There are times in the bus sector when some organisations and individuals appear embarrassed to be associated with bus travel

It’s rare to stumble across a business or sector where you get that disconcerting vibe that those at the helm would deep down rather not be doing what they’re doing and would prefer to be elsewhere. One example close to my heart is the English Cricket Board (ECB), a governing body that seems intent on reinventing our summer sport to the point where it is unrecognisable from the game for which they are supposed to be its custodians. Any fan will tell you that the ECB actually thinks cricket is boring, staid and something it’s frankly embarrassed to be associated with.

However, there are times in the bus sector when it can appear as though we’re not proud to be running buses and we’d actually rather not to be associated with bus travel. I’m not talking about the MDs of bus companies – those individuals rooted in the culture of the bus sector and totally obsessed with the industry, immersed in their local markets. At weekends if they’re not at work, they are at a bus rally or on their sofa doing a network review or dreaming up a new brand or customer proposition. They are the bread and butter of this industry, the foundations on which buses keep turning up every day and it is they who keep the show on the road in adversity.

The challenge we have is to successfully juxtapose that mix of local passion and pride for the sector with the very valuable innovation and welcome fresh expertise provided by newcomers and those functionally positioned away from the delivery coalface in the local markets. In each owning group, there are many examples of this having been achieved, but it is increasingly clear to me, despite some success in parts, that a not insignificant gap has emerged between the teams on the ground and those who enter the industry with no bus background and who see the product as they would any retail investment, not ‘getting’ those essential components that we find in every successful bus business! This can only end in tears – for politicians and communities whose bus networks lose that local touch, which is just so essential, for customers whose service may not work for them anymore and therefore for those investors who do not enjoy the profits they expect from their business plans.

I’m frequently struck by the vigour shown by organisations such as CPT, Bus Users UK and other consumer bodies and trade organisations proudly promoting fab initiatives such as ‘Catch the Bus Week’. But I wish that bus companies themselves would be equally, if not more, vocal. A glance at social media feeds from transport professionals and their organisations sees a predominance of rhetoric around important generic good causes. However, these appear to be uttered with more conviction and frequency than the simple joys of providing a bus service that is a lifeblood to communities and has a bright future. I want the currently bashful industry to shout this from the rooftops, to ooze pride at being entrusted with the stewardship of a sector that has been part of the fabric of the UK’s society and landscape for centuries. And social media should be awash with discussion around patronage, customer satisfaction and providing inspiration to travel.

The situation is possibly more challenging in that many of the large owning groups are owned by private equity firms. Whilst their investment is welcome and could be positively game-changing, there is a danger that the bus sector is, for them, just a commodity, a money-making (or losing) machine, statistics on a graph, rather than representing history, tradition or being a deeply complex beast serving micro communities each with their own subtle nuances and behaviours. Heaven knows what those at the top of these companies make of those quirky folk in their subsidiaries that know and care about the intricacies of route brands, vehicle types and fare stages – the eccentricities of the bus industry can, culturally, be at odds with the clinical, dispassion of venture capitalists, but there’s a place for both, and there must be!

The eccentricities of the bus industry can culturally be at odds with the clinical, dispassion of venture capitalists

With a few exceptions, I see little let up in the age-old tensions that exist between the shires and the centre and paymasters above. “They wouldn’t be seen dead on a bus,” is a statement frequently made by a cynical bus MD about those higher up the tree, including private owners, and colleagues in central functions. I take these remarks with a pinch of salt, but deep-down suspect that there’s still not enough travelling on buses by those who make a living out of them.

Sometimes, initiatives foisted on those locally or concepts dreamt up elsewhere can come across as far removed from the realities of bus travel and they can, to a cynic, give off the vibe that those who conceived them are trying to imagine they are not actually working in the bus sector. It can occasionally feel as radical and perplexingly self-destructive as the English Cricket Board insisting its traditional long form of the game is played in April and late September, without a single game in the height of the summer.

I think the industry has in some cases lost its way in terms of knowing where it wants to be collectively, with different owning groups each going in their own direction, or some themselves struggling to understand what they want to be. Wouldn’t it be great for every single bus company and employee to have signed up to a single vision and strategy for the industry? This shouldn’t be beyond the realms of possibility with conviction and collaboration. It may not be fashionable to suggest this, but in rail, there feels like there is agreement on the vision and purpose of the sector and where it needs to get to (articulated by the shadow Great British Railways Transition Team), even if there is uncertainty around when the starting gun will be fired and who will pick up the baton and in what way exactly.


