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LCBS reflections 51 years on

Wednesday 10th November 2021

It’s been almost four weeks since the team completed our four part tour around the outer edge of the Polo mint shaped operating area served by London Country Bus Services belatedly marking the fiftieth anniversary of its formation in 2020.

It’s now time to summarise the many discussions and reminiscences we had during our thirty hours of travels together, not least from Andrew Braddock who spent a number of years working for the company as Area Manager (South) and Field Operations Manager between 1976 and 1984.

First, a bit of background and history.

When London Country was established in January 1970 the average age of the bus fleet it inherited from London Transport was a staggering eighteen and a half years. That was the average age. Among the oldest buses in the fleet were 484 RT and 17 RLH double decks along with 413 RF and 10 GS single decks as well as 209 Routemasters and 109 troublesome Swifts (MB/MBS class) with 8 XF Fleetlines, 3 XA Atlanteans and 14 RC (AEC Reliance) single decks making a sizeable 1,267 vehicles in total.

The Company took over 29 bus garages from London Transport, most being of pre-war vintage. Only three are still in use today (all by Arriva) in Harlow, Northfleet and Guildford, albeit the latter is about to close as Arriva withdraws completely from operating in Surrey. London Transport’s original 1929 bus garage in Crawley was replaced with a new facility by LCBS in 1982 which is still in use today by Metrobus.

Passenger journeys on LCBS bus and Green Line routes totalled an impressive 198 million in 1969 just before the company was formed, but had almost halved to 106 million by 1985, just a few years before it ceased to exist

LCBS as an entity only existed for 18 years in National Bus Company ownership, before being split into five separate companies for privatisation with all being sold off in the first four months of 1988. London Country North West was sold to a management buy-out team (and later sold on to the owners of Luton & District); the South West became London & Country and went to Drawlane with the properties going to Speyhawk; the South East became Kentish Bus and was sold to Proudmutual (the management team owners of Northumbria – the northern half of United); and London Country North East went to AJS and Parkdale, with that company splitting into Sovereign Bus and County Bus. The fifth company, Gatwick Engineering, was sold to Frontsource.

It’s pertinent to note how short those tenures of ownership lasted, particularly compared to the 18 years of LCBS, and 33 years on from privatisation none of those buyers have even existed for many years.

It is also somewhat ironic that most of what was LCBS ended up through further sales and takeovers coming back together again as a Polo mint shape all under Arriva ownership.

As we wandered around the edge of the old LCBS operating area fifty one years after LCBS was formed and 33 years from privatisation it soon became evident, that although London Country experienced very traumatic early years of existence, ended up thriving and prospering before its demise, having overcome tremendous challenges to turn operating losses into surpluses, Arriva’s fortunes, on the other hand, have gone in the other direction with routes and operations given up or lost through tendering and which in turn have once again thrived and prospered under new owners.

Crawley and Grays are perhaps the two most blatant examples of this process, where the former proved to be one of the most bizarrely timed sales ever seen in the bus industry when Arriva sold its garage, buses and operations in the rapidly developing West Sussex new town alongside the expanding Gatwick Airport to Go-Ahead’s Metrobus just as the County Council was planning ambitious Fastway bus priority schemes for the town and boosting the standing of public transport. The rest is history, as they say, with Metrobus becoming an award winning successful company which at one time, before a Go-Ahead reorganisation, was running buses stretching from Woolwich to Worthing (not all on the same route, of course).

Meanwhile in Grays, another multi award winning company, Ensignbus, established a credible alternative network getting the basics consistently right and attracting more and more passengers until in the end Arriva just gave up.

We’re about to see the same happen again next month in Guildford where Arriva is walking away and this time it’s Stagecoach which will expand by about 26 buses and become a player in the former LCBS area for the first time, joining Go-Ahead and First who’ve been around in the Polo mint for a longer time – First being the dominant operator in the High Wycombe – Slough – Staines corridor.

But what really came through on our tour around the Polo mint was just how many smaller independently owned bus companies are now running buses quite successfully where once it was an LCBS monopoly. Back in the 1970s this would have been unthinkable, but is now accepted as a natural way for bus routes in the Home Counties to be operated.

Surrey in particular has seen a transformation from some turbulent years of variable quality operators, including Abellio giving it a go for a while before withdrawing completely in 2016, to today’s much improved crop with Southdown in the east across to Falcon, White Bus, Carlone and Diamond in the west and Compass Bus stretching across the patch as well as the long standing Safeguard in Guildford. A pro-active County Council providing decent publicity and information at bus stops, in printed form and online undoubtedly helps too and although some of the journeys we made were lightly loaded – those into and out of Dorking for example, many were well used – Woking to Staines and to Windsor and Slough for example, as well as East Grinstead to Crawley over in adjacent West Sussex.

