10 years of retirement: Part 1

Saturday 25th March 2023

The Mayors of Hove and Brighton launch the new look Brighton & Hove in late 1985 (they were two independent towns).

I can hardly believe it’s ten years ago this weekend I walked out of Brighton & Hove’s Conway Street, Hove head office for the very last time and entered the new world of retirement.

Folklore has it as you get older the years pass by more quickly and the pace quickens even more in retirement and I can certainly vouch for that. So before this anniversary quickly becomes lost in a distant memory haze and more years are clocked up (hopefully) I’m marking this ten year personal milestone with two special blogs this weekend.

Today’s features the most memorable memories from my 31 year tenure running buses in Brighton while tomorrow I’ll feature my top highlights from ten years of retirement travels.

These blogposts have generally been a Brighton & Hove free zone but last Saturday’s blog about Bus Names generated a lot of interest as well as rekindling reminiscences of other initiatives we were able to introduce thanks to the company’s owner, the Go-Ahead Group, having a firm culture of taking a hands off corporate oversight particularly during the original Martin Ballinger and Chris Moyes period of leadership in the 1990s which was thankfully years before the advent of the obsessive spreadsheet style dashboard KPI school of centralised micro management.

Some initiatives go right back to the day Brighton & Hove was formed as a separately managed division within the overall Southdown company which I had the privilege of leading from its instigation in 1985 as that’s when the adventure really began. It became a company in its own right the following year (by reactivating the former Brighton, Hove & District) and in 1987 became a successful management buy-out from the National Bus Company before the onward sale to Go-Ahead in 1993.

What became known as management weekly “walkabouts” began way back in those heady days in 1985 when a small group of managers spent half a day (sometimes early mornings and late evenings too) travelling around the network seeing how the services were actually doing, chatting to staff, calling into the garages and other sites in what I always said was the most valuable three to four hours of my week. I ensured there was a rota of colleagues to join me so every manager and head office based staff got out and about as part of their work to live and breath the product.

Staff recognition and communications were always important to me and I was proud of a fortnightly newsletter (hard copy printed in those days of course) which I continued from 1985 right through until retiring in 2013 comprising eight A4 pages packed with news as well as items of interest about staff in the business. We had award schemes, personalities of the month, awards for excellence, award nights, an annual social dinner and dance and recognition of service milestones every five years from five to 45 years employment to be sure staff felt valued and appreciated.

Two other enduring initiatives that go way back – right to deregulation in October 1986 in fact – are Bus Times and 1 Stop Travel. Both had as their objective giving passengers and crucially, prospective passengers, reassurance that deregulation was not going to bring chaos and constant changes to bus timetables and (in an era before the Internet) to ensure it would be easy to obtain information and buy tickets.

The cover of the very first Bus Times in Autumn 1997

Bus Times very quickly (from 1987) became a twice a year publication with fixed validity dates and contained integrated information (maps, times, tickets) of all bus services in the towns and surrounding area thanks to the cooperation (and their payment for appearing) of fellow bus operators including Brighton Buses, Southdown and those running tendered routes operated for the county councils in East and West Sussex.

Some could never understand why we were advertising what could be regarded as competitors’ services but I always took the view it was far better to enhance confidence among the public by laying out comprehensive information easily obtainable (the book was free of charge and distributed on board buses as well as from other outlets) and its two fixed dates each year gave everyone reassurance things were not going to be constantly changing and inspired fellow operators to follow the same ethos.

1 Stop Travel had a similar objective. It was the former Southdown travel shop in Brighton’s Old Steine which Brighton & Hove inherited. Located next door was a former British Rail ticket office (which we also inherited) as well as having an IATA licence to sell air tickets which led us to begin the new era by selling tickets for all modes of public transport (ferries too) as well as being a place where information on any bus route, coaches and rail was available.

We even converted an old Leyland National into a mobile travel shop which was useful for taking into the community as well as attending events.

Long before the advent of smartcards let alone a then unimagined world of contactless and tap & cap ticket systems, we were at the forefront of encouraging passengers to buy tickets in advance of travel along with a simple and understandable fare system. Two highlights would be the scratch off SAVER ticket and the introduction of a £1 flat fare in the early 2000s. Both Brighton & Hove and Brighton Buses had operated a scratch off style ticketing system with its great advantage being able to sell the tickets through agents throughout the area – typically newsagents and corner shops as well as every post office – giving the bus companies cash up front twice over as those agents paid (with a discount) for the tickets to hold in their stock.

