First last day

Saturday 18th February 2023

It’s the end of an era for buses in Southampton today as First Bus closes its bus garage doors for good bringing to an end 143 years of bus operation that can be traced back to 1879 when horse bus operation began and in due course Southampton Corporation Transport took over the Southampton Tramways Company.

The city’s bus routes will henceforth be dominated by blue liveried buses instead of a long tradition of red as Go-Ahead owned Bluestar, part of the expanding Go South Coast (GSC) empire, enlarges its network and ensures no passengers are left without a bus.

Recent history is repeating itself for GSC after sister company, morebus, filled gaps left behind when Yellow Buses ceased trading in Bournemouth last summer.

Whereas that change happened with no (official) advance notice, First Bus announced its intention to cease operations in Southampton at the end of November last year enabling an orderly departure and a well planned update to Bluestar’s network.

What’s more, to First’s credit, there’s been no running down of quality or attempts to cut costs in these last few weeks. A high standard of operations has been maintained right up to today’s finale.

Once again Go South Coast has organised the recruitment of the additional drivers it will need from tomorrow as well as drafting in extra buses to ensure the new services run as planned.

I’ve taken a ride on some of First’s bus routes on a couple of occasions recently and found a modern fleet with friendly drivers carrying average numbers of passengers on most journeys. Nothing exceptional, one or two were very busy as shown below and one or two were quiet but on average there were average numbers travelling.

It was all very average. Just not enough.

What was self evident from just a short time travelling around, especially up and down the busy Shirley Road to the west of the city centre for example, was just how many buses there were – both red and blue.

Almost always one in sight.

It was the same to the east of the city, over Itchen Bridge to Woolston and other residential areas.

Buses seemed to be everywhere. It’s no surprise when you see that level of duplication the situation in Southampton has been financially unsustainable. It makes perfect sense for this intense competition, particularly over the last few years when both operators have trodden on each others toes (so to speak) to cease and operations consolidated into one network.

I wrote about this back in December 2019 observing then that this was unsustainable.

And, so it’s proved.

Long experience in Brighton and Hove when there was a similar rationalisation in 1997 with Brighton Buses selling to Go-Ahead showed urban areas of up to around 250,000 population are best served by one bus operator. Two operators struggle, particularly if there’s duplication of coverage to residential areas. There’s an inevitability eventually the smaller company will give up or sell out (as in Bournemouth and Poole, and now Southampton) or will be the subject of formal partnership arrangements with an organised share out of routes and frequencies (as in Oxford).

The recent announcement of First Bus acquiring Ensignbus is another example of area wide consolidation with the most efficient use of overhead costs spread over a manageable network of bus routes – not too small and not too large.

The Competition and Markets Authority may not like it, but it’s a “fact of running buses life” that with the all conquering car as a competitor, buses need a near modal monopoly to prosper and be able to invest and deliver the high standards that’ll attract passengers out of those cars.

First Bus has done a good job at raising standards in Southampton in recent years, bringing in the CityReds branding which has been consistently applied and along with Bluestar has given the city a quality bus network.

The City Council deserve praise too for facilitating the provision of information about the networks of both companies in a professional way.

… and ensuring bus stop plates have been kept up to date over the years with both companies’ brands.

First Bus has also provided good publicity and marketing including an attractive network map in a promotional leaflet…

…. as well as displaying the map around the city at bus stops.

It wasn’t so long ago it had a travel office facility in the city too and a Portacabin style Control Room as pictured below.

The buses have also been well looked after with attractive interior posters on the cove panels including promoting the city itself…

… and the history of buses in Southampton as well as route diagrams.

Although I doubt many have heeded the advert for bus drivers over the last few weeks.

Bluestar of course also has also been doing all this including a city centre Travel Shop …

… and commendably had details of all the new bus routes, maps and timetables on its website weeks ago as well as in print too.

It’s a shame to see the end of an era with First Bus as the successor to Southampton City Transport ceasing to serve the city but it’s an exciting time for the city as a new era beckons. There’s no doubt the ending of competition will not stop Bluestar continuing to provide an excellent bus network (as in Brighton and Bournemouth) of which the city will be proud. With a supportive council there are exciting opportunities ahead.

