28 February 2009

Wrightbus axe 235 jobs

Nearly a quarter of the UK's largest independent bus manufacturer, Wrightbus, is to be made redundant, according to a statement released on Tuesday.

The Northern Irleland-based body-builder, whose parent company, Wright Group, was founded in 1946 and is still family run, said that around 235 of its 1,000-strong workforce are to be made redundant, primarily as a result of a recent order cancellation by one of the 'big five' UK bus operators.

We understand that First has dropped an order for 200 vehicles, no doubt citing the recession as a reason, and this has had a nasty knock-on effect. Wrightbus' base is in Ballymena, a small town in County Antrim with an estimated population of only 30,000; it will certainly be a big blow to the local economy, never mind the bus industry.

With no official notification from First as I type this, we can't say for certain that the order cancellation is as a direct result of the recession, though can infer quite strongly that the R-word will be used in any official statement that's issued - even if the order cancellation was by a group other than First.

Does this bode well for the bus industry's chances of weathering the recession reasonably un-scathed? An order for 200 when Stagecoach has successively ordered four-times this number of vehicles annually for the past few years, is not what I'd call a significant cancellation in the scheme of things - yes, it's significant to residents of Ballymena - but had the cancellation been for 70% of First's announced 2009 new vehicle order, then perhaps we ought to start worrying.

As far as I know, Wrightbus is the first of the UK bus manufacturers to make members of its workforce redundant due to an order cancellation now that we're in a recession. If a trend is to start, which sees bus operators ordering fewer new buses, this could push back the 2017 deadline for a 100% low-floor, accessible bus fleet, operating regular stage-carriage services in the UK. It does seem fundamentally wrong that only 17 years after the last Volvo Olympians came off the production lines en mass, they will not be permitted to operate bus services in the UK!

If the 'big five' significantly reduce their new vehicle orders over the next 7 years or so, it could be just what the governments needs - proof that its onslaught of this ridiculous legislation is ill-conceived and un-attainable.

Meanwhile, Wrightbus has instigated a 90-day consultation process with the Unite union, who are confident that the final number of redundancies will be lower than that currently quoted. Wrightbus is currently in consultation with Transport for London, drawing-up plans for the next-generation Routemaster, something that should hopefully create jobs so long as they're successful in winning an order. (GWB)