In neighbouring Kent, it was more of a mixed bag. Arriva still have a stronghold in the Gravesend, Northfleet, Dartford corridor which now acts as a western extension for their considerable interests in the Medway towns, formerly over the border in Maidstone & District territory, but here again, there’s just been another change of operator on the first route we travelled on during our Tour between Gravesend and Sevenoaks (routes 306/308) with Arriva ceding to Redroute.

Go Coach Hire has kept the flag flying in the Sevenoaks area and has recently supplemented the rather low frequency routes now operating post Covid with a demand responsive option but these are not as easy to book as catching a scheduled fixed timetable bus as covered in these blogs ad nauseam.

Go-Ahead in the form of Carousel are also involved in the north west quadrant and uniquely share the busy corridor between High Wycombe and Amersham jointly with Arriva on a coordinated timetable. Elsewhere in this part of Buckinghamshire the former LCBS routes seem to have been carved up quite well with Carousel looking after the main corridors through its Chiltern Hundreds branded routes and Arriva doing the more local stuff as well as a route over to Reading, itself the subject of competition between the two companies for a time.

However, the presence of the expanding Red Rose, Red Eagle and Redline triumvirate gets ever stronger as one moves north westwards around the Polo towards Hertfordshire where Centrebus also has a presence, albeit a slightly reduced one following a recent cut back in Stevenage.

The quality around these parts of Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire could perhaps best be described as mediocre. You get the impression it wouldn’t take much for Arriva to throw in the towel in Hemel Hempstead, Watford and central Hertfordshire as it has done in Grays, Crawley and Guildford with ‘down at heel’ being the kindest way to describe its operations.

It’s a shame there’s no equivalent of Ensignbus or Metrobus to take a lead here as Hertfordshire has some exciting plans to boost public transport and enhance the main east-west corridors across the county in the next few years. Unless there’s a policy turnabout I don’t see that being matched with smart new vehicles from the current crop of operators, with the one exception being Unobus, of course, who’ve hugely expanded beyond its original remit of serving the university campus in Hatfield to become a major player in the bus industry in this area. I suspect the company is well placed to play an even more dominant role in the years to come. It’s just won the contract to operate the Herts Lynx DRT service for example and has routes in Bedford and Northampton.

As in the Medway towns’ blurred former border with LCBS’s Gravesend’s operations, the same is true with Arriva in Luton (formerly United Counties and Luton Corporation back in NBC days) where a sizeable network in that town now oversees operations stretching down into Hertfordshire. I doubt this will be enough to sustain the profit levels the company is seeking.

Passenger numbers on the rural routes we travelled on in Hertfordshire were the lowest of the whole tour, and one thing’s for sure the Herts Lynx DRT set up isn’t going to change that.

Finally to Essex where I’ve written recently about the welcome emergence of quality operators like Stephensons/NIBS and Vectare and the situation in Harlow becoming more stable with just one other main contender – Galleon Travel/TrustyBus/Central Connect – now around to provide an alternative to Arriva, although it was significant that the only issue we had with bus drivers during our 25 bus tour was with ticket acceptance in Harlow on its 420 to Ongar.

Aside from the already mentioned Ensignbus in Grays, the other main player in the north east quadrant is of course TfL as the Polo mint’s width was always decidedly narrow in these parts, indeed, it ran out between Brentwood and Romford save for a Green Line route as explained previously. It was no surprise that both the double decks we travelled on routes 498 and 470 between Brentwood, Romford and on to Lakeside were among the busiest of the Tour – the busiest of all was route 73 across Grays to Tilbury operated by Ensignbus, naturally, although coinciding with school turnout time.

It’s fascinating to speculate what would have happened if London Country had been privatised as one company, retaining the excellent dynamic and commercially astute management team in post at that time, rather than have been split into four geographicaly based smaller companies.

Although it’s passenger numbers had halved between 1969 and 1988 its financial position had significantly improved in later years as had its fleet age profile thanks to investment in significant numbers of new buses, not least coaches leased for the rejuvenation of the Green Line network, albeit they couldn’t survive congestion and rail competition.

Many of the 26 bus garages that are no longer with us were built on land which was simply too valuable for alternative uses (mainly housing) to continue as a base to house and maintain buses and would inevitably have been sold at some point in the ensuing decades. As we have seen, buses continue to run but from other more appropriate lower costs locations on less valuable land.