Roger French

Blogging timetable: Next week is New Bus Route Week on the BusAndTrainUser Blog. Look out for a blogpost every day, Monday to Friday featuring a recently introduced brand new bus route. First up on Monday is route 100.

32 thoughts on “First last day

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  1. I was in Southampton last Saturday and found bus availability at Central station poor. At the exit by platform 4 only the Unibus and town Quay busrs were found. These moved to the other side of the station from 13 February for 6 months. Outside the main entrance no bus stops were obvious although I didn’t have time to explore as I only had a few minutes before my train.


  2. Slightly off topic, but it will be interesting to see if extending the £2 cap will stop any route closures. (I’m looking at you Transdev!)


            1. I find it sickening that a few hundred million pounds is sufficient to keep every bus service in the country operating whilst an estimated £155 Billion is being wasted on the HS2 train project. HS2 benefits very few people, saves very little travel time and has been made obsolete by change in work and travel patterns since its original conception. It needs to be scrapped as soon as possible and the money being wasted on it used for more essential public transport operations.


  3. Spare a thought for those poor, overpaid Individuals working for the Competition and Markets Authority and it’s various predecessors who will soon be out of a job! Their only interest since Bus De-regulation in 1986 appears to have been chasing and harassing bus companies, mostly Stagecoach it has to be said, in spite deregulation stemming previous huge passenger losses for the previous twenty years (proven by recent figures issued). Now, with Covid speeding up the inevitable, consolidation such as the sensible move in Southampton and probably many other places in the near future, has already made the dreaded word “competition” totally redundant and but a distant memory.


    1. Why attack the staff at CMA when they are just carrying out statutory duties. Blame the government who set the parameters under which they work.


      1. The CMA operates under a set of Prioritisation Principles (which can be found on its web site) and investigating minor bus industry issues appears to be break almost all of them. Without attacking individuals, I think it is quite reasonable to say that most of the CMA’s (and its predessors) bus take-over investigations should never have been opened.


    2. So the CMA no longer required? Sounds like you’re effectively saying the deregulated model of bus service provision is dead. No competiton, no need for the CMA. Quite the climbdown from one of deregulation’s greatest supporters.


  4. Why blame the CMA (or the government)? It’s the mistake we all make (and always have) every time we prescribe whatever works for us, at the time, for everyone else, all the time.

    Nothing is inevitable unless (or until) we make it so. Well, with one exception, perhaps.


  5. Thanks for the article. Regarding lack of people coming forward to be bus drivers, I did notice that adverts for bus drivers in my local area offer wage rates less than shelf fillers at my local Aldi supermarket. With train drivers earning around £65K a year, one can only wonder why wage rates offered to bus drivers are so low?


    1. Recent reports did indeed refer to train drivers earning £65K a year. However, it was clearly stated that the figure was a “maximum”, not an “average”.


      1. I’m a train driver. If I wanted to earn 65k I’d have to do 12k’s worth of overtime, which (given the shifts) wouldn’t leave me a lot of time to do things that 9-5 workers take for granted having free time to do.
        I willingly accept the downsides of being a train driver, and did so 30 years ago when pay was nothing like it is today; it’s part of the job, after all.

        That said, I do find mildly amusing those people who moan about train drivers taking advantage of market forces since privatisation to increase their salaries and who dig at train drivers earning 50+k while ignoring the not insignificant number of railway managers (particularly on Network Rail) who are on 6-figure salaries – let alone all those investment bankers on multi-million salaries “because that’s the market rate”.

        It would be interesting to know what would have happened to train drivers pay had BR been genuinely privatised, but it wasn’t and we’ll never know – although it’s worth noting that one of the first things that the private franchise-holders did nationally was to close down the BR training infrastructure without considering replacement (Virgin’s short-lived Millennium Drivers programme excepted), meaning that staff training got replaced by poaching qualified staff from each other. Had that not happened, I doubt railway staff pay would be as high today as it is.

