Lost Welsh Independent Bus Companies

It was before Christmas 2017 when the idea for this post entered my head after learning about more Welsh bus company collapses. Though I might have had the motivation to write it up then, the topic felt unseasonal so I left it to one side for a while.

There are plenty of reasons why the subject is too sober for what was supposed to be a joyful time of year. In the companies listed below, there seems to be a repeating story of hardship and subsequent collapse. In some cases, business management was not what it should and the Welsh traffic commissioner never takes too kindly to sudden closure of any bus company and there has been too much cause for hearings to take place in Welshpool.

Most of the affected concerns operated rural bus routes under council contracts, an easier revenue earner during the years of Labour government in London but much tougher now in more austere times. Such is the geography of Wales, that many firms prospered once more funding was on offer from the late nineties until the end of the next decade. One bus industry professional commented that he was involved in setting up a business in the nineties because public subsidy was about to increase and the Cheshire bus network was much stronger back then so the same might have been possible for Wales.

That is not how it is now and bus patronage cannot be helped by service cuts either so a vicious circle comes into being. Then, smaller firms suffer and the hilly nature of Wales makes it hard too for large operators with Arriva and Veolia pulling out of mid Wales. It all makes for a troubled network so the presence of the Welsh Government support TrawsCambria network is invaluable because we cannot say that all is well yet.

When you see the list below, it is easy to see how instability can rein so anything that helps has to be good. After all, bus passengers need to sure that services will operate as advertised and the last thing that councils need is repeated re-tendering of services. Hopefully, the decline can be halted and we see a reduced number of failures over time. You only can hope for better.

D & J Jones and Son

In the wake of the collapse of GHA Coaches, this Wrexham based operator took on a lot of extra work before it too collapsed immediately before Christmas 2017. It was said that staffing issues were the cause rather than financial pressures but it left Wrexham Council with the task of replacing many services in order to keep transport services going in the borough.

Express Motors

2018 started with much change in the bus network in northwest Wales (Anglesey, Gwynedd, Conwy) because of this operator’s loss of its licence. The cause was a coach crash in France that revealed discrepancies in vehicle maintenance records. There were two family owned companies on site with similar names, one offering private and the other providing local bus services. Both were closed and a replacement company appears not to have been set up to continue in the bus service business. The result is that all council contracted routes were retendered.

GHA Coaches

GHA Coaches rose very quickly across North and Mid Wales as well as Cheshire and Shropshire. It now looks as if the expansion may have been too rapid for service quality declined and cashflow problems meant that taxes were unpaid and service quality suffered too. In the end, the company was wound up by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC). The company’s directors tried starting another company but were disqualified from continuing with such operations by the traffic commissioner, an understandable action given how quickly GHA Coaches had collapsed and the chaos that resulted.

Padarn Bus

Llanberis’ Padarn Bus was another bus company that failed in northwest Wales and there was a fraud investigation mounted after that happened. That happened in 2014 and so comes before others on this list. It was a sign of what was to come.

Silcox Coaches

This Pembrokeshire operator failed for financial reasons not long before GHA Coaches. The business had been sold in order to gain added investment that never materialised. It then was bought back by the family that owned for much of its long history but it never recovered.

Along the route of the X1

When I first moved to Macclesfield, there was a bus service running from Manchester all the way to Derby that passed through the town. It was called the X1 and First operated it under contract to three councils: Cheshire, Staffordshire and Derbyshire. Before First won the contract, Stagecoach ran it and nearly made it a commercial prospect too. In fact, it had been in existence at least since the Crosville/National Bus Company days and it wasn’t a commercial success even then.

When First ran the service, they used a mixture of coaches and buses and their timetable was a limited one with only four to five departures each way a day and they weren’t all that useful between Macclesfield and Stockport either since the times nearly coincided with the similarly rare 392 journeys to the same destination. There was an additional school service operated by Arriva between Macclesfield and Leek on Monday to Friday mornings too that some could use for commuting to work; getting home by bus at the end of the working day involved either an early finish or a long wait, hardly an ideal state of affair but the successor 108 timetable is even less workable than the old one was.

After First lost the contract, Trent Barton took it over and the service number became 108, one that covers part of the route even today. While I cannot tell you which depot was used to operate the route, the driver changeover took place in Macclesfield bus station so if the bus running in one direction was late, the one going the other way was made late and it hardly was the best state of affairs for maintaining on time running of buses.

Macclesfield to Stockport Bus Travel Improvements

2003 and 2004 saw Cheshire County Council spent money getting in some new buses for subsidised services. Seeing the cuts that are being made now makes those times a distant memory and I reckon it might be U.K. government cash that made this possible. Some of those buses were used by Arriva to operate an enhanced Macclesfield to Stockport bus services using the 392 and 393 routes that we still have today. These buses were stationed in Macclesfield around the time of the opening of the current bus station and then moved to a Manchester depot after that.

