27 November 2009

And then there were 11

As Nooo Transit so eloquently put it recently: "The ranks of the council-owned bus operators in the UK have been further reduced with the news that Go Ahead has agreed to buy Plymouth Citybus from Plymouth City Council."

There are now less than double the number of council-owned bus companies than there are train operating companies. We are perilously close to single-figure operators! Not that this will unduly worry Go Ahead Group's management team in the North East, for it is they who successfully beat off competition from Stagecoach to purchase Plymouth Citybus from the city council there for a cool £20 million.

A total of 180 vehicles are involved in the deal, which will see Go Ahead apply its know-how to the city and its environs. For those who like local identity and who prefer individual companies being allowed to operate with a significant degree of freedom, the sale to Keith Ludeman's company is the right choice. Had it gone the other way then Stagecoach in Plymouth fleetnames would surely have been visible before Christmas.

Not that there's anything wrong with Stagecoach coming to town nowadays - the people in Caerphilly borough of Islwyn (who's bus company astonishingly didn't even have a website!) will surely pay testament to this when the investment their new owner is likely to make arrives. But Go Ahead has made no secret of the fact that in its mind the likes of Stagecoach, First and Arriva standardising their fleet's livery is a waste of time. Bus travel is an incredibly local activity. Strong local brand identity, with names residents have identified with for decades, must surely have a more positive effect than that of some multi-national, whose name is forever on the lips of residents who hear about its misdemeanors hundreds of miles away.

Even if the operator was pretty poor, the fact that it has remained local will always sway opinion over the unknown, which is generally the prospect of one of the 'big boys' coming along and cutting the less profitable routes.

Basing its operation on the urban sprawl of Plymouth, the company has built up an excellent reputation locally and, operating at a relative arm's length from the city council, enjoyed a not inconsiderable level of autonomy - two assets that Go Ahead's chief executive Keith Ludeman said himself when commenting on the acquisition: “Plymouth Citybus has an excellent reputation and fits well with our strategy of investing in high quality bus companies in urban areas which then maintain a strong local brand and high degree of autonomy to ensure close links to local customers and other stakeholders."

In the previous month, First had tried to 'do a Stagecoach in Preston', with an attempt to operate competing services that would destabilise the company, though this didn't appear to bare fruit. Perhaps if the city council had delayed their plan to sell, the attempt by First could have been more successful.

Go Ahead are still no match for First, but are of a size to be able to easily absorb further predatory action, something the local city council in Plymouth weren't. Go Ahead also know what they're doing operating buses in dense urban areas, something many would argue First struggle to do. The future looks very rosy.

Remaining council-owned bus companies in the UK (size ordered)
  1. Lothian Buses
  2. Nottingham City Transport
  3. Cardiff Bus
  4. Reading Buses
  5. Blackpool Transport
  6. Warrington Borough Transport
  7. Thamesdown Transport
  8. Rossendale
  9. Ipswich Buses
  10. Newport Buses
  11. Halton Transport (GL)