        I feel sorry for the zero-hours and minimum-wage workers, who get treated like crap by their employers (and often by their customers too), but the simple fact is that if train drivers got paid minimum wage, the other low paid workers wouldn’t see a increase.


        1. My point is why are wage rates offered to bus drivers less than half that offered to train drivers? Bus driving is a much more stressful job than train driving and either train drivers are grossly overpaid or bus drivers are completely undervalued.
          £10-65p an hour offered to recruit new bus drivers in my area is hardly an incentive to apply, when Aldi is offering better rates for shelf fillers!


  6. First services X4 and X5 will continue to run; see below.

    First Southampton bus services will stop running in Southampton from Saturday 18 February 2023. – CityRed will stop on 18th Feb, First Solent (the X4/X5 to Portsmouth & Gosport via Fareham) will still continue to run after then.


  7. Thank you for this post Roger it brings back memories, of when I was a loan driver here for 3months in 2017.
    I learnt all the routes with the exception of the X4/X5/M1
    I had a great time everyone was friendly and it was privilege to come here.
    A very sad day.


  8. I’ve been in Colchester today and the situation there is so very different from Southampton. The new city (but very old town) is served by three of the major groups and one municipal-
    Arriva – successor to Colchester Corporation
    First – successor to Eastern National
    Go-Ahead – successor to several independent operators
    Ipswich Buses – one route originally Eastern Counties
    Needless to say, there are a lot of routes that overlap.


    1. Overlapping routes and duplication of services are quite common in bus operations, even in London. It particularly happens when there are several bus operators in one area and leads to inefficiency and money wasting plus great confusion for the traveling public. It is not surprising, therefore, that the number of bus passengers is dwindling and operators are losing money and withdrawing services.


  9. It’s all very well First producing “an attractive network map in a promotional leaflet” but where exactly were people supposed to get it? I was in Southampton on Saturday and there was nothing. First haven’t had an enquiry office in the city for years. The Bluestar office is closed on Saturdays (you know, that day of the week when most people go into the city). If there is a tourist information office I couldn’t find it (the internet says there’s one in the High Street just below the Bargate, but when I found the shop in question it turned out to be a rather dubious-looking fast food joint. I’m guessing that it hasn’t been a TIC for years). And the library had just one item of bus publicity: leaflets for minilink service 13A which came off last October.


  10. (There hasn’t been a TIC in Southampton for years.) In addition to the X4 & X5, Xela run the X11 & X12 subsidised by Southampton City Council, and the X9 and X10, subsidised by Hampshire County Council. But Xela have given notice they are giving up their contracts for the latter wef 31/03/23, so further consolidation is possible.