It’s reasonable to conclude that both these trends would have continued with more fleet investment, modern relocated garages and knowledgable experienced managers continuing to adapt the bus network to meet opportunities (eg airport growth at Gatwick, Heathrow, Luton and Stansted) and expanding towns such as Crawley, Watford and Hemel Hempstead and public transport orientated local authorities such as Surrey and Hertfordshire.

I would be so bold as to speculate, fifty one years later, we could now have one of the most successful bus companies in the country in a 2021 version of London Country. As it is we have a mixed bag of good, mediocre and not so good. Unsurprisingly, just like in the rest of the country this pattern results in growing numbers of passengers, static numbers of passengers and falling passenger numbers.

But instead, just like the rest of the country, the Polo mint is good in parts, but not everywhere.

Roger French

BusAndTrainUser View All

I used to run a bus company but in retirement enjoy Britain’s splendid scenic delights travelling by bus and train, and commenting along the way.

23 thoughts on “LCBS reflections 51 years on Leave a comment

  1. Perhaps London Country would have been better split into two. London Country North and London Country South

    I would have described London Countries operating area as rugby Ball shaped rather than polo shaped, It extended quite a long way North and South but not very far East and West

    THe demise of th Greenline routes was a masive blow to London Country

    The link below is to an old 715 Hertford to Oxford service . On Weekdys there were alternate long and short journeys but at Weekends all the journeys ran though to Guilford
    Even the 319 route has been truncated. At one time it ran as a 310 & 310A. The 310 ran Enfiled to Sele Farm Estate Hertford with one evening jouney being extended to Chase Farm Hospital. THe 310A running Enfield to Hoddesdon Rye House
    Now it just runs as 310 between Waltham Cross and Hertford with the late evening jouneys no longer running and a much reduced Sunday service

    Most of the rural routes and Hertford town routes have gone to other operators

    Click to access 715$Hertford_As_at_19781100_4066.pdf

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  2. As my moniker says . . . I was there!! Roger’s summary of what was and what is now is very fair indeed . . . and I would agree that LCBS in 2021 would look very different from what we suffer now.
    In West Herts (Arriva) we have a mix of 08-plate castoffs from Guildford, plus 57-; 09-; 11-plate saloons, and still some 54-plate deckers on front-line service. A few Streetlites on contract work in St Albans, a couple of useless 16-seaters, and maybe 10 E400MMC deckers . . . that’s your lot. The Aylesbury Mafia aren’t much better, with small E200 saloons predominating . . . very few less than 10 years old.

    I’d almost put the current state of Hertfordshire’s buses as being due mainly to the dead hand of Arriva . . . not just now, but over the past two decades. Where (limited) competition did arise, the Arriva response was to run them off the road and return rapidly to the status quo.
    Their route network hasn’t been developed . . . more shuffled to save a PVR or two, or simply ignored.
    My understanding is that local Arriva managers are responsible for any planning decisions (local input and so on), but without decent experienced backup from professional planners . . . of course a Garage Manager is more bothered with keeping the buses running, and will have no time for anything more.

    It’s interesting that the buses in Surrey are perceived as being better . . . with Arriva withdrawing, it left the market open for smaller, more innovative operators to enter the industry. It’s slightly different, of course, in that many routes in Surrey have some form of financial support, whereas most routes in Herts are commercial. Surrey, of course, doesn’t have any New Towns, whereas Hertfordshire has three, plus Watford.

    Where to go in Hertfordshire? The HCC BusPlan has the concept of a cross-Herts route at heart, but I’d rather a decent effort was made to improve bus services locally (I’m not convinced that this new route would attract huge passenger numbers . . . whenever I see a 724 bus it seems to have single-figures on board).
    Dare I say high-frequency minibuses in Hemel Hempstead? And also in St Albans, coupled with pedestrianisation of St Peters Street and a proper one-way road network? Might I also suggest using the ArrivaWatfordClick funding to double frequencies on Watford local routes (and seek funding from Three Rivers to boost their sections of routes as well)?

    I’d like to be positive . . . but it’s not easy . . . .

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  3. Re Arriva and Guildford, I believe that Stagecoach’s takeover is mainly (and possibly entirely) of former Aldershot & District routes including the 34 between Guildford and Woking you travelled on in August. Indeed most of the former A&D operating area (bounded by Horsham and Alton in the south and Camberley and Woking in the north) will now be under the control of the same Stagecoach unit.
    As I understand it, the only ex-LCBS routes still run by Arriva out of Guildford are the 436 (being taken on by Falcon) and 479 (being tendered by Surrey CC). I don’t think LCBS ran any local routes in either Woking or Guildford, but stand to be corrected.

