Swindon-based Thamesdown Transport is the latest municipal bus operator to have been crowned Britain’s best bus operator.

Council-owned bus operator Thamesdown Transport could easily be lost on the list of Britain’s respected bus operators – after all it’s a business that doesn’t dominate the headlines of the industry trade press and Swindon isn’t always the first place people think of for a cutting edge bus operation. However, that didn’t stop the firm from driving away with the top honours at last week’s UK Bus Awards when it was named as the Belmont International/QBE UK Bus Operator of the Year after impressing award judges.

The winner of the top award is decided by a grand prix competition between the winners of the three operator categories: independent, shire and city. Thamesdown won the shire category and scooped the top prize ahead of the top city operator, Edinburgh’s Lothian Buses (also a municipal), and the top independent, Cumbria’s Reays Coaches.

Despite not being perceived in the same league as the TrentBartons and Brighton & Hoves of this world, Thamesdown has much to shout about. The UK Bus Awards judging panel felt that the 115-vehicle company has earned its right to be classed as the top operator for 2011 through a number of leading marketing and commercial initiatives on top of first class reliability and punctuality figures.

The company’s growing reputation has also been confirmed by a top three position in the customer satisfaction surveys carried out by Passenger Focus in 2010, and by achieving the highest scores from the 2011 Bus Awards mystery traveller assessments. Meanwhile, despite the current gloomy economic climate, Thamesdown has actually managed to grow both patronage and profitability in an area hit harder than many by the recession.

Paul Jenkins, Thamesdown’s managing director, believes that winning the coveted title will be “a tremendous boost” for the firm’s 270 employees. “We strive to provide reliable, punctual and frequent bus services which meet the needs of our passengers, and being locally owned and managed we’re able to focus on getting the quality right, consistently,” he told Passenger Transport. “We’ve continued to invest, even in the difficult times, and our modern fleet and depot have helped to keep operating costs under control.”

Jenkins continued: “Of course we face the same challenges as the rest of the industry, and our prospects are closely linked to those of the town we serve, Swindon, but there’s no question in my mind that our high quality business model helps to deliver customer satisfaction and we’ll be sticking to that approach.”

Lothian Buses, winner of the top city operator prize and runner-up in the Bus Operator of the Year category, has been a consistent award winner, taking home the top honours at the 2007 UK Bus Awards. The 600-vehicle company has clearly recovered from a difficult couple of years. The judging panel said that bus passengers in Edinburgh continue to enjoy levels of reliability and value for money that are among the very best, and they applauded the measures being taken by the company to overcome the problems associated with construction work for the city’s tram scheme.

The final operator competing for the top award was Cumbria-based Reays. The family-owned firm has historically been confined to contracted local bus services as well as coach work, but last year it invested in 14 new buses to introduce a new network of services in Carlisle in competition with Stagecoach. Judges were impressed by high passenger satisfaction and its travel centre in Carlisle city centre, which provides refreshments as well as customer information.

So after Thamesdown’s triumph who will win in 2012? Will we see the march of the municipals continue?

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