E was for Ensignbus

Thursday 9th March 2023

Sorry, East Midlands Railway you were going to be my E, but as today is a rather special occasion, being the very last day of an independently owned Ensignbus before midnight’s takeover by First Bus, I thought it only appropriate to mark this historic occasion with a special feature.

I blogged about the Company as recently as last July marking its 50th anniversary year and what we now know will be its last under current ownership.

The Newman family, that’s Dad Peter (below) and sons Steve and Ross, have been at the helm throughout the last five decades making the business and its values synonymous with their own.

That’s why it was always a pleasure to travel on the Ensignbus network of routes across Thurrock just as it was to meet up and chat with the family. The former would always provide a quality operation with passenger considerations being top priority while the latter always demonstrated their only mission was to give passengers the best possible service.

That’s why it worked so well. The family lived and breathed Ensignbus. They always went that extra mile to ensure the best possible service was provided. Lost mileage was an anathema to them despite operating in one of the most challenging areas for unpredictable traffic congestion whenever the Dartford Crossing had a problem sending M25 traffic on to consequential gridlocked local roads.

The Newmans would always say their route X80 between Lakeside and Bluewater might well get unavoidably disrupted during such periods but they’d never leave passengers stranded and would always run a last bus whatever time that might end up being and, if necessary, diverted on a lengthy detour via the Blackwall Tunnel.

This was so typical of their approach to bus operation. The same ethos saw them provide rail replacement buses at a moments notice for emergencies on the railway all over the south east. At one time I’d often see the familiar blue and grey Ensignbus livery coming to the rescue of a blocked Brighton Main Line even before local bus and coach companies could muster up any resources. That was in the days before they arranged a tie up with c2c in Essex.

There are hundreds of bus companies that have benefitted from fleet replacements thanks to the Newmans’ extensive bus dealership and refurbishment business. Gaining tenders at the last minute? No problem, just get yourself down to Purfleet and you’d know the Newmans would be able to fit you up with suitable vehicles at minimal notice. And they’d take surplus vehicles off your hands at a fair price too.

Peter, Steve and Ross would always be going above and beyond as I found out personally in October 2021 when I and friends/colleagues undertook our 50th Anniversary Tour of London Country’s operating area ending in Tilbury which I just happened to mention to Ross who then organised for Peter and Steve to be on hand to meet us with a splendid green RT with special blinds from their heritage fleet and take us in fine style on our very last journey of the trip.

An absolutely typically kind and thoughtful gesture of a kind and generous family all the more so as Ross organised it despite being on holiday at the time.

Back in the days of London Country and the early period of its successors leading to Arriva you’d never think of Grays as being a particularly lucrative area to run a bus network with modern buses regularly replaced with new vehicles.

Ensignbus has made it so by dedication, relentless attention to detail and all the things we know passengers value: helpful pleasant drivers, smart clean well maintained buses, a simple easy to understand network with regular frequencies, excellent marketing and publicity (including a printed map and timetable book available on board buses), an information point at Lakeside bus station and a reliable quality service.

In inheriting all this at Ensignbus, First Essex has a golden opportunity to change its existing ways of working and culture to that of its award winning acquisition. Let’s hope it will be that way round rather than the disastrous approach Stagecoach took to its acquisition of Norfolk Green in 2013 when it quickly annihilated the brand and all it stood for and all too quickly lost all the goodwill it had purchased, and the entire business it bought.

It would be unthinkable for that to happen here.

Let’s hope E always will be for Ensignbus.

The company’s amazing collection of preserved vehicles is in safe hands – they’re staying with the Newmans……

…. and I hope they take the myriad of awards with them. They’re all so well deserved.

Good luck to Peter, Steve and Ross in retirement and thanks for all you’ve done.

Roger French

Previous AtoZ blogs: Avanti West Coast, Blackpool Transport, Chiltern Railways, Delaine Buses

Blogging timetable: 06:00 TThS

23 thoughts on “E was for Ensignbus

Add yours

  1. Ensign us is remaining a separate entity and is not being absorbed into First Essex. Not being ‘PLCd’ was a condition of sale, and name, livery and even fleet numbers are being retained, as is Ross as consultant for a year.

    The new General Manager (not for me to disclose his name) worked at Ensign for 5 years and his wife has worked there for 25 years. The team there are determined it’s business as usual, and, according to Ross, First are determined to learn from the award winning practices of Ensign and ‘not Firstify them’. Time will tell but there was anything but a feeling of doom when I was there on Monday. As for the running day? Don’t lose hope!


    1. As I understand it the Heritage fleet is not part of the deal so I think that puts serious doubt over the running day


  2. I was lucky enough to be on a visit to Ensign a few days ago and expressed my concern that First may not maintain the Newmans’ high standards. Ross was confident that the future would be good as the new manager had spent 4 years with Ensign and his wife has been with the company for 2 decades. Many thanks to Peter, Ross and Steve for all you have done. All the best to you with the heritage fleet.


