Tuesday 19th July 2022
This year sees Purfleet based Ensignbus celebrate its first half century. Formed in 1972, the family run company pioneered by industry legend Peter Newman before being joined by sons Ross and Steve famously began life in used bus sales – notably former London DMS Fleetlines, as well as taking the London sightseeing market by storm.
While the former business is still going strong along with an extensive collection of heritage vehicles often to be seen at rallies and running days, with many available for hire, the company sold on its successful sightseeing business many years ago.
Now, aside from running a hugely popular seafront open top service in Southend-on-Sea during the summer….
… where the team certainly knows how to garner up custom, you just have to watch and see the enthusiasm generated at the terminus by the city’s world famous Pier….Ensignbus are known for running a network of local bus routes in the Grays area stretching from Purfleet across to Tilbury including Aveley, Chadwell St Mary and Chafford Hundred as well as Lakeside shopping centre and its neighbouring Retail Park.
It’s an exemplar of how to run a quality bus operation in a challenging urban area – relatively low density housing, low grade town centre retail offer with nearby shopping mall geared up for motorists, a unitary authority (Thurrock) that’s fairly lethargic towards public transport, industry and employment located in difficult areas to serve, and a road network prone to severe congestion and gridlock whenever there’s a hiccup on the nearby M25/A282/Dartford Crossing.
I’ve had the pleasure of travelling with a critical eye on Ensignbus’s network of bus routes a few times over the last decade as part of the UK Bus Awards mystery shopping programme (the company is a well deserved and renowned previous multiple award winner) but I thought I’d mark their well deserved 50th anniversary year with another visit on the Friday before last to check they’re still living up to their much admired reputation as one of the country’s top quality bus operators.
Spoiler alert. They are.
As soon as you get on a bus you know you’re travelling with a Premier League operator.
The buses are clean outside, and inside too, no mean feat when many buses are intensively used carrying scholars to school and college in the morning peak – yet all my journeys during the late morning and early afternoon on Friday were on buses with spotless interiors.
There’s a friendly greeting and welcome from the driver who is smartly dressed in uniform.
There’s a dispenser holding copies of the company’s timetable book and each bus I travelled on had a full supply.
Seats are very comfortable to sit on especially on more recent deliveries and come with bespoke fabric sporting the company logo making you feel there’s pride in the business.
Recent deliveries also come with usb sockets and next stop displays and announcements and I particuarly love the one on route 44 which passes close to “Ensignbus HQ“.
The livery is functional and smart.
That timetable book is easy to read with a colour coded network route diagram with different colours flowing through to the timetable pages for each route.
Routes have clockface timetables – generally half hourly with one 20 minutely and a few hourly but the busiest section of the network (routes 73 and 83) is coordinated into a 15 minute frequency. They run like clockwork.
Ensignbus have a building for staff to use at Lakeside shopping centre bus station with an information point for passengers as well as public toilets.
Ensignbus are proud of their reputation to do everything they can not to cancel journeys. I put this to the test on my Friday visit while travelling around the network involving journeys between Chafford Hundred and Grays (route 33); Grays and Lakeside via Purfleet (route 44); Lakeside and Grays via Lakeside Retail Park (route 22) and Grays and Tilbury (Route 66).
All ran well but I noticed on the bustimes.org website the bus on route 73 arriving into Tilbury at 12:55 for the 13:00 departure was running around 20 minutes late yet to my surprise another bus appeared and ran the 13:00 departure just a few minutes late getting the schedule back on track.
Whether it was a coincidence that journey has a bus and duty change at Tilbury is something I don’t know, but it was impressive to see.
And it was the busiest journey I travelled on too – with 35 on board as we arrived into Grays before continuing on the direct route to Lakeside.
Other journeys on other routes averaged around a dozen passengers on board which is middling in terms of what’s probably needed for post lockdown long term financial sustainability so I hope a good summer will encourage more passengers to travel on this excellent network.
Certainly drivers are doing what they can to help as I saw two or three instances of passengers running for the bus and they all were waited for, sometimes from some distance. It was heartwarming to see.
Travelling on Ensignbus you spot some impressive attention to detail including, for example, litter bins being supplied on both decks…
… and a glass panel inserted on the upper deck curved front windscreen, where many operators (and manufacturers) just don’t bother and have a panel thereby ruining the forward view.
And finally the nerd in me loved to see London Transport style garage code plates – PT for Purfleet garage – affixed to the buses. A nice touch for nostalgia.