We’d always had jointly available tickets as well as our own brands but once Brighton & Hove and Brighton Buses merged in 1997, following the latter selling to Go-Ahead, the SAVER ticket became a hugely popular way of paying for travel with daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly and annual versions.

The £1 flat fare absolutely revolutionised bus travel as suddenly everyone knew what the fare was, encouraging them to travel with reassurance. Thanks to the growth in passenger numbers we held it at a £1 for two and a half years and once it did increase we adjusted the relationship to the day ticket such that, for example, when it became £1.20 the SAVER day ticket for a time was £2.40 encouraging passengers to travel more because other journeys made that day were effectively ‘free’. This led to an embedded culture of buying the day ticket as a way of travel.

Improving frequencies of the core routes in the network bit by bit, year after year, was another key plank of improving services. The greatest example of this was route 25 serving the Universities sited along Lewes Road and at Falmer. I can recall way back in the mid 1980s when this route ran half hourly with Leyland Nationals. As the universities (Sussex and Brighton) expanded and by the time former London bendy buses were introduced to supplement double decks, the frequency was as high as 18 buses an hour at busy times such had been the growth.

Another success was route 7 (Hove George Street to Brighton Marina – and originally Bristol Estate) which was converted to high frequency minibuses back in the pre deregulated mid 1980s and gradually saw bigger buses replace these as higher capacity was needed to cope with growth in passenger numbers attracted by the higher frequency.

After a while the affectionately known as ‘bread vans’ were replaced with larger minibuses (originally bought for Bournemouth’s Yellow Buses but never used) and then with Dennis Darts.

Eventually it ended up with double decks at the same frequency as those original minibuses which had offered about a fifth of the capacity.

The coastal route between Brighton and Eastbourne has also seen spectacular growth with a massive expansion in frequency facilitated by the introduction of a hugely successful bus lane running continuously from Peacehaven through Telscombe and Saltdean to Rottingdean thanks to the partnership approach with both Brighton & Hove City Council and East Sussex County Council.

Both authorities, particularly the former, played a crucial role in facilitating improved bus services particularly with bus priority measures right through the city central area …

… but also helping to make us first in the field with high profile real time information way back in the early 2000s.

The City Council has also been at the forefront of introducing an effective parking regime with high parking charges and rigorous enforcement of regulations as well as bus lane enforcement.

Regular investment in new buses every year ensured the fleet was kept modern with an acceptable average age and initiatives such as low floor and improved emissions could be taken advantage of every year but perhaps the two most prominent developments (aside from last week’s mention of Bus Names) were the company’s passion for excellent customer service and high profile marketing campaigns helped by exploiting the long held tradition of a smart red and cream livery, the name Brighton & Hove being synonymous with the city itself and the fact that fairly early on we dispensed with third party advertising so that every bus carried exclusive promotional messages about bus travel as well as some pointed messages aimed at motorists.

We colour coded the network’s five most frequent and busiest bus routes with a Metro sub brand …

… but the campaign that everyone remembers, and was the most successful, was the much loved I’m On The Bus.

This grew out of a weekly advert we placed on page 3 (with a teaser style clickbait on the front page) of the local Argus newspaper featuring local people with various roles in the city, including chief executives, leading politicians and business people, who kept telling me when I met them at events and meetings they used the bus.

Here’s an an amalgam of 16 weeks of adverts

After a while I thought this is something that could usefully be promoted to show that buses aren’t just for the “poor people who can’t afford a car” but are the favoured choice of some of the key people running the city. Their endorsement was very helpful in raising the status of bus travel and after a while, in discussions with Ray Stenning who was bringing his fantastic creative skills to our campaigns we decided to move some of them to the rears of the buses themselves.

To cut a long story short this led to the much higher profile I’m On The Bus campaign featuring passengers who volunteered to be involved. It took a huge amount of organising with a professional photographer, studio conditions, each individual bus side to be designed by Ray and the vinyl printed and cut and affixed but the impact was amazing.

Many thought they were actors but word soon spread as more and more appeared that they were real local people and so the clamour began to become involved in the campaign and it just grew and grew – these days we’d say it ‘went viral’.

We deliberately chose people from all different backgrounds to show that everyone uses the bus, It really is an omnibus – a bus for all….

…. and to be seen on the bus is a smart thing to do.

In the end around 100 double decks in the fleet carried “I’m On The Bus” promotional messages.

After a while we also featured staff from a range of jobs in the company to demonstrate we were an employer of choice for over a thousand people from the local community.

And even the managing director was on the bus.

