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.

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.

Bikes on buses

I remember making a return journey between Charleville and Cork in Ireland when a passenger just popped a bicycle into one of the coach’s side lockers and it was carried without further ado. When I had the idea of doing the same on an outing from Edinburgh to Fort William, I was thwarted because carriage of bicycles on buses and coaches is not the norm. The phrase that lingers in my memory, regardless of whether it actually was said that way or not was “This is not a train”. Undeterred, I secured my bicycle and left it after me to enjoy a wonderful day out. The change of plan was no spoiler though the it did alter how I spent the day.

There are some who might say that the above contrast between Irish easygoing helpfulness, the same type that allows the carriage of forgotten luggage on a service coach from Galway to Dublin without charge or facilitating the retrieval of a case left on Dublin’s LUAS tram system by myself and I half-asleep after an early morning flight from Manchester, and British adherence to process and procedure. While I cannot doubt Irish helpfulness, I am more inclined to attribute the differences in outcome to differences in legal systems.

Whatever the cause, non-carriage of bikes by buses and the paucity of accommodation for them on trains (a story for another time) has fostered the growth of my interest in hillwalking at the expense of cycling. Ironically, it is in the types of places where I go walking that there have been innovations when it comes to carriage of bicycles by buses. In the Yorkshire Dales, trailers have been attached to Dennis Darts for the purpose. In other places, you see the use of racks mounted on the back for the same purpose and the X94 that goes between Chester/Wrexham and Barmouth comes to mind but there are others. Having bicycle pens within the buses themselves is another way of achieving the same and I have vague recollections of this being done in Snowdonia and the northwest of Scotland. On the subject of vague recollections, I have another one of seeing a photo in Buses magazine where seats have been replaced by a place to put bikes on what appeared to be a double-decker.

Though none of those ways to carry bikes on buses are widely available, there is an argument in favour of making that happen. After all, having a bicycle in a wheelchair or buggy space on a low floor bus is likely to cause a nuisance and you couldn’t even get one on the older step entrance vehicles. Then, there’s the prospect of breaking up a bike to carry it on a National Express coach service and that sounds like something that you would do if you were carrying one on an airplane. Of course, there are those folding bikes that people sneak onto commuter trains at peak times as luggage but is that really ideal for that day out in the countryside exploring its quieter roads? All in all, it’s a state of affairs that encourages car use but remains a tough nut to crack whichever way you go about it.

Not taking no for an answer

With a fine weekend in prospect, the mind turns to getting out and enjoying what’s on offer. In that vein, I tried looking up train times for a return journey between Macclesfield and Harlech, all on the same day with one change in Wolverhampton and maybe another in Machynlleth, only for the National Rail Enquiries website to tell me that it was impossible. The workaround was to look for a single outbound journey and a single return journey, not ideal but I got the information that I needed. While this was a case of curiosity more than anything else, I might be nonplussed if I was after a bargain fare in preference to the standard Off-Peak Return; knowing that such a search would prove fruitless anyway would have meant sticking with a walk on fare so I wasn’t bothered.

While it has come a way since its original incarnation, the episode illustrates that creases still need to be knocked of the National Rail Enquiries journey planning algorithm. When the website first came on the scene, I was left wondering why they couldn’t have used the excellent engine that Network Rail had inherited from Railtrack; it was one of the few things that they got right. It was all the more puzzling when the new planning engine was nowhere near as good as its predecessor. Glitches like not being told about journey options via Wilmslow when engineering work disrupted the normal Sunday services between Macclesfield and Manchester was but one of the inconsistencies.

Of course, any system is only ever as good as the data supplied to it. A striking example of that was the carrot of having an early Sunday morning rail replacement coach to Wilmslow for a day out in Wales. The advised coach service turned out to be a work of fiction so my travel arrangements had to change as did any plans that I had. A good day was enjoyed but not in the way in which I had envisaged it. The same sort of thing may explain the lack of available fares sometimes when there is engineering work ongoing and that between Lockerbie and Edinburgh earlier this year comes to mind.

While I can deal with this and find my way around the rail network anyway or even turn to other journey planning services, what must it all seem to someone who isn’t so savvy? I can see it looking very offputting and that’s a pity because public transport needs all the support that it can get in these leaner times. Taking this further, public transport needs to sell itself better and easier journey planning is part of this. Websites that don’t deliver may not cause someone to pick up a phone or visit their nearest staffed train station but set them to choose to drive or even fly instead, hardly the type of thing that should be happening. The National Rail Enquiries website may have won awards and offer the option to sort out accommodation along with your train ticket but what use is all of this if the journey finding algorithm or the information supplied to it aren’t up to scratch? After all, that’s why people go to the website so both of those need to take precedence over any other fancy features that some might care to add.

A weekly ticket goes roaming

My weekend Welsh wander afforded me the opportunity to try out something. Though Arriva’s bus operations in Wales and in the north west of England have been separated for better working with the Welsh Assembly Government, the £15 weekly ticket still applies across both areas. The result was that I gave it a go in order to get between Machynlleth and Minfford for my walking around Cadair Idris and it was accepted without a bother even though it was bought in Cheshire (rather than causing trouble on a bus, I would have paid if it wasn’t and maybe gone and popped a question of Arriva’s customer services afterwards). As far as I am aware, the same does not apply to day tickets so an all areas ticket is needed, costing more than the £4 tariff of the north west day ticket. With the weekly ticket, the added value for money is appreciated.