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  4. So Arriva come closest to being the successor to LCBS, but are the weakest of the lot? Doesn’t that tell us something? A wonderful nostalgiafest, but anything more? I’m not sure. People change, as well as the business (and physical) climate, apparently.
    As for cross-Herts, HCC funded the 700. Both Uno and CentreBus had a bash (though not Arriva, too much sense?) What happened to that? Like everyone seems to have had a bash at resurrecting the northern portions of GreenLines, including Metroline. Whatever happened to them?

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  5. I agree that Arriva can be criticised for lots of things, but one thing I like is their boring stickability; they stick with routes that matter to people, think 500/300/510/321/724, and their Hemel /Stevenage /Harlow /Colchester and Southend routes. That’s what concerns the ordinary passenger, not Roger’s exotic jaunts, as much fun as they are. Even in my own patch now, Arriva stick with and make a go of routes that First abandon such as the 59 and 133. And they’re still picking up such routes, commercially or on contract. Thanks, Arriva. If you need the bus for work or to get about, that’s what you want. Hobbyists are fun, but irrelevant, except perhaps in a few running days and exception holiday destinations.

    Didn’t Arriva introduce minibuses in Hemel, as First did in Chelmsford ; and it wasn’t much fun when you couldn’t get on them,as perhaps the current DRT fad might yet find out.

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  6. In re local routes in Guildford . . . LCBS had the 408A (Town Centre – Merrow Bushey Hill), otherwise A&D / AV and Safeguard ran the locals. In re Woking . . . LCBS didn’t have “local” routes as such, but did run in from the London side of the town, via such as Sheerwater, although the Woking – Chertsey route was A&D / AV. The London Special Area effectively divided both Guildford and Woking in two, and the NBC never managed to unite them properly.

    In re “northern” Green Lines . . . Metroline’s Route 714 was a trial to see if there was a market out there; unfortunately there wasn’t . . . and the rebuilding works at Luton Airport wrecked the reliability of the replacement Route 84A. Route 700 was doomed to fail . . . much of the route was through green fields, and relying on passengers travelling to Stansted Airport once or twice a year wasn’t enough.

    In re Arriva’s “boring stickability” . . . maybe you have a point there; in which case they need to market the routes properly; upgrade the vehicles regularly; review the timetables annually to make sure that they still meet passengers’ needs (school start/finish times, for example). Route 500 has 54-plate deckers (disguised with ageless registrations) scheduled on around half the journeys.

    Arriva did introduce 16-seaters in Hemel Hempstead (as they did in Guildford), but as replacement for 35-41 seaters . . . surprisingly they weren’t popular. In Guildford, Safeguard saw an opportunity and ran with it . . . unfortunately in Hemel there isn’t a Safeguard waiting . . .

    I stand by my point . . . Arriva have done a poor job in West Herts . . . perhaps an alternative competing operator might have bucked them up . . . .

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    • Thanks for pointing out that LCBS ran the 408A to Merrow Bushey Hill, which will be covered by Stagecoach when Arriva pull out – so not just former A&D routes as I had thought. Incidentally, the only other ex LCBS route I can think of which is run by Stagecoach is the last vestige of the 715 between Guildford and Kingston – or are there others ?

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    • I wouldn’t forget the role of the highway authorities whose road planning, in the Eastern Region at least, seems to ignore the existence of buses altogether. With the state of the network, that seems to make running a reliable service an impossible job. Agreed, the larger companies too often don’t help themselves. Tfl, and their predecessors, seem to have made a much better job of it.

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  7. Were Arriva better as Cowie Group? I remember them investing early in Plaxton Darts at the same moment as Universitybus brought in Wright Dart SLFs on 600/602.

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  8. So until recently Arriva was to a degree a modern version of the old LCBS empire. But of course no bus maps or area timetable books (real or virtual). No wonder planning travel in an unfamiliar area is next to impossible.

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    • It depends very much on the area. Surrey, Hertfordshire and Essex, for example, all have comprehensive maps and timetables on-line for all operators – as long as you don’t rely on finding anything on the Arriva website it’s fairly easy to find out about services in those counties.
      Kent, on the other hand, relies on traveline.info which although it doesn’t have area or route maps, generally has up-to-date timetables for all services nationwide (often more up-to-date than some operators’ websites) and the ability to search on location to find out what services serve any given locality. It also has direct links from timetables to operators’ websites for maps and fare information if available.
      So personally, I don’t find information provision too bad – but accept that it’s very variable and it can be difficult if both local authority and operator don’t make very much effort.

