It was over 15 years ago that First began moving towards a single UK transport brand. Moir Lockhead wanted to build what was effectively a single business and this he had largely achieved by 2000. It replaced the two dozen disparate companies that at the time constituted what at First was Britain’s biggest bus operator. Back then, First ran 9,500 buses in the UK and Lockhead’s vision was in “transforming travel” by learning from the best in transport, the best within the group and the best in retail.
In a very few words, the Comment in next month’s Buses magazine paints a different picture:
“Not to put too fine a point on things, the reputation behind First’s brand in many quarters was shot. Toxic, to use a media cliché”
The area around Bridgwater and Taunton perhaps reflected this reversal in fortunes more than in most places. Its local management would privately admit that First’s reputation was poor. Whereas independent Webberbus might be expected to measure itself against the transport giant, the reality appeared reversed: Webberbus was operating better vehicles, often in better condition and it was First that was lagging.
And so began a brave experiment to try to do something about things. In spite of a few new Barbie Pastel repaints with “West of England” and “First Taunton” branding, First has begun sweeping aside its corporate identity altogether. The Buses of Somerset banish the words “First” to the legal lettering in green-on-green tucked well out of view behind the rear axle. Otherwise, First has been expunged altogether. This, of course, is largely thanks to Best Impressions, whose branding, livery and publicity is more Go Ahead than Go South Coast itself. Indeed, the impressive printed timetable imitates Southern Vectis’. No index within, though.
What’s resulted is something remarkable, incredible actually.
But what do people think? Diverting via the M5, I spoke with just a few passengers at
First’s The Buses of Somerset’s Taunton bus station terminus. They were cautiously optimistic. You never expect superlatives within the bus industry, of course you don’t. So, “at frequent interval” timetables, for example, are always “quite good”, never “excellent”. So it was in Taunton: everyone to whom I spoke tempered their comments with phrases like “we’ll see” but everyone did recognise that the new branding had given the buses something of a lift and they welcomed something much more local. Thumbs up so far but, translating, the message was that management needed to follow through (presumably to which the answer was, why otherwise expend time and effort? Sitting on hands is not Alex Carter’s style).
The only negative comment I received was from a woman who found the number of colours on Taunton’s buses confusing. She wasn’t really sure whose buses were whose and First’s buses going green didn’t help her. The fact that Webberbus was operating a couple of vehicles in dealer stock white, to a point resembling First, perhaps didn’t help, but there were certainly other operators adjacent to the bus station. Perhaps when all First buses are green this might be less of a problem.
It’s always difficult speaking to drivers but I did manage to get the views of a couple of staff without being too intrusive. They seemed to appreciate and welcome the change and one recognised that First’s reputation was poor. Old First had always pushed the idea of the importance of staff, staff engagement and training. Now was a real opportunity to see this through.
Things may not be perfect and another blogger has focused a little on the negatives but here at Omnibuses we wish to look at the positives. The package seems sound and the reaction (albeit from a limited sample) was good. Now watch the revenue increase. Everyone who lives in a First area will have an interest in seeing whether this experiment succeeds. Who knows where it may lead. Is this the ultimate Transforming of Travel?
Pictures by a Blog Supporter