I was sent an interesting yet worrying article from passengertransport.co.uk the other day which predicts an uncertain future for First Group following a takeover bid from Apollo Asset Management, a North American private equity investor. Although the bid was rejected, as most preliminary bids are, city analysts are saying First cannot continue in its current form, and the break up of the bus sector is inevitable.
In 2013 shareholders injected £615m into the business, for the purchase of new buses and pay down debt, but have yet to see any return on their investment, and now the task of turning around multiple underperforming businesses was "too big and too complicated".
So what can we expect? Well, if Apollo come back with a successful bid the least we can expect is the end of First's involvement in the rail industry, due to political conflictions, and the sale of the worst performing bus businesses. If Apollo fails in their takeover, then according to the analyst " the minimum sales expected are a major, possibly all
of, the UK bus business plus Greyhound, both of which require
substantial capital investment and management attention".
I am reliably informed that First Eastern Counties are one of the better performing bus operations, but one has to assume new owners will want greater profits, so it is a foregone conclusion that loss making routes will go, putting yet more pressure on already underfunded Councils.
Just today First Essex have announced the axing of several routes in Clacton. Hedingham have said they will take the routes over but for how long? First won't have dropped the routes if they were making money, and Go East's track record leaves a lot to be desired. If I lived in Clacton I would be very worried.
We have seen Stagecoach desert Norfolk, indeed as I write I'm hearing on the radio that Go To Town - part of West Norfolk Community Transport are taking over the 2, 3, 4 & 5 in Kings Lynn. Apparently £1m has been spent on buses, recruiting drivers and opening a new depot. If anyone knows more/has pictures then please let me know. Is the future yet more fragmentation of the industry, with the day of the big boys over? That's not good news if you want to take more than one journey as until there is an integrated ticketing system it will, once again, deter fare paying passengers from travelling. Re-regulation is not a panacea, but it would go a lot further to protect the loss making routes and give motivatioon to make them pay through vision and innovation, rather than just dropping them damning the few loyal users. Galloway are doing that in May by withdrawing the 456 and 459 Stowmarket to Diss services.
Some villages on the route will be served by other routes, but to quote the suffolkonboard website "Thornham Manor (other than Saturday), Forward green, Wickham St, Mellis and Yaxley will not be served by the current local bus service." Bus users in those villages will be forced onto Connecting Communities, which you have o book days in advance and are not guaranteed to get you where you want to go, when you want to go anyway. Hardly progress.
It does make you wonder what the future is if you want to use the bus but don't live in a major town or city. While areas such as Reading, Nottingham and Leeds have seen huge investment and improvement in bs services, inspired by innovative and forward thinking management there are other parts of the country where bus services are in such decline you have to wonder if there is a future at all. If we had a fit for purpose Department for Transport that would help, as maybe a similar system could be put in place such as there is in our schools and hospitals - ie if bus services in an area were seen as inadequate then the area would be put into "Special Measures" where the local authority took the running of bus services over until a recovery was facilitated, with specialist management put in place - like Superheads are at schools. That way the operators such as Reading and Nottingham could keep moving forward, but the operators who couldn't care less about their passengers - not even putting padding in their seats - were brought to book.
It will never happen though. So we'll carry on wondering which route the axe will fall on next, and see our bus services continue to erode like the cliffs at Hemsby.
You can read the full article on First here, and if I hear anything regarding our area I'll let you know as and when I do. And some wonder why I prefer 37's on the Sizewell branch......