As with the Bus Names there were some interesting ‘behind the scenes’ stories about the people featured. Three employees from one of the city’s prestigious hotels featured but had to be removed when they lost their jobs in unexplained circumstances while a teenager got involved in a minor crime so had to lose her appearance. Sadly one pariticpant died so was no longer on the bus. A couple lost their heads when the upper deck window got smashed. Fortunately, we had a spare head for one of these, Ron Hayes the legendary Operations Officer for the company, so he was quickly back out on the road.

If you’ve enjoyed reading this brief and unashamedly self indulgent nostalgia feast and would like to read more, copies of the book I published in 2010 (Pride & Joy) telling the story of Brighton & Hove between 1985 and 2010 (and how we doubled the number of people using buses to achieve the highest use of buses per head of the population outside of London) are still available including from Brighton based Dinnages Publishing on this link.

I promise not to blog about Brighton & Hove again for at least another ten years – and it’s great to see the company continues to thrive in very safe and capable hands. I was asked recently for my views on bus franchising. Can you imagine the foregoing initiatives (or their modern day equivalents) being incorporated into Manchester’s upcoming Bee Network or in London? Franchising sees bus operation as a public utility. I see it as a commercial opportunity to really grow the market for bus travel in exciting entrepreneurial ways where passengers can’t wait to get back on board and motorists see the sense in leaving their cars behind.

Part 2 featuring a canter through my first ten years of retirement appears tomorrow.

Roger French

Blogging timetable: 06:00 TThS with another Su extra tomorrow as explained above.

25 thoughts on “10 years of retirement: Part 1

Add yours

  1. Superb article, thanks! There were things I knew had happened in Brighton from a few visits over the years but a lot that I didn’t. I few comments I would like to make.

    I don’t think you should shy away from writing about Brighton, whether during you time, pre or post! Of all the south coast towns it’s probably the most interesting bus-wise to most (even if personally I put Bournemouth ahead of it).

    As a town, Brighton has some unique attributes. I’m thinking here of the country’s only Green Party MP, it’s more liberal approach to and open magnet for the gay community and also, of all south coast towns, it always somehow has been seen as cool destination, even when coastal towns generally were in decline (The Lanes and the night life play a big part I assume?). Not sure how any of these link to bus operations but it marks the place out as interesting, nevertheless.

    Brighton bus operation is evidently a tale of so many sensible commercial initiatives, doing the right things and getting great results. The big question is, with such an obvious linkage why have so few other operators or networks followed suit? I don’t mean the odd campaign, often half-hearted and not maintained or dreamt up remotely and not bought into, but local management initiatives, relentlessly pursued and connected with the community and operating staff. With perhaps a few isolated exceptions, the norm is dire (as so often reported on in this blog) and the result, the embedded culture of the management of decline persists.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. What an excellent review ! I trust you continue to enjoy a long and happy retirement and let us have your views on the current transport scene for many years to come.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Like others I am more than happy to read about stuff happening on the South Coast as much as other areas, so don’t be scared to blog about your area any more or less than you would about anywhere else!

    I hope you continue to enjoy your busman’s retirement as much as I look forward to your strictly timetabled blogs, adventures that I could only dream of having the time to execute… (whilst still working and having to put up with ‘er indoors.. how do you get away with doing so many trips??!!), and now, to add a copy of your book to my collection too!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. No more blogs about Brighton buses for ten years? Why? If they have an interesting initiative, I would rather hear about that than another DRT that has the life expectancy of a mayfly (but there is DfT money for it), or another round of cuts which drives yet more people necessarily into cars.

    Roger (and others) may regard bus operation as a commercial opportunity – and it can be; but in too many cases that I see now initiative is stifled by those at the very top, and the priority is cost-cutting. There seems to be a reluctance to accept that initiatives may fail.


  5. Can you imagine London, with its franchised system, growing the market?

    Errrrrm…. since 1986, while passenger numbers in the rest of the country continued to decline significantly, those in London doubled. If that isn’t growing the market, what is?


      1. If you look at the figures, you may reach a different conclusion. I am comparing 2018/19 (the last full year before Covid) with 1985/86 (the last full year before deregulation outside London)

        It is true that usage in London peaked in 2013/14, and has declined since. However, that decline (of around 8% from that peak) still left London with 90% greater usage compared to that 1986 baseline. Across the rest of Britain, usage since deregulation had slumped by more than 40%.

        So, if +90% isn’t growing the market (against a general backdrop of decline elsewhere), what is?


  6. Only 25% of public willing to switch to public transport, research finds

    New research has revealed that, while 75% of the public agree that switching to greener forms of transport is very or somewhat important to tackle climate change, only around a quarter of people are willing to make the switch to walking, cycling or using public transport, to tackle the issue.

