Thursday, 26 October 2006

Dereg – First 20 Years Pt 16

Part 15 here


Exactly 20 years after D-Day, it’s difficult to find one single image that sums up the 20 years of deregulation. This one gets close. The idea came from a flier that fell out of a magazine.

It shows two minibuses, one articulated bus, two single decks and two double decks, of varying ages and construction. Each says something of the last 20 years.

Transit Holdings Minibus

This is a 16 seat Ford Transit/Mellor with, appropriately enough, Harry Blundred leaning on the bonnet. Ahead of deregulation, it was Blundred who was credited with starting the so-called urban minibus revolution, something that caught on rapidly as operators used them to protect their markets and see phenomenal growth. The essence was high frequency, penetrative services, often using customer-focused labour new to the bus industry. It was more about marketing an alternative product than the service itself.

Judging by the vehicle’s destination, it’s a publicity shot for Transit’s abortive Bansingstoke competitive minibus network of 1988, something that resulted in an inevitable response – incumbent Stagecoach operating briefly over Blundred’s Devon General routes. Stagecoach purchased Transit’s Devon General and Bayline in 1995.

Wall’s Double Deck

Wall’s was one of a number of Manchester operators whose services mushroomed during the early deregulation years. Over the years, these included Bee Line, Bullocks, Mayne, UK North, Bluebird, Finglands, Timeline, Stevensons and Magic Bus. Stagecoach-owned Magic Bus is an example, of course, of a low cost unit established by the big boys, to win tenders or win passengers from competitors.

Manchester has seen its fair share of bus wars over the 20 years of dereg; the Manchester skirmishes continue today, principally between Stagecoach and UK North. And on the political front, it was GMPTA that started the current regulatory debate and one of Manchester's MPs is a vocal supporter of re-regulation.

The vehicle itself is ex-GMPTE. Wall’s was not the only Manchester operator buying former GMPTE buses to compete head on with GMPTE’s successor, then GM Buses. It led to a GM Buses’ policy of scrapping, not selling, its redundant stock.

Bee Line Minibus

The next vehicle is an 18 seat Freight Rover Sherpa, converted by the most successful minibus bodybuilder of the 1980s, Carlyle. It is a black & white image of the Bee Line Buzz Company’s yellow and red livery.

Bee Line was an interesting early Manchester competitor. Starting from scratch with a fleet of 225 vehicles in January 1987, it was perhaps the only significant grown-from-nothing commercial operator in Britain (arguably other than Stagecoach), backed by BET’s re-entry into UK buses. It spawned a “me too” response in GM Buses’ Little Gems. Bee Line ventured into big buses, again using some ex-GMPTE stock, but was soon to close.

Ex-Hants & Dorset VFX 986S

This 1978 49 seat Leyland National was new to Hants & Dorset. Cascaded Nationals played more than their fair share in competitive markets through the first 10 years of deregulation and a few still hang on today with, for example, Chase of Cannock.

Refurbished Nationals as East Lancs Greenways were popular among British Bus subsidiaries in the early 1990s, as a cheap but none-too-cheerful way of buying a “new” product in a time of great uncertainty within an operating industry that could ill afford new vehicles. The product filled an important gap. It said much about the state of the industry at that time.

This vehicle appears to be either operated by “Happy Harry” and we confess that we know nothing of this. Perhaps it refers to Harry Blundred (the face does look like a
caricature of him) or perhaps it was something to do with Luton, Happy Harry being the football club’s mascot.

Just visible on the vehicle’s destination is “Free Bus”. Such tactics weren’t common but there were sufficient incidents of them to make it a notable part of the early deregulation story.

First Manchester Artic

There’s quite a technological leap between the National and the next vehicle, First’s Scania N94 Omnicity, operating on the former GMPTE and now privatised First Manchester’s tram-busting 135 service between Manchester and Bury. The 10-minute headway boasts new 58 seat dual door articulated buses, in an effort to extend low floor operation to as many seats as possible. A feature of the last five years, even so artics have yet to take off in much of deregulated Britain, the rigid single decks holding sway in markets once the preserve of pre- and immediately post-dereg double decks.

Though independent of deregulation, the 18m articulated 58 seater is an example of how the rules changed in the 1990s regarding new bus builds, to assist disabled people It wasn’t so long ago that you could get up to 52 seats on an 11m Leyland National, to the artic’s left.

Brighton & Hove Scania

This operator is constantly held aloft as an example of how the private and public sectors can work together in a deregulated environment to further modal shift. For deregulation’s detractors, Brighton & Hove is the exception that proves the rule. Building on a unified network encompassing ex-NBC and former municipal operations, its successes have included “I’m on the Bus” and an early example of a flat fare. Passenger growth, though slowed, has been impressive, year on year since Go Ahead acquired the company in 1993.

Impressive, like its vehicles. Brighton & Hove has invested in a significant number of SLFs, including these Scania N94/East Lancs Omnidekkas.


The last vehicle is a Dennis Dart – the epitome of UK low floor bus operation in the 1990s – on a Stagecoach service, again in Manchester. We have documented the post deregulation rise of Stagecoach from bit part player to multinational elsewhere. The Manchester Stagecoach vehicle reminds us that competition is still very much with us today, that former PTE fleets are in the hands of a small number of players (including former GM Buses South, to Stagecoach in 1996), and that the average age of the UK bus fleet is a mere seven years.

What’s Missing?

We suggest the picture would be complete with the inclusion of a 1970s Leyland Leopard coach operating a deregulated local bus service. In addition to the dual purpose vehicles of the time within ex-NBC fleets, some independents used them to compete or run tendered services in the early years of deregulation and, frankly, they were less than suitable for the type of operation on which they were found.

Original of image here


cogidubnus said...

Happy Harry? As the man himself would most probably have said, "Do wharr?"

Anonymous said...

The Happy Harry bus was used on the short lived Free Bus service in Torquay that Stagecoach operated in partnership with City of Oxford Motor Services in retaliation for Devon General proposing to start its Basingstoke Transit operation. Presumably COMS joined in with the venture in retaliation for Transit Holdings setting up Thames Transit in Oxford.

Matt said...

The pic brings up a thought I'd not considered before - when does one mark the 'end' of deregulation? The appearance of the last three models on the poster made me wonder, as you might think the ideals of deregulation were finished off by the rise of the big groups, and change since then has been much less drastic than during 1986-89.

justajob said...

I can remember dereg, I was living in Manchester then and Bee Line ran through Northenden with Hail and Ride, which was an other new thing in Manchester. I wasn't in the bus industry back then so I took little notice. Also I started with Stagecoach Devon the day before the last of Harry's mini bus ran it's last run, so I guess I missed them too.
Most people now who use buses must think they have always been run as they are today. Who now has heard of, or would know what Selnec was?

Anonymous said...

Bee Line didn't shut up shop - they just moved into double deckers (more money in them).

They had a myriad of owners though, and had a shortlived spin-off, C-Line, which was partially new stuff and partially bits of Crosville.

They eventually were "merged" in with the North Western Road Car Company, and used the same style livery, before finally ending up under the Arriva brand.

Anonymous said...

Oh and who can forget the original Bee Line brand - that fantastic bee! They also had some silver and blue buses under the brand "City Sprint". Never worked out what the difference was!

Anonymous said...

Does anyone remember a company called sale Coach Services?

Connaire said...

Well im 16 and i know what Selnec was so

Anonymous said...

"The day that changed Britain's buses forever" is a bit of an overstatement. Nobody says that deregulation will remain forever. The end can't come quickly enough.