic features.
Whereas drivers’ cabs have come a long way since 1956 …
… I’m not sure the same can be said for passenger comfort.
The refurbished seats really are comfortable and made our town tour all the more enjoyable.
A run down to the rather run down bus station at the Friary shopping centre was next on the itinerary creating much interest among waiting passengers as well as staff of both Compass Travel and Stagecoach on layover. Our driver, Dave, had previously worked for Stagecoach but had now found his calling at Safeguard not least because of his passion in looking after the AEC.
Discussions continue between the local authorities and developers about plans to completely redevelop the bus station site together with adjacent land, but Andrew explained there’s no progress and nothing planned in the foreseeable future. In the meantime, one of the brightest features of the bus station is the shop front of the former travel shop once used by Safeguard. Andrew admitted he needs to get the information updated with current prices and changes to journey times, but it’s a great way to clearly show passengers where the routes go.
Also in need of updating now services are getting back to their pre-Covid bus times are the smart timetable leaflets Safeguard usually produce for its bus routes.
It’s good to see the clear use of bus maps even for the simple route of the 3S (shown above), as well as the circular 4/5 (shown below).
It struck me when chatting to the team back at Safeguard House in Jacobs Well that alongside the long serving team of Safeguard staff are others who’ve joined the company from a variety of other local bus companies which all have slightly varying antecedents from the privatisation/deregulation era which threw up quite a complex history of company splits, mergers and sales in this part of Surrey as well as a myriad of independents… remember Tillingbourne? And Countryliner?
It’s been a long time since those days when Aldershot & District and London Transport Country Buses dominated Guildford’s bus scene in the 1960s along with a number of small independently owned operators including Safeguard.
It’s testimony to the dedication and commitment of the Newman family and the entire Safeguard team that it’s the only company from that era still in business and I reckon will be the one that thrives and prospers in the decades to come too.
I used to run a bus company but in retirement am a full time passenger travelling all over Britain enjoying its splendid scenic delights by bus and train. Currently social distancing at home.