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.