  11. Can the foundations of Saturday the 18th be found back in deregulation or even earlier. The council in Southampton has ebbed and flowed in its support for public transport and the associated infrastructure. In early 1970s to great fanfare, a major bus priority scheme was introduced from the eastern edge of the city all the way to Six Dials, just a short distance from the city centre. This turned out to be the last major support for public transport by the council and today all that remains of this scheme are a few traffic light priority measures. Subsequent attempts to introduce bus lanes or priority schemes have meet with resistance from council members. Only the bus gate at the cenotaph and a short stretch of the Avenue shows any initiative by the council to accommodate buses. In recent decades the city centre has undergone major redevelopment, however no provision was made for a central bus station, but 16,450 parking spaces were created, 6790 of those managed directly by the council. The metrics used by the council in their transport policy, place the city as the cheapest place to park compared to other in the table.
    The Corporation invested heavily in new buses at the end of WW2 after which a gap occurred until the mid-sixty’s and continued with Atlanteans to facilitate OMO operations, this left an aging fleet at the time of deregulation and ultimately for the staff buyout.
    An unfortunate set of circumstances within the transport department management structure at a vital point just ahead of deregulation helped exacerbate the situation. Mr Armstrong had retired as general manager and Bill Lewis was promoted into the post. He became a vocal opponent to bus deregulation and resigned from the general managers post. John Owen was traffic manager, he would shortly take up the post of general manager of Thamesdown, in so doing would remain with the local authority operator until retirement. Regrettably, other managers intrusted with planning for deregulation took their knowledge and formed a company to compete with their former employer, in so doing laid the foundations for what is now Bluestar. All of this left the council company in a weak position at deregulation and the decision to sale off the operation to an employee lead buyout proved eventually misguided. Insufficient funding and misguided expansion resulted in a vote to accept an offer for the business from First Bus.
    Initially First Bus appeared to have little enthusiasm for the business they purchased, in part this due to their desire for rapid expansion nationally. Gradually larger swathes of the city found itself without any bus service, despite many of the districts being densely populated and previously supporting a high frequency service. There was no attempt made by the council to rectify the situation and as a consequence the situation remains unchanged today. It has only been in recent years that First Bus has made any attempt to revitalise passenger numbers with a local branding for the network. However, rather than attempt to develop a more comprehensive network, they chose instead to compete with Bluestar on already well-established routes, something Bluestar themselves are guilty of. The council only supports the X12 between City Centre and Shirley, the X11 between Lordshill and the City Centre, and the three Bitterne Hoppas. Over the tenure of First Bus in Southampton the population has grown by 50,000, but passenger growth has been a mere 9% across all operators.
    The laissez faire attitude of the council towards public transport looks set to continue. Their future transport policy until 2040 gives greater weight towards walking and cycling, unless you believe their ‘aspiration’ to introduce a mass transit system. Those of us old enough will remember the 1970s headlines and graphics in the local paper proudly showing off the monorail that would run through the city centre. Grandiose statements by politicians are for their own desire create a legacy not benefit those they represent. However, there could be a bright future on the horizon in the form of Go Ahead Bluestar. Up until now Bluestar has worked hard to sustain its network and invest in their fleet, with no opposition this could be a great opportunity for both the operator and passengers in the city, provided no one ask the city council for support.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Barry, your description of events relating to the management of Southampton Citybus around the time of deregulation is slightly misleading. Bill Lewis had been General Manager for several years prior to deregulation; while John Owen (Traffic Manager) had moved to Thamesdown by early 1983, and his successor was in post by April 1983 – when I joined the department.

      Shortly after deregulation (December 1986) the traffic manager was made redundant, and he was subsequently recruited by Southern Vectis to manage their Solent Blue Line operation. Another member of the SCT traffic department left to join SBL a few months later.

      Given that Southern Vectis also started competitive services in Portsmouth and Bournemouth/Poole, it is reasonable to assume that they would have had their eye on Southampton as well. The fact that a former SCT manager was “available and looking for work” was clearly a bonus for SV, but I very much doubt that it was a decisive factor in SV’s decision to start competing with SCT.

      It was not very long after SBL had been setup that Stagecoach sold the former Hampshire Bus depot premises in Southampton, and disposed of the operations from that depot to SBL. SBL thus became the successor to Hants & Dorset in Southampton, and within a couple of years the operations within the city had settled to a network that was probably very similar in proportion to that operated by H&D/HB prior to deregulation. H&D had operated a number of services within the city (to Millbrook, West End and Thornhill), and the SBL network incorporated these operations.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Really sad to see another old municipal vanish. First actually seemed to be making an effort in Southampton, but GSE are a professional looking operation.

    Areas where the size leads to a natural monopoly might suit franchising but the areas where this is likely to happen, the large conurbations, lend themselves more to multiple operators and thus competition.


  13. There’s an interesting article about First in Southampton in February’s edition of Buses Magazine. After I’d read it, my impression was of a continuous saga of chopping and changing, expansion and contraction, and general bus industry faffing about. Poor people of Southampton I thought. Imagine trying to live and work surrounded by all that instability around the basic requirement to be able to move around your city. I pondered what if deregulation had never happened? Southampton City Transport would still be operating. The council, would have had to be more active in managing an important public asset, and would be able to utilise it to deliver other policies to improve life in the city. Transport is intrinsically linked with land use planning, economic growth, and general well-being of society.

    That being said, I’m glad that Go South Coast is now in a position to provide a quality unified bus network in the city. Hopefully they can chivvy the council out of its general uselessness towards buses. It’s interesting that neighbouring Portsmouth has a more proactive approach.


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