  3. First will First-ify everything. That always happens. Look at what First is doing in Leeds at the moment, which is supposed to be its most profitable operating area. Another batch of routes about to be cut, two months after the last batch, leaving many suburbs without a proper service. Even the three Park & Ride routes are being cut at weekends, including from the brand new facility at Stourton. Millions of taxpayer money spent to build the Park & Rides and First has pulled out from operating the buses. Existing services, even on heavily-used trunk routes are very unreliable, with numerous short-notice cancellations. And then, of course, there’s the whole matter of First’s TransPennine Express, the nation’s least reliable train service. I really do fear for the future of Ensignbus under First’s dead hand of ownership.


    1. First are like many overstretch themselves. They came in with good intentions but don’t listen. Arriva is the same in Hinckley they took over Hinckley Bus and instead of building on its network in Warwickshire, South Leicestershire they have done the opposite.


  4. I suspect we’ll not see the likes of Ensignbus again in the bus world . . . and just maybe that’s the right thing. It would be very difficult to see any operator “trump” the Newman family in their consistent attitude to business.
    There is a tweet from them today: “It’s going to be a bit emotional today, not gonna lie. Onwards and upwards ……”
    I only met them once, and was much impressed by them. All the very best to the Newman family and their loyal staff . . . hopefully some form of annual Running Day can be enjoyed by everyone again . . .


      1. Everyone sells out in the end. I bet you already have.

        The alternative for a company is complete closure as, amazingly enough, humans are not immortal and owners get to a point in their lives where they want to stop working every second and actually want some time for themselves and their own families.


  5. Anything First touches is doomed sorry to say…they have no future outlook on things unless it’s their own ideas…the loss of Southampton last month was because their own SLT wouldn’t listen to people inside their own group…
    Watch as old London Buses end up all over the country on First Group services to cover shortages…this will be fun to see..

    Sad to see the Newmans depart but glad they have kept their old fleet…

    Rodger as ever, a great blog and good read my friend


  6. I suspect it will play out just like when Stagecoach bought Norfolk Green. Sure, they say they will protect the existing company identity blah blah. But soon the newest vehicles will be off to “First Wherever” and old ones will be brought in from another “First Wherever”. They have form, Northampton Transport was one of the most profitable municipal, but they broke it.


      1. Arriva are shrinking in the North West too, Winsford & Macclesfield depots are to close the end of next month, & all the routes Arriva operate from those depots are withdrawn.

        Fortunately D&G, & Stagecoach have stepped in to save some of the routes Arriva operate.


  7. The area was indeed very good bus territory in London Transport days and the early years of London Country. But, as with so many former “old” industrial areas, declined rapidly in the 1970s, and none more so than the bus network. Apart from the dedication of the Newman family, the various diversifications of the business (vehicle refurbishment/sales, rail replacements both planned and at zero notice, vintage hires and sightseeing etc) has allowed Ensignbus to be the complete package and the envy of many. Shrewd business sense, even down to placing your vast headquarters and operations just yards from what is becoming “The Peoples Republic of Greater London” boundary (where much work was is to be had) but firmly outside helped matters.

    Initially, of course First will be keen not to rock the boat and have every intention of “business as usual”, but we all know what happens when global businesses fall into less sympathetic hands as recently seen at Stagecoach. Although the “Ensign brand” fits well with the new localisation First now pursue, we all know how that can change overnight. But let us hope………


    1. The old London Country area fell apart with deregulation most of the companies that took over were dreadful. London County North East being the worst by. It destroyed the services and they have had an endless stream of bad operators.


    2. The London Country are had little if any heavy industry it was mainly light industry and even in London Country days the industrial areas were poorly served

      The main traffic was residential areas to the town centre. Greenline services and some inter urban services

      The loss of the Greenline service hit most of the London Country garages hard as nothing really replace that lost work

      After that it has been a long and very sorry continuing decline


  8. RATP

    My London is reporting that RATP is under strategic review and they may pull out of London. The MD has said in an internal letter that the current situation is not sustainable


  9. A sad day. But you can’t blame the Newmans for wanting to cash in on their hard work and investment as bus operations get ever more complicated. We have of course been down some of this road before with Capital Citybus being Ensign’s sell off of their London business…..only to be fragmented and closed down as First Capital! Not a great omen.


  10. Luton Dart

    The Luton Dart has opened today and as a result the EMR rail service from St Pancras has been rebranded as the Luton Airport Express

    For the next week weeks the Dart will only operate a limited daytime service


  11. Being of a certain age I have seen Ensign develop from the very beginning when they used the former Eastern National depot at Silver End then briefly moving to Braintree before their various sites along the River Thames.

    First have issued a trading update today emphasizing that Ensign is a high-performing business with a high value depot. The latter comment sounds like code for “we will sell the depot asap to get our money back”.

    Given the recent closure of Southampton, First need to show to the stock market that they are moving forward. But if you can’t make a profit in Southampton then how can you in Purfleet?

    Roger mentions the disastrous takeover of Norfolk Green by Stagecoach to which I could add the Go-Ahead acquisition of Konect, Anglian Bus, Hedingham and Chambers a decade ago which turned profitable companies in to hugely loss making ones.

    One of my customers sold his business to a multinational with the restriction that he couldn’t work in the industry for five years. Five years and a week later he phoned us to say he was starting up again in the same industry and, of course he built up another sizable business. Will that happen with the Newmans, we shall see.


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