Decision by First Bus to close its loss-making operation in the city is seen as a sign that the post-Covid era is forcing operators to act differently

First Bus is no long willing to tolerate CityRed being in the red

The announcement this week by First Bus of its intention to close its bus depot in Southampton and withdraw all of its ‘CityRed’ services is being interpreted by some as a sign of shifting attitudes within Britain’s major bus groups.

“Part of me thinks this is a watershed,” transport analyst Chris Cheek told Passenger Tranport, “the final confirmation that the instinct to ‘protect your territory’ that has existed in the industry since the 1920s has at last been killed off by Covid.”

Explaining the decision to withdraw, First South managing director Simon Goff said: “This isn’t a process that we have entered into lightly. Lower customer numbers post-Covid, rising costs, changes in travel patterns and insufficient demand for the number of buses operating in the city’s competitive market have all added extra pressure. This has led to this difficult decision being taken and meant the business is simply no longer sustainable.”

There is no room for sentiment in today’s industry

Cheek believes that Covid has “hastened the inevitable”. “In Southampton, First has been losing money for years, but saw itself as the successor to the municipal tradition of network provider in the city,” he said. “There is no room for sentiment in today’s industry. You can’t say they didn’t try – investment, new branding, marketing and meanwhile it was cross-subsidised from profits generated elsewhere. Now, there are no profits from which to cross-subsidise.”

First Bus is proposing to withdraw all CityRed services in Southampton from February 19, 2023. Its local rival, Bluestar, is planning to fill the void, with its managing director Andrew Wickham reassuring bus users that “they need not be concerned”.

Bluestar’s Go-Ahead Group sister company, Morebus, was quick to step in when Bournemouth-based Yellow Buses ceased operations on August 4. “With little more then 48 hours’ notice, our team … recruited more than 100 new staff, and implemented a raft of new services in-and-around Bournemouth and Poole,” said Wickham.

“On this occasion, we have a little more time, and are already planning the new routes and timetables. We will announce these as soon as they are complete.”
Commenting on First’s withdrawal, James Freeman, who headed First’s bus operation in the West of England between 2014 and 2021, told Passenger Transport:

The damage, in my perception, was done long, long ago as First in Southampton was in a poor way 20 odd years ago

“The only wonder, really, is that it hasn’t happened already … A large almost brand-new depot and a PVR of less than 50 (I believe) must have made the financial numbers very bleak. The damage, in my perception, was done long, long ago as First in Southampton was in a poor way 20 odd years ago.”

He added: “For Go-Ahead, this must be sweet success, following on from the recent happenings along the coast in Bournemouth – and likely to have a positive impact on their bottom line into the bargain!”

Cheek sees an opportunity for Go-Ahead Group to now “do a Brighton” in both Southampton and Bournemouth and create successful, unified networks.

This story appears in the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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