Who’d’ve thunk it? First, actually selling part of its ailing Devon & Cornwall & business. And to Stagecoach, as well.
Of course, this will be subject to the competition authorities giving the all clear and, over the years, Stagecoach hasn’t had a particularly smooth ride in that regard. Plus, of course, the recent report on the bus industry wanted to foster on-street competition, not stunt it. But this is rural England at its worst (from a bus operations perspective). So the sale makes perfect sense because:
- First Devon & Cornwall again posted losses (of £2.9mil) in its most recent accounts
- Stagecoach is already established in north Devon
- The area cannot reasonably sustain two large operators. It’s arguable that the famous north Devon coastal route between Bideford & Barnstaple is already over-bussed.
Stagecoach is now actually bigger in north Devon, than First. This in itself is surprising, since it was only in autumn 2006 that Stagecoach opened a branch, following First leaving the door open by down-registering. This formed the bedrock upon which Stagecoach developed its own north Devonian commercial services. For every six buses operated by incumbent First, Stagecoach now operates eight and this fact cannot be helping First Devon & Cornwall’s bottom line.
This time last year, Stagecoach rebranded its Bideford/Barnstaple services as The Wave. Though this route between Barnstaple, Bideford and Westward Ho!/Appledore is profitable, its revenue is now split between two. Not for much longer, it seems. Stagecoach currently operates four and First has increased to six journeys per hour. And, before that, there was a succession of competitors in the area, including Filer’s.
I wish I had taken a photograph of early Red Bus buses. Because of their common Western National heritage, the original Red Bus operation was actually green with a “Red Bus” sticker applied. This was in 1983 when, under the National Bus Company, Western National split four ways: Devon General centred on Exeter & the Riviera; Southern National on Taunton & Somerset; the WNOC rump of Cornwall & Plymouth; and a company officially called North Devon Ltd t/a Red Bus. Did I imagine stickers along the side of its green buses that read something like “This is now a Red Bus”?
Apart from Devon General, at the time we never gave these subsidiaries much hope. Red Bus was one of those businesses on a par with Hampshire Bus or so we felt: not enough solid work to offer any sort of resilience. We were wrong about Hampshire Bus, an early acquisition of Stagecoach. Still not sure about Red Bus, though.
North Devon Ltd was one of the last five NBC subsidiaries to pass to private hands. Jointly with Southern National, it passed to its management, in 1988, with a combined fleet of 300. In subsequent years, Southern National’s holding company made several purchases, including Brutoinian and parts of Bere Regis & District. The mini-group sold to First in 1999, the last aquisition before Badgerline’s Trevor Smallwood left, with the former Red Bus operation passing to Devon & Cornwall.
Stagecoach now has an opportunity to consolidate its operations in North Devon and is in a better position to ensure future sustainability. All this because First threw in and then bid too high on Devon tenders in 2006. At least in Cornwall, they’ve recently started to change that strategy.