First Group's UK bus division has been having a rum old time of it lately. There have been numerous occasions when a depot has been summonsed before the local traffic commissioner over poor performance. The centralised structure was often seen as the problem, with reports claiming those at the top in their Aberdeen HQ had a say in fare increases in Barnstaple, for example. Last year's appointment of Giles Fearnley as the UK Bus managing director was seen as a step in the right direction. Fearnley was the man who split up West Yorkshire Road Car into four operating units at deregulation, so he is clearly someone keen on local identity.
With an updated livery recently unveiled and local identities in the pipeline, things could be on the up for First. Sadly not. Well not yet anyway. There have been two public inquiries held into the company's operation recently. Scottish TC Joan Aitken issued the company with a written warning over maintenance issues at the company's East Scotland operation (which was even more embarrassing as this is where the transport giant is based) and most recently was North West TC Beverley Bell's inquiry into poor operational performance in Manchester.
During early 2011, VOSA officials recorded 26% of the company's bus services operating outside the permitted 'window of tolerance' (up to 1 minute early and up to 5 minutes late). First blamed the current economic environment and traffic delays. This did not wash with Mrs Bell.
My friend at this point underlined Mrs Bell's response (an entire paragraph) in red ink: "I don't think I would be saying it's difficult economic times if I made a profit of £14 million." She was speaking to the company's strategic development director, who she felt was in the wrong industry: "You are wasted in the bus industry. You should have gone into politics, but I don't do politics, I do evidence." The point was made to Mrs Bell that consistently unreliable services would not survive, to which she replied: “They damn well won’t survive because I will take them off you.”
To make the vein in Mrs Bell's forehead stand out even more, the company's service delivery director admitted that while £30 million is being invested in new buses nationally, he "hadn't got round to" addressing the punctuality issues concerning one particular bus service in the city. More triple red underlining then followed: "So when I go out and get a bus in the freezing fog, on my way to a doctor's appointment, it is in the knowledge that FirstGroup with £14m profits hasn't got round to it."
These are some of the strongest words I've heard a traffic commissioner use in many, many years. Bell is known as one of the more 'direct' TCs, but even by her standards, quite a sizeable strip has been ripped off the country's second largest bus operator.
The updated 'Barbie' livery, seen in Leeds, which was the location for the unveiling. Photo: Mark Smith
And that was it. My friend now refers to the North West TC as 'Sister Bell'. He isn't concerned about the ramifications that could follow. For example, Mrs Bell made it as clear as possible that she would be prepared to take commercially operated bus services from First Manchester. Whichever way you view this, the passenger will continue to lose out in the short term. Will the TC award the journeys to another operator to run commercially? Will they go completely? Uncertainty is never good for passengers and drivers alike.
But whatever you may think of First, they won't want another dressing down on this scale when the inquiry recommences in March. They've been given time to "get their act together" and report back to Mrs Bell. And report back they will. I can't see the company guaranteeing to maintain current service levels, though by hook or crook, passengers living in northern Manchester should see an eventual improvement by the summer.