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  9. the busy section of the 724 seemed to be between Hatfield and Watford. The 724 was getting some funding from Heathrow not sure if it still does, Air traffic in Herts tends to be split between Heathrow, Gatewick, Stansted and Luton. Crossrail when it opens may have an implact as well

    For town service you need something larger than a mini bus something that seats about 25 to 30 but buses of that size are thing on ther ground

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  10. I think maybe we all miss the most important point in the “success” of LCBS. The level of public funding. That had to be cut. It had got out of control.
    The taxpayer prefers the lottery we have at present. A few routes hit the jackpot, and the rest make do with the crumbs from the table.

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  11. Perhaps I’d make a suggestion that’ll doubtless bring down the usual heap of opprobrium down on my head. It upsets too many vested interests.

    Our problems largely derive from land use planning being divorced from transport planning. Our box mentality. Public transport is an afterthought. It’s why Stansted is in the middle of nowhere, and there is a toothless gap in Central Herts, and between Herts and Essex, which nothing can bridge; while the periphery carries on being crammed to the rafters.

    The worst thing is that we’ve known it since the Second World War. We constantly talk about it. But we do nothing about it. It’s still commonplace. We still have local plans sent back by the Inspectors because they fail to address sustainable transport. Lip service, as usual.

    In the 1970s, public transport was a town planning, not highways function, in Herts. Did it make any difference?

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  12. Bus funding by councils is minimal at present and they dont like funding cross border services. Having regional LTA’s would help so say base it on the 9 English Regions. At present most councils do not really have any interest in bus services other than selling off assets like bus stations

    So far on the BSIP’s I have seen councils are more interested in funding themselves with the cash rather than improve the inadequate bus services. We will have to wait and see what happens

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  13. National Express

    Nat5ional Express appear to be cancelling a significant number of services from the start of next year, I guess they may still registier replacements but so far they have bot. A large number of them are services to and from South Wales. I think Edwards Travel operate most of them on behalf ov National Express

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  14. Arriva The Shires

    Arriva the Shires has announced that it intends to cease operating Green Line services between Hemel Hempstead and London Victoria, with last day of service being 4 December.

    Arriva says that prior to Covid-19, service 758 was already experiencing a decline in passengers numbers, leading to the service being operated from its Luton depot. Whilst this operational move did help with ensuring all 758 services operated as per the advertised timetable, passenger numbers still remained low. Despite this, Arriva says it remained committed to delivering services throughout the pandemic, maintaining a minimum level of service to enable key workers to travel to and from London/Hemel Hempstead.

    The Greenline Network no consist of :-

    Reading Buses 701,702,703
    Arriva Kent & Thameside 724
    Arriva The Shires 755/757

    The 724 is more a local bus that is extended to Heathrow

    Improvement to rail links to Luton may but the 744/7 at risk and 724 could possible be cut back to Watford

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  15. I can’t help wondering if it’s the start of an avalanche.
    Back of the Buses. Better. Perhaps Doris will need a new slogan.

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  16. To ask what would have happened if London and Country had been privatized as one company is like the question as to what would have happened if each British Rail business sector had been privatized say for example Inter City sold off.I suspect that sectorisation was a secret plan by Mrs Thatcher to do just that as it was a very monetary idea rather than operations based liked the regions.However along came John ‘knows best’ Major and we never got to find out.It seems pointless breaking these companies up as the big companies just end up buying them and they end up remerged like United sans it’s Scarborough and now Ripon bits.Or Ribble Stagecoach, perhaps soon National Express North West?,all the way from Carlisle to Liverpool and even beyond into the midlands.

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  17. I did wonder how we could celebrate Green Line without travelling on any of it.

    I come to bury Ceasar, not to praise him.

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  18. What is the lesson here?

    I suspect if we’d asked the London Country passengers in its day: What can we do to make you love us? the answer would have been something like: Disappear off the face of the earth. Much like Arriva today.

    Evidently that is correct. I was amused a few years ago that local running days with vintage buses, along still extant and former routes, could be packed out while parallel subsidised buses always ran empty.

    Why? Perhaps love by the operators, whatever that is, has something to do with it. I am at a loss to suggest anything else. Maybe it still holds good today?

    What do others think?

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