In trying to reinvent themselves as ‘anything but a bus company’, I do wonder whether there’s a tendency at times within the sector to be slightly reticent to come to terms with the harsh reality that the landscape served by buses isn’t glamourous (scenic journeys aside, of course!). Bus services are very much a shop window to the blight that characterises everyday life. Wonderful it might be to tell the tale of a career spent working in a sector, for instance, that supplies luxury holidays to the rich and famous or to work at the top end of showbiz or professional sport, but that’s not what we signed up for. In the past few weeks, on my travels, I’ve been reminded of the heart and soul of British life and its reliance on bus services and the fact that in terms of glam, it’s not a marketing agency’s dream picture.

Spend some time at Workington, Hanley or Kirkby bus stations as I have done recently watching and talking to customers and you’ll witness folk on the breadline, teetering on the brink, or those with such a wide range of debilitating physical ailments, including very visible under-nourishment and mental health challenges, utterly dependent on their local bus just to be able to continue life as they know it. The rush for the bus in the cramped Workington bus station last Friday evening was a giddying sight of kids pushing and shoving in between puffing on vapes, of elderly folk bandying their walking sticks in the air pleading for peace. It’s a landscape the local Stagecoach management team live and breathe every day, such is their immersion in their market – so too bus operators everywhere, the length and breadth of the country.

Bus networks are sometimes an unedifying and startling glimpse of ‘Broken Britain’. Anti-social behaviour isn’t quite rampant, but it’s never far away if you hang around for long. This is not picture-postcard stuff and it’s not a sector for the faint hearted, nor one that can be easily articulated in the foreword to the annual accounts, their business plan or in LinkedIn posts.

Bus networks are sometimes an unedifying and startling glimpse of ‘Broken Britain’

I was reminded though recently of the power of bus in the lives of many. As some will know I’ve almost daily been producing in my Great Scenic Journeys business, blogs showcasing routes and destinations served by bus across the UK. Many readers have contacted me with kind comments saying that my posts have rekindled nostalgic memories of travelling to school on these routes, before moving far away. Others talk of happy family trips out on some of our featured scenic trips, of holidays and special days. I have long felt that the bus industry doesn’t do enough to recognise and celebrate the place that their routes have in the lives of so many – witness the opprobrium when route numbers are changed, and tradition broken. Many customers with limited social mobility aspirations have spent their entire lives living and travelling on one bus route. It has been a mainstay of their existence, the one constant that has facilitated their lives.

The problem is that it’s not fashionable to look back, as an industry we should be looking forward, to wonderful days when buses won’t look like buses, where routes won’t exist, everything will be on-demand and drivers will be an anathema. But even today’s generation is still developing affinity for the routes that are the gateway to the trip out with mates or to school, college or university. My youngest daughter won’t profess to being a bus nerd, but she knows all the local routes, times and stops and respects the fact that the bus is an enabler for her. In years to come, she’ll talk fondly of the 458 to Staines. And, whilst we’re remembering, let’s not lose sight of the fact that buses haven’t been obliterated. Fewer and fewer youngsters are clamouring to learn to drive when they hit 17 and whilst Uber is popular, it’s not the answer – fares have increased, driver margins have reduced causing a shortage, it’s less available and remains largely unprofitable. Spread the word and say it loud – we’re actually winning the battle, against the so-called odds.

However, before those in charge accuse me of being a one-sided bus spotter with my head in the sand, I accept that some refresh and reinvention is needed and that not everyone gets excited by the sight of a bus as I do. When my teenage son started working for me at Great Scenic Journeys, he was absolutely adamant that all marketing material should show people (happy customers and employees) or scenery, not buses. The ‘know it all’ proved his point quickly by posting on Instagram two near identical pictures of a clifftop view – one with an open top bus and the other without it. The latter got 10 times more ‘likes’.

Nonetheless, it’s a lazy and unfair narrative to think that those who care deeply about buses are incapable of realising that it is important to take a step back from the bus and see things from the lens of someone who really just wants an experience and to get from A to B. The sector needs to keep encouraging those with affection for buses and a deep understanding of their markets and realise they do ‘get it’ – if we lose these people from the industry, then it will be hugely detrimental.

It’s unnerving to think about who, in 10-15 years will replace the current generation of those in the subsidiaries who clearly care and believe so much in the bus sector and see the value in conscientiously devouring the minutiae of their local markets and trends and who don’t think the solution is pretending that they’re working elsewhere or that we’d be better off just ripping it up and starting from scratch. We need more and more people to ooze with pride at running buses for a living – it’s what will keep the sector alive so that it can not only fight another day but make the transformational progress that we all yearn for.

This story appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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