Both buses were used to offer an hourly timetable from Monday to Saturday instead of a much less frequent one seven days a week. That’s the basis that we still have today though those buses have been with different operators since Arriva lost the contract in 2008. One went to High Peak for an improved Macclesfield to Prestbury while the other went to GHA as a backup for the main buses on their routes serving Northwich, Knutsford, Wilmslow and Altrincham.

In their place, BakerBus had to bring their own buses when taking over from Arriva around four or five years ago. The timetable remained very similar though, apart maybe from re-branding it The Shuttle. Their tenure in charge of the route is coming to an end now with High Peak set to run it from next month. It will be interesting to see if their takeover means using older buses again. The 393 has been relegated to only a few journeys a day with the 392 becoming the main route for the new service. Timekeeping will be another matter to watch with the new timetable because the alternating 392 and 393 routes left some slack for keeping buses running on time because the 393 goes along the A523 via Adlington and 392 goes around by Bollington and Pott Shrigley.

Breakup

Those 392/393 improvements meant the end of a Manchester to Derby service that went via Leek and Ashbourne. Now the course of the route was broken in four on all days apart from Sunday: Manchester to Stockport, Stockport to Macclesfield, Macclesfield to Ashbourne, Ashbourne to Derby. The very regular 192 does the first section and the second is served by the 392/393. The third one is served by Clowes 108 service, a rump of what went before. Their use of older Mercedes midi-buses appears to be a cost-saving measure and I have seen these running without ticket machines either, hardly an encouraging sign. The last section is well served with the SW1 service operated by Trent Barton with only a few Monday to Wednesday contracted services run by Arriva Midlands.

The Monday to Saturday frequency of each of these is varied. The 192 offers a 10 minute one, the highest of the bunch. It is as good as hourly for the 392/393 and SW1. The lowest of these is the 108 with only a few services each way a day and it has not escaped spending cuts either.

In fact, what brought the whole story of the X1 route to mind in the first place is a change that is coming to the 108 service. Until the weekend after the coming one, we have evening journeys such as a 18:15 from Ashbourne to Macclesfield and a 19:10 going all of the other way. The last journey from Ashbourne leaves at 20:20 and terminates in Leek. There was a Monday to Friday morning school service that got canned and the loss of the aforementioned Friday and Saturday evening journeys is next, kicking in from March 8th. It’s a far cry from a full X1 that I used to get from Stockport to Macclesfield one Saturday around a decade ago. Not only has a coherent long distance bus route option been dismantled but you have to wonder if things could get even worse than they are. After all, I have seen Clowes operate the 108 using a bus with no ticket machine and they are being left to carry on for now.

With all this dismantling, a Manchester to Derby bus travel option effectively was removed. All those changes mean that it is far from an attractive way to go anymore unless you plan on stopping off here, there and everywhere. This is nice countryside so that would be no bad idea but there’s no way of having a teaser now like the TransPeak service.

There Once Was a Sunday Service…

Even the Sunday and bank holiday route of the 108 meant a change at Leek with operators changing at the end of every council contract. BakerBus and then D&G were the custodians of the northern section while TM Travel ran the southern one. There were three departures each way and the two halves awaited each other at Leek bus station. Sadly, that service now is no more and I seem to remember a reasonable level of usage when I used it too.

The only existing remnant now goes between Derby and Ashbourne with only two return journeys extending as far as Leek, a loss of one from what went before. The service is the Sunday and bank holiday SW1 and Trent Barton is the operator. There are five journeys going each way, an improvement for the residents of Ashbourne and nearby Mayfield gains a few of the ones that don’t go as far as Mayfield too. It’s nowhere near as regular as the Monday to Saturday service but it’s good to see that it continues, which is more than could be said for the Sunday service along the rest of the route.

Any Sign of Better Times Ahead?

It seems that there has been a mixture of gains and losses along the length of the former X1 route with Sunday services decimated and the section between Macclesfield, Leek and Ashbourne seeing a reduced service on other days of the week. The continuing near hourly Macclesfield to Stockport bus service from Monday to Saturday is a bright spot though amongst the other gloom. Whenever there are bus services withdrawn, you have to ask if there ever can be a chance of some sort of return in the future. As gloomy as things appear now, it yet may surprise us though the “lost decade” isn’t over yet.

Only available on paper

Unlike a near neighbour, Conwy Borough Council doesn’t share bus and train timetables via its website though it does produce a printed timetable twice a year. Gwynedd Council also produces printed timetables around the same time but also offers PDF versions via its website. It’s not the only example of such inconsistency in service provision but it doesn’t make Conwy as easy to explore using public transport as Gwynedd and both local authority areas share the Snowdonia National Park. While you can understand that everyone wants to approach a job in their own way, it’d be better if there was at least sort of consistency between council areas (it’s not an exclusively Welsh problem at all). To its credit, Conwy’s council does host a microsite dedicated to the Conwy Valley Railway but another devoted to providing bus timetable information wouldn’t go amiss because it has fine countryside to be exploring too.