    Two government studies, which surveyed 1,705 adults in England and Scotland, sought to gain insight into British attitudes towards greener travel options.

    The research found that 42% of respondents were not willing to make the switch to public transport, citing poor reliability, regularity and convenience as the main barriers. More than a quarter of respondents also stated that journeys were too long to take greener travel options.

    I would take the claim that 25% would switch to public transport if it significantly improved with a large pinch of salt. What people say in surveys and what they do in practice can be very different

    In most areas outside of the large towns and cities the bus services are simply of no use to people that work so they will never get them using buses unless there are dramatic improvement in services and that simply not happening i fact the opposite is happening

    Bus companies currently are catering to the needs of a tiny and shrinking demographic


  7. Really interesting post. I was familiar with all of the initiatives as I’ve always followed events at Brighton & Hove as it stands out above most of the rest of the industry.

    To me, all this is obviously what any operator (public or private) should do. There’s no reason why the Manchester Bee Network couldn’t do this sort of marketing. A publicly owned operator should be an integral partner in implementing wider city region goals regarding climate change, air quality, access to employment, culture, education, healthcare etc. Success in improving these is the “profit” motive. But I guess it all depends on the people in charge as in most things.


    1. I like your point that there’s no reason public owners / operators / franchisees can’t do these things too. In fact they should be doing so to get the best value for taxpayers’ money!


  8. They were good times, Roger. Well done for sticking with the company and engaging so thoroughly with the local community.

    I always liked the ‘I’m on the Bus’ campaign, which clearly resounded with the man and woman in the street. It’s good that you recorded so many of your initiatives – I particularly enjoyed your picture of the larger than life bus driver !

    Liked by 1 person

  9. A very inspiring report Roger, I’m always interested in what is going on in the Brighton area so don’t overlook what Compass, Big Lemon and Stagecoach plus others might be up to!

    I’m sure you would have made the recent introduction of the double-deckers on route 25 a bit more interesting, does seem to have been a rather wasted opportunity from branding and timetable leaflet wise.


  10. Looks like the National Bus Company symbol on the mayors caps most of those companies set up just prior to privatisation didn’t use the NBC symbol although technically they were in NBC ownership for a bit prior to Maggie dishing them out to her friends.I do recall going on a Badgerline with the NBC symbol on the front in the mid 1980’s.I don’t remember Northumbria ever using it in it’s short life between United and privatisation.


  11. Interesting & informative blog post (as always). I remember those scratchcard tickets – used to buy them from L&G HR when I worked there back in 2006/7 (at first in Montefiore Road, later at the new building out by the greyhound track).


  12. Lovely to read about all this – I agree with all the comments above that Brighton should not necessarily be a no-go area for future blogs; if anything, your personal special knowledge probably adds a welcome extra dimension.

    Re Bob’s dismal estimate of possible new custom for buses: personally I feel that bus managers generally do not look at new generations as potential bus users – but the product must be right!! Why, every year do new young people choose to spend money, time and effort on a) buying a car, b) taxing, insuring, repairing and fuelling it, c) learning to drive and passing the test. Would they all do this if public transport could take them where they want to travel (and when)? In fact a lot of what I want to do (let alone an active young person) can’t be done by train and bus: they don’t run late hours, they don’t integrate very well (sometimes not at all), some places I want to go have little or no service, I might be able to get there but not come back … the list goes on – actually poor public transport pushes people to buy cars who don’t want to or need to! The Brighton and Hove bus operation as described by Roger shows that you can build custom with a good service offer.

    I may be intruding on to part 2 territory, but good as B&H’s buses, information and publicity were and are (I speak as a regular visitor over many years) there are still further ways to attract new custom. For instance, the Bus Metro branding could be improved at stops. Coloured buses are very nice, but it’s more important to be able to recognise quickly the stop where you can catch the bus you want rather than to recognise the bus as it goes by. Another improvement which could generate a lot of extra PT use would be to improve integration in Lewes between buses and trains – both linked with Go-Ahead ownership, so no conflicts there, hopefully.

    To repeat – this was a very enjoyable blog: I’m looking forward to part 2!


  13. Bill going before parliament which would make it a legal requirement for bus companies to consult passengers. Before changing timetables

    The bill goes before parliament on Tuesday


  14. Fascinating articles, as usual – and we don’t mind you talking about Brighton and Hove as much as you like! If only all areas had similar public transport organisations!


  15. What a pity you can’t come out of retirement and take over Surface for TfL. But then of course if it isn’t cycling or walking TfL aren’t interested.


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