Grays bus station also sees First Essex operate routes 100 (Lakeside-Grays-Basildon every 20 minutes) and 200 (Grays-Orsett Hospital-Basildon every hour) ….
……and NIBS (Grays-Brentwood 2 hourly route 269) as well as Stephensons two-journeys a day route 265 to West Horndon.
But it’s Ensignbus that stands out and I hope the people of Grays appreciate just how well off they are to have such a quality bus operator.
And if you fancy owning a second hand bus, take a look at what’s on offer in their regular adverts in the trade press.
Many congratulations to the entire Ensignbus team led by the indefatigable and dedicated Newman family on their fiftieth anniversary and here’s hoping post pandemic passenger numbers soon improve to secure another 50 years.
Blogging timetable: 06:00 TThSSu
Didn’t Aubrey Kirkham work for them at one time – selling the Famos range?
An interesting and somewhat isolated area which was once very profitable in London Transport days, more so when the local Eastern National services were acquired around 1951. But quickly slid down after the 1970 hive-off of Country operations to the NBC, whose corporate “one-size-fits-all” mentality was worse than LT.
All coincided with plummeting passenger loadings, a nationwide problem as Britain’s masses changed their travelling habits, jobs and fell seriously in love with the car. The Grays area probably suffering more than most for reasons outlined in the blog. So it really has been a stroke of luck that the Newman family came on the scene when they did, as can you image the current situation had Arriva at Grays garage been left to serve Thurrock!
I can, and you certainly wouldn’t be finding litter bins nor thoughtfully placed glass panels on the upper deck to enhance views..
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In LCBS days the area suffered greatly from changing industry . . . once Tilbury was the “London Docks” for the bigger ships, but all that changed with containerisation.
In the 1970s the Grays area was (almost) isolated from the rest of LCBS, with a large peak-hour PVR, much of which was still crew operated. The scale of the losses was such that it took two goes to bring the Garage back towards viability in (I think) 1975 . . . the first tranche of changes hadn’t even been implemented before the second tranche was being planned!!
The then route network desperately needed rationalisation, but Head Office at Reigate found it difficult to understand what needed to be done, and the GY Garage management weren’t especially helpful . . . very much “head in the sand”.
As Roger has often said . . . it’s the local touch that matters . . . never more true than nowadays. The Ensign “family” feel also helps . . .
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Over the course of the day, they have a few drivers on standby. If a bus is running late, a standby will be despatched to cover the next journey. You’ll appreciate that whilst a route may take half hour or so to go end to end, using main arterial roads you can get from Lakeside to Tilbury in little over 10 minutes. So a late running bus can be got back on time again within one journey, with no lost mileage. When I worked there, the camaraderie was good, everybody pulled together and helped each other out, and you could often see drivers sitting together by the hut at Lakeside chatting and laughing together
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Is small beautiful? When you look at some of the smaller independents in and around London (e.g. Ensignbus, Sullivan Buses, Southdown PSV, Go-Coach, and Metrobus before being taken over by Go Ahead), they all seem to know their local market and adjust services accordingly without needing to refer to Corporate HQ. Maybe the big companies are in it for the money (?!), rather than the service, given that both Go Ahead and Stagecoach have been bought by financial institutions.
(By the way, you refer to NIBS route as 265, but the picture shows a 269 – is this a typo?)
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Added 269 to clarify that’s the NIBS as 265 is the Stephensons route.
Regarding the 73 at the civic square it’s a break point too. You usually see one driver waiting to go on shift another driver will be finishing the route and taking a break after
A very good story of the excellent operated company God willing will reach the next 50 years
Very smart looking buses, and professionally run too. Clean interiors , bins, leaflets, staffed enquiry office what’s not to like!
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That blue livery reminds me of pictures of East Yorkshire ‘s livery prior to NBC red also Yorkshire Coastliner,one of the successors to West Yorkshire,had a similar livery too and might still have although I don’t often sight their buses.Many of these out of town shopping centres do have some public transport but they are intended for cars and if a none motorist uses them they are undermining the town centres and indirectly promoting the car industry so I try never to visit such places but I suppose I’d have to if I needed something that I couldn’t get elsewhere.
Ensignbus is an absoutely top drawer company. On more than one occasion, they’ve sent a bus out to cover when First couldn’t be bothered to run the last bus on the 100 trunk route to Basildon. They even had the number and destination on the blind. They didn’t take any money of course, they just wanted to get people home safely.
Long may they be successful.
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Interesting situation regarding problems with contactless payments being experienced by Ensign. I wonder if this is more widespread?
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